(Illustration by Desiree Bashi)
The first sound Payal could remember hearing was that of her Baba (father) and of the nearby waves. The waves were never harsh , they were always soothing and gentle on her ears. At night it seemed to her that the waves swaddled her body and rocked her to sleep where she dreamt such beautiful and happy dreams. Baba was always the same ; kind and gentle and encouraging her in everything she did as she grew.
She wasn’t certain at what point she realised that she didn’t have a Maa. It must have been during one of the festivals when all the little girls and their mothers were invited to the palace. The king and queen used to organise prayers and give offerings to the gods to keep the land safe and the people happy. It was a grand ceremony with many priests and wise men, the palace was decorated with torches, fresh flowers and silk cloths draped over walls. All the servants were in newly made garments of white and yellow cloth with large silver buttons. They looked smart. Yellow and white is such a fresh combination don’t you think?
Afterwards the guests would be fed a delicious meal followed by mouthwatering sweets and a drink of honey and almond milk. The girls would all sit in a line with their mothers sitting opposite them. Baba had insisted that Payal go. You know how persuasive fathers can be. I think Payal must have been eight years of age and decided that it was easier to go than upset Baba. The women of the village had helped get Payal ready.. The clothes were not a problem; a long sarong type skirt in green with a bright orange blouse for that first year. It was her long hair that Baba struggled with. He would try and plait it and as soon as he held one strand another would fall out. This carried on for ages until most of her waist length silky black hair was loose and a small plait was left in his hands. Payal and Baba looked at each other and burst out laughing. He gave up finally and took her along to where the other girls and their mothers were gathering. A couple of the women took Payal to one side and plaited her hair and did some wizardry to bring it all together in a loose bun. One of them with a satisfied smile then placed a flower in the gathered masterpiece.
So here she was in this grand hall sitting on the floor along with her friends all chattering away. The women were opposite the girls. I’ve never been able to work out why they did it this way. Perhaps to stop the girls getting bored. Some women even had two or three girls. How was that even possible she thought. She looked opposite her and there was an empty space. I think it is unfair but Payal never complained but did occasionally wonder why she was the only one without a Maa. The Queen used to look forward to this event. She had two sons and yearned for a daughter. She hardly saw the boys as they were with their tutors during the day and after their evening meal would fall asleep too quickly with her. She thought a daughter could remain with her at all times. She hadn’t really thought this through.
The Queen wondered amongst the seated guests and happened to see Payal. She wasn’t a pretty girl but was very striking. Such long her , big oval eyes with long lashes that curled over. A sweet smile. She looked over to see her mother and saw the empty space. Her heart sank for the girl. She looked at her again and did not witness any sorrow. Infact she seemed perfectly happy. How very strange!
Then the queen did a most extraordinary thing. Can you guess? Yes. She sat down opposite Payal. The entire hall fell silent and was pretending not to stare. The king and the two princes were smiling as they watched. So typical of her. She was such a rebel. You now know where Madhvi got that wild streak from. This was her grandmother and the older prince who was only ten at the time would later become the king and her father. I wouldn’t want you to say that I didn’t keep you informed. Anyway back to Payal.
Payal became of everyone’s eyes upon her. She raised her own eyes away from her food and looked ahead and nearly choked upon see the queen in front of her. Ok, she thought what does one do faces with a queen. She really hadn’t given this situation much thought in her young life. She seems nice enough and was smiling at her and seemed to be genuinely wanting to speak to her. Oh well here it goes she thought. “Hello your highness” she said in her politest voice. The Queen perked up and replied “hello child, what is your name?”. Everyone knew Payal’s name so this question came as a bit of a surprise. “It’s Payal” she replied without adding “what a silly question”. The Queen sat amongst them throughout the meal asking Payal questions about where she lived, who she lived with, what she enjoyed doing, names of her friends and then asked the killer question about her missing Maa. Payal gave her a puzzled look. No one had ever asked her so many questions, even the teacher at the village school. She thought about it and said simply, “I just don’t have one”. Tears started flowing from Queen’s eyes and Payal thought she had done something very wrong to make the Queen cry. The girls and the women near them looked at her reassuringly and mouthed don’t worry. The queen stood up and bent over Payal and told her that it had been lovely to meet her and she was a very brave girl. And then she did another extraordinary thing. I bet you can’t guess this time. Well let me tell you. She took off her pearl necklace and placed it over Payal’s head. Payal was a little overwhelmed and murmured a thankyou and bowed her head. The Queen then left the hall. Before long the noise levels were up again and music could be heard from the courtyard. Everyone went out to watch the dancers and listen to the musicians before heading home.
Payal’s friends were so happy for her and recounted the evening’s events to her Baba when they finally reached home. Jealousy had not emerged amongst these people. Baba looked at her daughter and the pearl necklace which seemed to give her an added glow. But how could they accept such a gift. It had to be returned. He would discuss it with Payal the following day. That night as Payal slept with her hair flowing around her she could once again hear the sounds of the waves. She fell into a deep sleep and the pearl necklace clung onto its new owner. Payal was swimming in deep waters, actually under the water. She was smiling and her eyes were wide open. She was confused .. I am supposed to be asleep. She was far from that. Fishes of all sizes and colours swam with her and they chatted away; about what I am not so sure. Bigger creatures kept their distance as they did not want to frighten the princess who came to visit them daily. She reminded them of her mother…..
Payal’s mother, Aakavi had been a sea queen. In those times there was no difference between the land and the sea people. I am assuming her father was a nobleman but I am not certain as he died before her birth. Aakavi fell ill with grief before giving birth to the baby Payal and instructed her court advisors to find a good man in the nearby village. He would raise her child. She knew her life would be ending soon. But Aakavi was not sad. This was the way things passed and they would meet each other again because true and pure love never dies or separates.
I have a confession to make. I lied to you. I didn’t want people to think badly of Aakavi. Payal’s real father is actually Baba (his name is Kusham), who was a poor but very gentle and handsome fisherman. One day I’ll tell you their tragic love story; but it did create the wonderful creature called Payal. I know it sounds very common and it keeps happening over and over again. A princess falling in love with a poor man or vice versa. It must be the danger element don’t you think or the forbidden fruit nonsense.
As Aakavi was taking her last breath she came and presented Kusham with his daughter and then she simply melted away in the water. The tears of her people and the creatures of the sea caused a surge in the seas for days ; waves crashed and there seem to be no end to it. The villagers were unable to travel or fish and were beginning to think their homes too would soon be washed away. Kusham sat with his baby daughter and looked at her in wonder. She simply slept in his arms and did not make a sound. She didn’t cry, she didn’t fuss, she slept and didn’t make any demands on him in those early days.
People in the village were not even aware that there was a baby in his house otherwise they would have come with gifts and sung songs of welcome. He frowned and thought how would he explain her presence? It kept him awake for many nights. But to his surprise after he had prepared a long convulated history and presented her no one seemed to be listening to him but were just transfixed by the smiling Payal. I can’t tell you exactly why he chose this name but it I like it. Later the same day he took Payal towards the ocean and cried out to Aakavi’s spirit that he loved his daughter and would protect and nurture her. Everyone in the ocean heard his voice booming out to sea and from that moment the waves retreated and the water’s greyness disappeared and it returned to a shimmering turquoise; warm and welcoming.
So Payal grew strong and tall under Baba’s guidance. She was a real tomboy but one with ridiculously long hair ! And in those days there was no way it would be cut. Payal often wondered how much her hair weighed and if her head was really strong as a result of carrying it. So now I’ve bought you upto speed with Payal and Baba (I prefer to call him by this name) let’s return to the issue of the pearl necklace and its return. Payal woke up as normal and reached to touch the silky beads. She hadn’t imagined it after all. She knew why the queen had given her the necklace; she had felt sorry for her. That had been obvious even to the young girl. She had never owned any proper jewellery. There was no reason for her to as she was only eight years old. She looked down at it , played with it, twisted it all the way around her neck. It was the same throughout; pea shaped creamy white pearls that were held together with a gold thread. She wondered if she should take it off ? But thought better of it, what if she lost it.
Baba walked in and paced around Payal. He had planned to reason with Payal and explain why they should return the necklace to the queen. Unfortunately it came out as “we need to go to the palace now and give the necklace back immediately”. Payal tried hard not to show any emotions but she was sad. If Baba wanted to give this back, it would have to go back. After having some breakfast of fruit and coconut milk they started on the walk to the palace . It would take at least an hour on the path that ran along the edge of the forest. Baba hadn’t quite worked out what he was going to say. Payal just skipped alongside him trying not to think about giving away the necklace.
They saw the palace in the distant and they both stood and looked; how could four people need such a big house ? They turned towards each other and shrugged and carried onto the path that curved its way to the gate made of flowers and jewels. Baba knocked and gave his name and asked for an audience with the Queen. The small door to the side opened and a young man beckoned them in. They walked behind him, Payal gripping Baba’s hand, more for his benefit. He knew it too. The Queen ( gosh I’ve forgotten to tell you her name , it’s Vedi. ) was sitting with an older woman at one end of the garden. They weren’t busy with anything in particular. Whilst I’m imparting basic information I had better tell you the names of the whole family. The King was Rivam and their sons Tali and Irap. Tali was the same age as Payal and Irap was two years older.
Vedi looked up and saw the girl from the previous night. She was delighted to see that she was wearing the necklace. Then she moved her gaze to the handsome man with her. She wondered if it was her father although she could see no resemblance. He looked very nervous and Vedi spoke earlier than she would do normally to put him at ease. He smiled and explained who he was and thanked her for the generous gift but they would not be able to keep it. It was too precious and what would his daughter do with a pearl necklace anyway. At that point Payal wished her Baba would dream beyond the village and their bit of the ocean. Why couldn’t she wear such a necklace? Vedi requested that they sit and listen to her idea. I wonder what she has in mind.
Payal sat there dumbstruck. The entire conversation concerned her but they didn’t consult her once. She wasn’t unhappy about the plans but she wanted to declare her presence and shout “I am here, right here, look!” The drawback of being an eight year old girl. Then there was silence and Baba looked down at her and said,”what do you think Payal, could you handle this change?” Ahh finally you think it’s important to check she grumbles to herself. “I would love it Baba, who wouldn’t. I get to be with you, see my friends and get to spend time in this beautiful place.” She thought she was whispering but Vedi could hear the excitement in Payal’s voice.
So it was decided that the young Payal would come to the palace every other day and spend time with the Queen. She would help her with her education and would be allowed to play with the princes. And when she was old enough, probably fourteen or so she would come to work as one of the Queen’s maids. The discussion over the necklace; now did it actually take place ? Payal and Baba went home in a daze whilst the necklace still hung around the girl’s neck. I am not convinced that Vedi was totally honest. I think there is some history with the pearl necklace; why for example did she have it with her on the night of the festivities, it was not her normal jewellery. Why was she drawn to Payal and why would she allow a village girl to play with the princes?
Payal would make the journey to and from the palace accompanied by a guard. He would be there outside the house when she awoke and ensure she was home before dark. Baba would wave her off with a great big bear hug. The guard and Payal walked in complete silence and although the she tried in the early days to engage him in conversation but to no avail. The man would look down at her and smile when she wasn’t looking. He wanted dearly to talk with her but it just wasn’t the done thing and he took his job for the Queen very seriously. Payal would occasionally skip or sing to pass the time.Then there were also periods when she would work through all the names of people she had to learn about, gone by kings and queens and important ministers and court officials. How could it take so many people to look after our land? King Rivam had so many men (no women and perhaps that was the problem, well you were all thinking it). She was sure she could do better.
At the other end her friends would always repeat the same comments. “You’re so lucky”. “Tell us what is new there?” “What are they like?” “Do you really play with the princes?” It was an endless list and over the years I am certain she would have answered them truthfully. She shared her experiences with great honesty, openness and as if she were hearing the questions for the first time. She would tell them how kind the Queen was, how funny the King was, how loving Irap could be and how studious Tali was. Payal would watch them with wonder when they were together; each being a part of the whole. She also noticed how Queen Vedi had introduced her into this exclusive club. Over the years Payal had started to sit with the princes during their studies. And she was by far the brightest and wise beyond her years. The princes were never upset by this but used to tease her and say that she would one day rule the kingdom (I will come back to this point as it will be the game changer for all concerned in this story). They all missed her on the days she wasn’t there and Baba missed her on the days she was away from him. Payal was equally happy at both places but knew that her Baba needed her more. At the palace she was never asked to do any manual work. At home she was responsible for cooking and cleaning and fetching the water. She was what you would call an all-rounder. I can’t think of anyone who didn’t love her or didn’t wish her well.
She was about to turn fourteen and Baba knew that soon she would be living at the palace. She would visit him but he wasn’t able to come to terms with her not being at home, he was losing Payal but also Aakavi. Payal was also concerned and resolved to find a solution. She discussed the problem with the Queen. The Queen mentioned it to her husband. Payal also spoke with the princes. It didn’t take long for the answer to appear. They were all trying to take credit for it but they all secretly knew it was Payal’s idea that had been weaved into their thoughts. Baba could help run the Royal fleet.He could live near the palace and would still be close to the ocean. Baba would never leave his beloved water. He needed to touch it every day and listen to the waves. Ofcourse Baba was sad to leave the little house and the community he had spent so many years with but he belonged near Payal, she was still a child. Just past her fourteenth birthday Payal was settled into the women’s quarters and Baba in a shelter a short distance from the palace.
Life was moving on.I think she became more beautiful and graceful as she grew older. She continued to have magical dreams and swam with the people and creatures of the ocean. She remembered more and more of her visions and contemplated ways to make sense of them. She decided to go to the ocean’s edge on the night before her 18th birthday. The water was still and a faint humming could be heard from below the surface. Payal walked into a warm silky ocean and found herself in her dream state. Above the water just a few yards away Baba watched as his daughter went to her mother’s world. Payal swam, met people, talked about her world and listened to stories going back years of Aakavi and her adventures. It was soon time to go back to the palace so she simply raised her arms and gently spun her way to the top. It mirrored her dreams precisely. As she strode away from the water she was dry and felt renewed. Baba was still there but had fallen asleep, Payal woke him and smiled at him and told him all was well.
Later that day the Queen held a private celebration for Payal’s birthday. The King and the princes were there along with a very uncomfortable Baba. He had never got used to the pomp and luxury even after all these years. Although Payal and he still lived in quite simple quarters they were constantly surrounded by the excess of the palace. Even the garden seemed to have more than it’s fair share of flowers. Although Vedi and Rivam were not the showy type they could not escape some of the grandeur needed. Don’t feel too sorry for them. Today there was just a simple spread of nuts, fruits and sweets for them to enjoy along with water flavoured with rose petals and honey. The Queen seemed to be anxious to speak. She looked excited and impatient. Payal knew what she wanted to tell her. Vedi had not guessed that Payal had been going to the ocean all her life and had become aware of the old friendship between the two Queens. The pearl necklace was a gift from Aakavi to Vedi when they were young girls. Vedi had seen Payal long before the first night they had met. She had guessed that she was Aakavi’s child but it’s not a thing you just drop into everyday conversation. Especially to a girl such as Payal.
Rivam looked at his wife and said,”come on Vedi please tell us all what you are bursting to reveal.” That was just the cue she needed and about an hour later the audience which had sat in complete silence remained speechless. Baba and Payal hugged each other. Rivam and the princes bowed and all welcomed Princess Payal, “ we are honoured that you are amongst us”. Rivam winked at her. Irap dug his elbow in her ribs whilst Tali gave her hair a quick tug. So, nothing really changed other than Payal was moved to the royal block and proclamations of her new status were sent out. She was also given the grand title of Advisor to the Princes.She sensed that the existing supporters of the king were not especially happy with this news. However, she ensured she involved them in any decisions relating to the princes. In addition she started disappearing for long periods of time and reports of her adventures would reach them long after her return. Helping poor farmers, rescuing ill treated women, resolving feuds and anything else good you can muster. She never forgot her village friends and would visit them regularly even if it was just to deliver some fuel or food or to simply chat; she always seemed to appear when they needed her the most.
So this is how Payal became the fairy godmother like figure in the land. She had a magical presence. And if you are wondering, she didn’t marry either of the princes. Life isn’t that simple or predictable
Perhaps I will get the opportunity to share some more of her adventures another time. The first one will be surely be about the day her pearl necklace broke and it is said that the Pearl Girls or Odissi Dancers as they became to be known were created from these very pearls …
…………………….the end for now………………