Saturday, 9 October 2010

Ayodhya - Two


Shatrughna woke in the morning with a blinding headache. He groaned as he reached for the glass of milk that was normally by his bedside. The glass of milk that Lakshmana would set out for him, a gentle rebuke at being out so late and so drunk, combined with concern at his brother's predicament. Spending the best part of the day with Bharatha necessarily meant joining the Second Queen in whatever revel she had planned for that night. While Shatrughna drank his glass of milk and wondered what news the day would bring, one of his father's errand boys knocked on his outer door.

'My Prince, His Majesty wishes your presence in the throne room within the hour. He does not need you to be formal, merely presentable', he said in an emotionless voice. Of all the various staff in the court, it was the expertly trained pages for whom Shatrughna had a soft spot. It was they who had the unenviable role of rousting everyone in the palace when they overslept, they who delivered bad news that the king had no intention of relating in person, and they who had the least job security of all in the palace. More than a few of them had been fired by the king on a bad morning, and they'd never be allowed to work for him again.

He acknowledged the boy with a grunt, sent him off with a wave of his hand, and set about the task of looking, as his father had put it, presentable. Being a prince meant that presentable still consisted of more finery than most other nobles even owned, though only he and Bharata would be wearing so much. Rama and Lakshmana would follow the example of the First Queen, and wear simple clothes, and look more stunning in them than should have been possible. He grimaced, picked out the first things in his wardrobe, and tried to shake the last remnants of his hangover out of his system.

Forty minutes and a bath later, as he was walking towards the throne room, whistling a tune he was fairly sure was a Bhairavi, he came across his eldest brother.

'Shatrughna! Father's summoned you as well, has he?', he asked, in a tinkling voice that practically made you smile.

'Yes, though the boy he sent for me didn't bother to tell me why', Shatrughna replied.

'It's definitely some sort of important announcement, Mother was awake and ready for battle even before the boy came for us', Rama said, with the sort of irritated amusement only the four princes of Ayodhya would ever hear, let alone understand. Kausalya and Kaikeyi's political battles were the stuff of legend, and an actual physical meeting between the two of them would prove explosive.

'Well, I only hope I'm out of the room before the sparks start flying', Shatrughna said with a wry grin.

'Either you take me with you, or we're both stuck in that room!' Rama threatened, half-seriously, as they both turned the corner, nearly walking into Bharatha.

'You should watch where you're going, my prince.' Bharatha sneered. To all but the most experienced observers, it would seem that Bharatha held nothing but contempt for his elder brother. In reality, the two brothers loved and respected each other, but the ramifications of freely associating with each other were too dangerous for either of them to contemplate. They rarely dropped their guards, only doing so in the privacy of their chambers, when one or the other had been smuggled in under the cover of playing politics for the Queens.

'Well, perhaps I wouldn't need to if you weren't such a blundering oaf!' Rama replied, his face screwed up in a smirk of its own.

As this rather unkind banter continued, Shatrughna intervened, suggesting that they were getting late, and had best be on their way.

'Oh, you need not worry, little brother, I've been invited to this little get-together as well. Can't have the First Queen hog all the limelight, can we?'

The three of them continued down the hall, Bharatha and Shatrughna talking about the carousal that the Second Queen had held the previous night. As they reminded each other of details, and sometimes entire incidents, that the other had forgotten, they eventually reached the throne room.

The throne room itself was a grand affair, typical of any room in the palace that had survived the dozen wars that it had faced, with high vaulted ceilings and painted floors, a throne that could have seated several dozen lions comfortably and windows the size of murals. The First Queen was at her seat, on the left of the king, and the Second Queen had usurped the Chief Minister's seat on the right of the king. They were both glaring daggers at each other, though they spared a glance for their respective sons. At that moment both visages transformed from anger and frustration to looks of pure beauty. Sometimes Shatrughna entertained the notion that if Kausalya and Kaikeyi had ever gotten along, there would never had been a need for his mother to join the court.

Speaking of which, he looked around, wondering where his mother was. He spotted her a third of the hall down. While her sister-queens were extremely territorial about the places of power they occupied, his mother had always been content to remain where she was. Which was not to say she was weak. Third Queen of Ayodhya was still queen of all Ayodhya. She was deep in conversation with his last brother, Lakshmana, who looked unusually pale, and Guruji, who had an uncharacteristically grim expression on his face.

That was always a bad thing. Guruji always, always, always had a smile on his face, a kind word of advice, and a solution to every problem. He wondered what could be so important, that it had disturbed him so much. He glanced about the otherwise empty room, waiting for his father to start.

'Right!', the king said in his booming voice. 'Now that the rest of my sons are here, perhaps it is time to begin with my announcements. Before we start, I will make one thing clear. I will brook no interruptions to what I am about to say. My love for you may be the stuff of legends, but interrupt me, and you will have to deal with a very irate king.' Strangely, he was not looking at the First or Second Queens as he said this, both of whom were the most likely to blow up at any announcement he might make. Instead, he was looking straight at Mother. Quiet, demure Mother, who never got angry, certainly never with her husband and king, and certainly never where anyone else might see, who at that very moment was glaring venomously back at him.

This was very, very bad. What news could possibly induce this reaction in Mother, Guruji, and Lakshmana?

'I have two things to announce today. Firstly, I have received news that the great sage Vishwamitra will be gracing us with his presence in the near future- Let me finish!' he thundered

At the end of that first sentence, the First and Second Queens both starting speaking rapidly, hoping to secure the right to welcome their august guest before the other, but both stopped when it became apparent that the king was serious when he said he would not tolerate disruption.

'Vishwamitra will be arriving, and when he does, he will be welcomed by the Third Queen, Sumitra- THERE WILL BE NO ARGUMENT!' Strangely, while the First and Second Queens were horrified by this development, Mother did not look pleased in the least. She was still glaring daggers at Father, something that baffled Shatrughna to no end.

'Secondly, it appears that my spymaster, Pranjal, is no longer able to carry out his duties. It has now become imperative that I choose someone to replace him.' As he paused for breath, Shatrughna sneaked a glimpse at the faces of the rest of his family. Kausalya and Kaikeyi were both listening raptly, their faces too well trained to give away whatever they were feeling. Bharatha's face was puzzled, wondering what relevance this could have. Rama's face was also puzzled, but that expression was quickly replaced by one of understanding. He had always been the most perceptive of his brothers. Mother was still angry, though it was now tinged with grief, Guruji was determined, though for what Shatrughna didn't know, and Lakshamana, well, Lakshmana's pale face had gone tight for a moment, almost mirroring Rama's, before accepting his fate.

'After many weeks of careful deliberation, I have settled on his successor.' Shatrughna had a very bad feeling about this.

'It gives me great pride to announce that my son, Lakshmana, will now lead the intelligence corps of Ayodhya, and he will be guided in this endeavour by none other than our esteemed Guruji Vashista!'

Shatrughna felt his face go slack with shock, and he was sure Bharatha's face was doing the same. His brother, third-in-line to the throne of Ayodhya, son of Dasaratha and Sumitra, whom they'd always known to be capable of running several kingdoms blindfolded, was consigned to being a spymaster? It defied belief, and rationality, too.

In all the commotion, he never noticed the look on Lakshmana's face, not of shock or betrayal, but of dread and relief at the knowledge that the day he had been fearing for so many years had finally come.


Shatrughna in the Ramayana is like Nakula and Sahadeva in the Mahabharata. You just don't hear enough about them in the simplified versions of the stories. You have to go digging around to find out things like apparently Sahadeva was a master astrologer and knew exactly what was going to happen in Kurukshetra. 


Sharan said...

I'm loving it, loving it, loving it.

Write more. Write much more.

Anonymous said...

Ore twista irke.