The Unwed Wife

The cool gentle wind of Kartik month was blowing over her face as Rani Vidhumati was standing on the terrace of her room. This was her favourite place in the Mehal. She could see a majestic fountain area in the middle of a huge garden and large windows of the royal durbar from her balcony. The branches of the veteran peepal tree embraced the beautifully decorated balusters of the parapet.  The activities of the whole palace could be gauged from this area behind the privacy of the canopy of its branches. It only obscured some of the royal guest rooms, though a light could still be seen emanating through the leaves. It truly served as the guardian of the royal family. She looked at the moon. The following day was Karwa Chauth. She was transported four years back in her memories.

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It was the Krishna paksha of Shravan month. The city and the palace were in a celebratory mood alike. Religious activities were conducted daily in the palace on the rangmanch where devotional plays were enacted by the enthusiasts. The city echoed the devout sentiments of the people singing in the temples throughout each night. It was during one of these days Vidhumati, daughter of Rajpurohit Jagannath had caught the attention of King Inderjeet, while she was blowing the conch on the entrance of the temple.

He was smitten by the beauty of Vidhumati so much that he had approached Rajpurohit for her hand. King Inderjeet enjoyed a good reputation for being a noble and virtuous ruler. It was a dilemma for Jagannath to marry his daughter off to him. King Inderjeet was already married to Indumati, daughter of King Jairath.

 “I am honoured to get the proposal from your Majesty but I…” her father had fumbled to find words to give the response.

 “I understand your situation, but, I assure you of the dignity and status of your daughter in the palace. I will wait for your response.” King Inderjeet had left their house with folded hands. He and Indumati had been married for seven years but had not yet received the blessings of the Almighty to provide the heir to the kingdom.

 Jagannath was unable to decide on the issue. His raja dharma and pitra dharma were at crossroads. It was a similar Karwa Chauth eve that Vidhumati had come up to him, requesting, “Please inform the King that I would observe a Karwa Chauth fast for him. I wish to meet him tomorrow night.”

Jagannath had stood frozen for a while. A few minutes later her mother had informed her that he had left for the palace.

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 “Maharaj is back in his room after seeing the guests, Rani Sahiba.” Vidhumati got distracted from her flashback memories as Indumati spoke in a low tone entering her room. 

Vidhumati looked at the lights coming from the guest rooms through the branches of the tree once again and turned back to see Indumati. She was 10 years elder to her but looked much aged. Vidhumati respected her as a friend.  But her entry in the palace on that fateful night of Karwa Chauth four years ago had turned Indumati’s  life upside down. 

Her chain of thoughts resumed from the point of interruption… the day when she had Indumati for the first time. 

 ******

 The Royal palanquin had entered the majestic palace. Young Vidhumati was expecting a grand reception on arrival, but something looked out of place. The fort was enveloped in a mysterious silence. She had expected King Inderjeet waiting to welcome her at the gates. The lights of the palace were dimly lit and the moon of the auspicious night of Karwa Chauth was reflecting in the water body around the grand fountain. She had shuddered at the hint by the palanquin bearer that a coup d’état had taken place at the fort. King Inderjeet had been put in prison by his younger brother Somjeet who had seized the throne. She was escorted to the Royal guest room a little while later. A long march of footsteps in the gallery diverted her from pensive thoughts and it took a while when Somjeet appeared before her.

 “Welcome, the queen of the palace.What an auspicious day to start my new life. I am sure you can now break your fast since both the moon and the king have appeared before you.” Somjeet sneered as he stormed the room. The sepoys following him stayed outside the door.

  “Humbly I request, I would like to see Your Majesty.” Vidhumati was too young to understand what was happening.

 “And here He stands, right in front of you. The doors of the Fort are closed for you to go back and Inderjeet is now a prisoner of the rule.” Somjeet went on saying, “You are betrothed to the King of the province and here I stand before you. ” 

 “I have kept a fast of Karwa for the King and am affianced to Him. I will starve to death than do something else. I would eat only after I see him.” Vidhumati mustered enough courage to voice her strong emotions.

 “That, I am afraid, is not a choice. You were promised as the Queen of the province by him. You were engaged to the throne of Rajgarh. Alas, he is not a king any more but you have a duty to perform.” Raja started speaking in a softer tone now as Vidhumati kept looking at the floor. She had not even once looked at him. She was unmoved.

 “Understanding your dilemma, I hereby give you the liberty of maintaining your pledge. You may break your Karwa fast after looking at the moon and the throne thereafter.” The king said in a softer but firm voice.

“From tonight, I proclaim you as my queen. But I will never insist you to worship me on a Karwa Chauth night” he continued, gesturing to the Dwarpal for the Thaali. 

He ordered in a loud voice, “Rani Vidhumati may be escorted to her room after she is done with her pooja of Singhasana in the“Royal Durbar”. The king didn’t wait thereafter and left the room trailed by a long queue of escorts.

 It was after her Pooja that night; she was introduced to Indumati. Somjeet was cruel enough to not put Indumati along with her husband in the jail. He had degraded her ranks to serve as an aide to Queen Vidhumati.

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 Looking at her face in dismay, Vidhumati suddenly was brought back from the memories to the present day.

 “I must go tomorrow to seek permission from Maharaj to meet my husband, Rani Sahiba.” Indumati sought to leave Rani Vidhumati’s room for the day. King Somjeet had been gracious enough to allow her one visit in a year to meet her husband in the prison, on the night of Karwa Chauth

 Indumati left the room as Vidhumati kept strolling in the balcony. The cool breeze was strong enough to sway the branches of the peepal tree. The whooshing noise was produced by the short branches and the rustling of the leaves after every few minutes. Vidhumati had been a faithful, devoted wife to Somjeet, once she had accepted her destiny. King Somjeet had also not shown any demonic behaviour since that day. His overzealous desire to seize the throne had been met, and he had got a beautiful wife in Vidhumati. 

 But the palace was abuzz with the rumours for few days that Maharaja Somjeet had invited Subedar Khazan Singh with his family to the guest house. Her aides had whispered to Vidhumati that the reason for calling over Khazan Singh to the palace was more than administrative. Khazan Singh had a beautiful young daughter and the visits of Maharaja Somjeet to the Atithi baithak had increased over the last few days. Vidhumati was anguished since then. She had tolerated the audacity of Maharaja Somjeet once as a helpless young girl. Now she was a queen, a queen betrothed to the throne, the mighty throne of Rajgarh. The lights from the guest rooms went dim, Vidhumati came inside her room once again.

She stood by the palace window, tall and still, gazing absently at the blurred distance. She had two choices: both unattractive, out of which, she would have to take a decision…

 A display of ire and unleashing her fury would not make much of a difference to the king. He would gladly accept that, all the more now, since he was charmed by a new damsel. The other choice was also seemingly unattractive. To approach Subedar’s daughter and get her to agree to leave the palace could backfire. She might land herself ending up as an aide to a new queen. History would be repeating itself in four years.

 The cool breeze was now transforming into a harsh wind. She looked at the expansive Peepal tree. The girth of the trunk was draped with millions of knots of sacred red threads. Rani Vidhumati came inside the room and laid herself down on the bed, her eyes wide awake. The following day was the fourth day of Kartik month once again.

****

  King Somjeet was surrounded by a coterie of his courtiers in the front lawns of the Mahal early morning. He noticed Indumati standing in the middle of the row of grand pillars of the inner complex, near the raised platform around the peepal tree. Directly above her was Queen Vidhumati’s room. He gestured his advisors to stay back and proceeded towards her. Though she was merely a queen’s aide in the palace, the king had enough reasons to show her respect. Somewhere, he used to feel guilty of robbing her of all her zeal in life.

“Ah, Indumati, what brings you here? Is it something concerned with Rani Vidhumati?” He enquired while Indumati had her eyes fixed at his feet.

 “Long live, Maharaj. I have come here to seek your permission to meet my husband when the Moon rises tonight.” She said in a meek voice.

  “Ah, today is the auspicious day, the day of the commitment. Yes, you have my word, Indumati.” Raja Somjeet finished speaking as he watched Indumati bow her head and started retreating her steps. He waited for a few seconds then added hurriedly, “And please inform Rani Sahiba we will host our special guests inside the Shahi Dawat Mehal tonight, the night of eternal Love.” He turned back to join the group of his advisors.

******

  The timing of the evening prayer time was communicated by Rajpurohit Vishambher. He had been performing all the rituals for the royal family since the time Jagannath had left the province and had never been heard of again. Indumati was looking very graceful in her red attire. Her dark coloured henna on the hands went secretly under the glazing red and orange bangles from the wrist and above. This used to be the only day in the year when she donned a complete make-up. Kumkum on her cheeks, Kajal in her eyes and a long streak of vermilion on the head made her look no more aged than Vidhumati. The beauty of Vidhumati was beyond the description by words. Her elegant charm and poise justified her name. The jewellery and makeup only enhanced her complexion more. While the two ladies sat together with the Rajpurohit chanting verses, the queen remained engrossed in her thoughts in the entire Katha and puja ceremony. Indumati had communicated the King’s wishes to her in the morning itself.

As Purohit Vishamber gestured to exchange the beautifully decorated karwas, Vidhumati received the Kumkum, bangles, kajal, sindoor, nariyal, sacred Mauli thread in her lap by Indumati, who kept showering blessings on to her. Vidhumati rose and in exchange, stuffed the lap of Indumati with boxes of sweets she had brought along. She added some make-up items and topped it with her Shahi- Kataar, she had pulled out from her Qamar-band. Indumati looked up at her bemusedly. The bejewelled Kataar, decorated with precious gems of royal heritage, was not supposed to be parted away from the queen.

  “The box of sweets, for all those who take care of your husband in prison. They too need a celebration alongside you.” Vidhumati commented, ignoring any mention of parting away of the royal gift. She bowed before the Purohit and went inside the palace.

********

 The clouds were still obscuring any signs of the rising of the moon. Rani Vidhumati was standing at her favourite spot of the Mahal, outside her room, in the balcony. She looked down from the parapet. Her gaze fixed at the trunk of the grand old peepal tree. The thick bundles of sacred threads around its trunk suggested that it was a witness to many answered prayers. The light from the guest rooms was percolating through the offshoots of the tree still. The Royal Durbar was all decorated and reflecting lights from the dome. The heavily lit long gallery to the durbar could be seen from the spot. The restricted access to the throne was kept open tonight for the queen to offer her prayers after the moon showed up. 

“The moon is there. Look, the moon has come up.” A commotion from the far end enveloped the palace. Rani stayed there for some time. She showed no signs of any urgency. She could sense the activity and hustle-bustle from the Zenana mehal. She took her thaali and proceeded for a long walk towards the Royal Durbar. She used to seek the blessings and offer her prayers, near the throne every year. The two aides outside the door accompanied her in the gallery.

Rani Vidhumati kept her thali outside on the parapet. She saw the reflection of the moon in her vessel and then looked up through her veil at the Moon, which was always a mute spectator to her life. She offered the“arka” and silently sought its blessings. She turned around to look at the throne behind her through the sieve as was customary all these four years. A shadow was standing behind the royal seat. Vidhumati had a long placid look at the throne, offering her prayers, and then looked behind it. The shadow was standing broad, in a warrior position. Though wearing a prisoner’s dress, his posture reflected of his royal lineage. Her eyes traced the broad shoulders to his hands holding a dagger with blood dripping from it on the floor. As he stepped forward, the light of the moon reflected from the shining jewels of the kataar.

 Vidhumati moved forward to the feminine figure standing behind the man. Indumati was holding the half-finished box of sweets. Vidhumati took a tiny chunk of mithai from the box and assumed her position on the Majestic Throne. Inderjeet bowed before her, placed the Shahi-kataar in her lap and the king’s crown on her head. She closed her eyes, looking at the moon. The moon of Karwa Chauth.

 Her face was reflecting extreme tranquillity. Was it the result of a minuscule dose of the laced sweets or the influence of being crowned? 

 It was difficult to tell which intoxication had hit her first.

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