(Illustration by the wonderful Desiree Bashi)
I know the title seems as if it’s going to be a complex story. Don’t worry I’ll make sure I don’t lose you. You see I can’t recount this story without involving Payal, the Greedy King, Sujan Obi Nas and the two younger Pearls Desiree and Sheeba. Don’t forget, Pearls were the first ever Odissi dancers.
I had better tell you a little about Sujan Obi Nas; gosh, even his name is too long! His parents had named him Obi but in his early teens he declared his name needed to stand out from those around him, as he was a prince. The court officials, the King and the Queen had all looked at each other and knew then things had gone too far; but did nothing to change the situation. Obi had been a beautiful baby boy and a long awaited one; he had six older sisters. From a very early age, he had been thoroughly spoilt by his parents, his sisters, his personal servants and his tutors. He never played nicely with the other court children as he didn’t understand the concept of sharing. He refused to play with his sisters, “they are just girls”! He would burn with rage if he saw anyone else with something he didn’t have; he wanted it. He was also lazy, he didn’t need to move or try as everything came to him.
So as the years passed it was easier for all concerned to let the prince be in a private part of the palace. This was the future King. We all know that this isn’t looking positive. How could a young man without empathy or social skills be able to rule Shala? He was very clever, though, and a great mathematician and by the time he was eighteen his tutors were at a loss as to what else they could teach him.
Obi was now quite big. This was inevitable – he loved his food and didn’t move much. The tailors would have to come and measure him again and again for new silk robes. Some of you must have started feeling sorry for him by now. Me too. His sisters had all married and left the palace. He had sat at the six weddings quietly, inwardly seething, as no one was paying him any attention. The crowds would all coo over his sisters and their husbands and all seemed to be very happy. He was glad when they left and puzzled over why his mother was in tears each time. He did not feel the emptiness that the whole palace felt. The princesses had filled the household with noise, laughter, energy and love. Other than his parents, no one really had paid him any genuine attention. He didn’t care, he was happy in his own company. Poor Obi! He really didn’t know the value of family, friendship and love; or do you think he hadn’t been shown?
On his twenty fourth birthday Sujan Obi Nas was crowned King. His father now unable to leave his sickbed had declared it should be so, but did so with a heavy heavy heart. It was a grand but very sombre affair. A sombre silence descended on the palace over the following days. The officials just kept on doing what they did, the cooks in the kitchen kept on cooking what they used to, the gardens stayed the same, the army got older, there were no royal visits and things were generally miserable. Obi was getting bored and when he got bored, he got mean. He took away land from the farmers, he ruled in favour of the guilty parties at court and laughed whilst doing so. Oh, the list is endless and I really didn’t like this Obi at all. No one was able to stop his disgraceful and unreasonable behaviour. The Queen retreated into her private quarters and garden and was riddled with guilt and shame. She would only ever leave to visit the King who was slowly fading away.
One day, Obi heard about the Odissi dancers and some silly princess who had joined them. He wanted them to come and perform for him and see what was so special about them. He heard back from the dancers also known as Pearls. They were busy, they said. You can just imagine his reaction! “Just go and get them”, he shouted to whoever cared to listen. Days passed and then one day there was a commotion in the court. There were trumpets and then “the Odissi Pearls, your Highness”. Hmmm, he thought. I thought there were three or even four of them. The two young dancers were clinging onto each other and holding back tears. It was Desiree and Sheeba. “Put them in the guesthouse”, he ordered. The girls were escorted to the beautiful part of the palace at the back of the lush gardens, surrounded by fountains. They could also see a couple of peacocks sauntering about. What were they to do? They had never been without Parvati. But because they were so tired, they both fell asleep.
The two girls awoke the following morning so very hungry. But as they sat up in their beds they could smell yumminess coming from the other room. They jumped out of bed, grabbed each other’s hand and ventured towards the food. Peering out slowly, they could see trays of delicious cakes, fruit, nuts, savoury pancakes, dishes they couldn’t recognize and jugs of various drinks. They assumed the white one was milk. They smiled at each other and walked out, nervously checking for intruders. Just them, they realised. The girls ate happily and quietly. Now what? Whilst the rooms were beautiful, the beds comfortable and the food delicious, this was not home and they were starting to get jittery again. They had not chosen to be here.
And as if someone had read their thoughts there was a knock at the door, followed by another, a little louder this time. They didn’t say anything but simply stared at each other. The visitor was waiting to be invited in. After a few moments there was another knock and a voice said gently, “May I come in?” It was a woman’s voice, gentle but firm. Desiree walked to the door and let the lady in. She was obviously not a servant but neither was she someone royal. She introduced herself as Rukul, senior maid to Queen Leera, the King’s mother. She wore a long dark skirt with a red blouse with gold trim. Her grey streaked hair was pulled back into a severe bun. She wore little jewellery, just some simple hooped gold earrings and a heavy, ornate bracelet, probably silver. The Queen was distressed when she had heard that her son had effectively kidnapped these young women and wanted to reassure them that no harm would come to them and she would personally organise their journey home. She had requested that the girls come to her quarters with Rukul. Both Desiree and Sheeba smiled so hard that Rukul could not help giving them a hug and saying, “You will be fine”.
The three walked along dark corridors with crumbly walls and unpolished floors. This was so different from the guest quarters. Then through some iron gates and onto a path within an overgrown garden, which was still beautiful. Butterflies, bees and brightly coloured birds were all around. And in the corner there was a fountain sheltered by fruit trees and the high brick wall. This was the Queen’s garden but once she lost her husband she stopped tending to it. This was her second love after her family. She also didn’t want anyone else touching it, although many had offered and also suggested outside gardeners. She could not bear to ruin anything beautiful and her son’s behaviour had saddened and embarrassed her into being a recluse. As they entered an archway, two big doors were opened by two old guards. The girls had never seen such old guards and wondered how they would be able to protect the Queen. Anyway, it was none of their business. They just wanted to go home as quickly as possible.
She was sat in a beautiful emerald green velvet chair and was reading a book and put it away carefully as the three entered. This room was very formal; less furniture than the guest quarters but with a higher ceiling, dark stone flooring inlaid with what looked like jewels, two large windows on either side dressed with heavy curtains that were held back allowing the sun to shine through. There were piles of books everywhere – the girls had never seen so many. When did she read so many?The Queen beckoned the girls to sit near her, there were stools for them in the matching green and a small table with fruit. “Don’t be too angry at Obi”, she said gently. She spoke with a sweet, calm and lilting sort of voice. Desiree and Sheeba sat transfixed as she told them about Obi and her daughters; how the latter never visited because of former. She missed them so much but Obi almost forbade her to leave the palace. She said she was happy to see new faces, especially young people. She missed conversation; she used to hold big groups allowing women to share their views on any subject they chose. These ranged from family, food , friendship, politics to clothes and their country. She loved Obi despite his behaviour and did not quite know how to fix the situation but she could help these two young women escape. More time passed and the huddle of four finally came up for air and seemed satisfied.
Rukul took the two dancers back to their room and disappeared. They waited until supper was served and ate heartily as the Queen has advised.
Sheeba and Desiree then opened the door and stepped out into the darkness and tip toed the same route they had taken earlier. Rukul was waiting for them at the Queen’s garden and smiled. She gave them both a bag with some water and snacks. The two old guards were watching and smiling and willing them on. The older woman snaked through the paths towards the well and the two girls followed. The path took them around the fruit trees onto a narrower walkway which was hemmed in by tall woody stems where they had to use their hands to pull through. Rukul then stopped and scraped back an overgrown plant, took out a key and found the hidden door and lock. The two girls looked shocked although they knew it was there.
The small mossy creaky door was being shut behind them. They knew what they had to do. Walk alongside the wall until the big trees were in sight inside the palace grounds and then head straight out; eventually they would end up on the track to the next village. That seemed like a great plan but in the dark with this small lantern, they could only see about six feet ahead and above. Desiree let out a small shriek, ”Something’s on my foot”. With the lantern now shining down the girls saw what looked like the end of a tail swishing past. It had only been a few moments since they were alone and they were already scared. They had assumed it was going to be straightforward escape. I think the queen and Rukul had read far too many adventure books! The land behind the palace was overgrown, a mini jungle if you like. Who knew what creatures lurked here? The most sensible thing would have been to walk back through the door. There was absolutely no chance of that either now; where was it? It was so well hidden in the overgrowth.
The girls stayed brave and kept walking and struggling through the jungle; they were sure it was supposed to be wildernesses garden! Neither wanted to let the other down so stayed focused on her steps although both were exhausted and jumpy.
They finally stopped after a few hours and admitted they were lost. They had also unfortunately not made it out of Obi’s land. The girls were observant but brave – what a strange comment you may be thinking. Well, this jungle was filled with giant plants and if it was filled with giant plants surely the animals would also be huge!! Desiree wanted to scream but just gulped. Sheeba also wanted to scream but just wished for Parvati. Both girls descended into deep sleep, but were sure they hadn’t sat down or even laid down. If they could see that one was being held by a giant flower and the other by a snake I’m sure they wouldn’t have fallen asleep. The flower swayed gently and whispered to the snake to take Desiree; she would be more comfortable with her.
The girls slept on, oblivious of the situation.
Back in another land not so far away, Payal sensed there was something wrong and could feel the call of the Pearls. She took her leave from the court and headed towards Shala on her chariot. Payal arrived at Obi’s palace just as everyone was getting ready for the day ahead. She no longer got angry. She asked for an audience with the King.She thought she’d give him a chance. Obi agreed to see Payal. He had never seen such a beautiful lady and she didn’t cower in his presence; that too was unusual. Payal introduced herself and then asked for the return of the Pearls. Obi was a little surprised as no one had ever challenged him. He was also not a great orator so answered abruptly, “No, they are my guests.” Payal stayed smiling, “Dear King, if you do not let them go home immediately, I will be forced to take them. I am sure you do not want your reputation ruined further. And if you do want to see them dance, you can do so anywhere. The energy and pleasure from watching with others is unrivalled. You should try it.”
Obi could feel his face burning with rage. This woman, how dare she speak to him in this way! She was only a Princess and he was a King; he didn’t care that she was older. Poor Obi really had not learnt any manners; respecting your elders was a given. Poor poor Obi was going to lose this battle and he didn’t have a clue. He tried to stand but needed the help of two advisors. His right arm, hand and index finger pointing at Payal shouting at her to leave his court and country. This exhausted him and he slumped back down. Payal stood still, wondering whether she should give him another chance to repent or simply get the girls from the garden. Oh, I did not say Desiree and Sheeba were in the Queen’s secret garden filled with the strange and spectacular. It was their way of keeping the dancers safe; Payal had helped plant the garden many years ago. In hindsight, the girls were safe, Obi would not really have harmed them. Anyway back to teaching Obi a lesson. Payal stood still and simply smiled. There was a hazy aura about her and I’m sure there was a hint of jasmine.
Obi sat there and was at a loss. No one was rushing to help him or follow his instructions. In truth they all looked at him in pity and disdain; I know that two are contradictory but sometimes your emotions get jumbled. Obi was also confused. He was tired of being disliked. In reality, he missed his sisters and mother but just didn’t know how to express this! He was envious when he saw people talking and being comfortable in each other’s company. He noticed they would stop if they spotted him. He was bored in the palace; there was never any noise or laughter. He couldn’t remember when he last went out of the palace to view his nearby orchards and farms. This self examination seemed to go on and on and suddenly there was hush, a quieter than imaginable silence in the court. Someone was sobbing. It was Obi. Years of anger, pain and hurt were leaving his body. The old advisors gazed at each other and shrugged. They were all wondering what magic spell this visitor had wielded.
No one knew what to do. Not often does a King starts crying in front of his people. Payal watched and slowly walked towards Obi and helped him up and hugged him; he thought of his mother. He finally stopped crying and sat down again. He asked everyone to leave him Payal alone. They talked for hours. He spoke of his loneliness, the expectations, the pressure and all from a very early age. His sisters would tease him saying, “This will be all yours one day”. They meant no harm, they were children themselves. The advisors would say, “Prince you need to know all these protocols’”. His father would say, “Son, the people are looking to you to guide them”. But his mother would say, “Play with your friends. I love you. Come sit with me.” He had forgotten her kindness and love. Payal listened and wiped away his tears, again and again. He was distraught and inconsolable. Her message to him was that it was never too late to make amends. He didn’t understand her powers and laughed. Who would listen to him now? Would they trust him? He had hurt so many with his actions. So Payal spoke again and told him how to navigate out of his plight.
In the garden, fthe girls stirred out of their sleep to find themselves wrapped in a giant snake. What to do? Scream? Wriggle? All pointless, they thought, so they just went rigid and weren’t able to even speak. The snake, Hani, just smiled. She was only keeping them warm, but how were they to know that. These humans needed to be more open, she thought. As the sun rose she eased the girls out of her grasp and slid away. Bemused, they smiled at each other and finally got a sense of their surroundings. It was a garden ; but for a giant ? Too much to deal with on an empty stomach. They both sat in the shade of a bright pink petal and opened the bags Rukul had given them. Yummy fruit and pastries and a pouch that was filled with water. After eating they were debating what they should do next. Sheeba wanted to try and find the gate and go back into the palace. Desiree, feeling braver, wanted to push ahead but not knowing into which direction. They could hear little bells, yes, definitely little bells coming towards them. Payal was walking towards them with Rukul behind. She hugged the two girls and simply said, “time to go home”. No explanations, no “are you ok?”, no “good to see you”. That was enough for Desiree and Sheeba.
So this story was less about the dancers but more about Obi…. I didn’t know that was going to happen! Payal took the girls back to their village, they never did dance at Obi’s palace. They did get a chance to say farewell to the Queen, who winked at them as they left. They did not want to face Obi. He really had frightened them. It would take some time to forgive him, which they would eventually do.
Obi vowed to be good. He even promised to think about marrying and visiting all his sisters. He went to watch the Odissi dancers in another palace. Most importantly, he spent every afternoon with his mother tending the garden she loved dearly and spoke of his father who he learnt to know and love again.
Parvati was cross about the situation, but very happy to have Desiree and Sheeba back home. She would need to talk to them again about personal safety.
Payal went back home to Paanivar knowing she would not be there long.