Short story: One Night Stand in Hariharapuram
We bring you a tale of forbidden love by Mohan Raghavan, winner of the 'Love Stories That Touched My Heart' contest hosted by Penguin India.
Back in August, we invited readers with a flair for writing to participate in a short story competition that would see their works published.
Penguin India's 'Love Stories That Touched My Heart' contest saw several budding authors make the cut, judged by Ravinder Singh, who has two bestsellers to his credit -- I Too Had A Love Story and Can Love Happen Twice?
The compilation of short stories, edited by Singh, has now hit the market and here we bring you a tale submitted by one of our own readers via rediff.
One Night Stand in Hariharapuram by Mohan Raghavan
'Achamma, shall I turn on the AC?' asked my grandson Raman.
'It's fine as it is, Raman.'
Raman was very attached to me and couldn't bear to see his eighty three-year-old grandma distressed. I rarely showed my emotions but today was different.
'Want some water, Achamma?' he pressed on, worried that the tension might affect me.
As the car picked speed on the flyover, the wind blew on to my face. I saw the horses galloping on the racecourse far away. I could distinctly hear the clatter of horses in my mind's ears. My mind galloped too -- backwards in time ... more than six and a half decades back ... to the royal palace of Hariharapuram.
I was fifteen. The year was 1944. I belonged to Moolapuram, but frequently visited my aunt who was married into the royal family of Hariharapuram -- a scenic principality high
on the grassy slopes of the Sahyadri Mountains in northern Kerala. The palace was a large two-storeyed wooden structure amidst the woods and faced the green rolling hills. The rooms surrounded a central quadrangle with a small lily pond. The durbar was a large hall on the first storey. The women stayed in rooms on the second floor. Just next door was the ancient Hariharan temple which gave the kingdom its name. The
Hariharapuram kings were the custodians of this rich temple with valuable treasures hidden deep in its vaults. The kings on their part used the riches only for the temple upkeep and to provide relief to people during natural calamities. They considered themselves the servants of Lord Hariharan and the people of Hariharapuram. It was this humility that endeared the royal household to the people.
That day I was loitering alone in the garden when voices from the durbar above caught my ears.
'Has the Resident been informed?' It was the frail voice of the ageing king Periya Thamburan. Thamburan was an honorific for 'prince' or 'king'.
'Yes, Thamburan ...'
'What was the reply ...?'
'The Resident refused to interfere in our internal matters ...'
'Hah ... Like they never interfere,' came the sarcastic reply.
The Resident, Lord Hemmington, was the representative of the British crown. The kings looked after routine administration but didn't maintain armies for which they depended on the British.
'Thamburan, they are doing it on purpose ... They are aware of Ramacchhan's revolt. But they would rather have him finish us off, so they can take over Hariharapuram.'
'Yes, Thamburan,' said another voice, 'I have heard too ... that they want to raise resources for the war against Germany ...and ...'
'And what?' Periya Thamburan's voice betrayed alarm.
'...The treasure of Hariharapuram temple is on their minds...'
'Never! As long as the last man of Hariharapuram is alive, it will remain here ... and will be used for the people of Hariharapuram!' Periya Thamburan thundered.
'But what can we do, Thamburan? If Ramachhan raids the palace and the Resident remains silent, we are no match for them ...'
There was a deathly silence.
'Listen ... ' Periya Thamburan broke the silence. 'As per the treaty they can take over the temple only if there are no male heirs ... Even if a single one of us is alive, they cannot takeover without inviting the ire of the people ... which they won't risk at this time.'
'If Ramachhan were to attack, half of us will stay back to defend. The rest will go different ways ... May Lord Hariharan be with us!!'
I was too scared to hear any more and ran away to my aunt.
'I heard a gunshot and my rescuer collapsed in a pool of blood'
As night fell, mist covered the green hills. The croaks of the beetles and other insects in the woods made grim music. Little oil lamps flickered in the room. I was sitting with my aunt by the window. There was pitch darkness outside. The sky was cloudy and the moon peered out occasionally, throwing a dim light on the valley. The temple bells rang incessantly as the day's last service came to a crescendo. Hundreds of flickering lamps in the temple courtyard were the only source of light on the dark night. The villages around were fast asleep. I don't know how long I sat glued to the window before I had dozed.
Suddenly I woke up. There was a commotion and loud voices. The sound in the foliage outside was unmistakable. Was it an army of elephants? Or ... Was it Ramach -- ! I froze in fear. There was no one around. I rushed downstairs. There was mayhem.
'Ramachhan is here! The traitor!' a loud voice screamed. 'All women rush to the temple!'
I ran out of the door behind the womenfolk. Before I could reach the temple gate there was a loud clatter and suddenly a bunch of horsemen with faces covered rushed towards us. Scared out of my wits, I ran back into the palace. The men rushed out with swords in hand to meet the invaders. I could only hear the screams and roars of men fighting outside.
'We've been surrounded ... For the sake of Hariharan! Go! Go!' screamed a voice. It was Periya Thamburan ... Immediately five men rush back into the palace and made for the side door that opened out into the dense forest. That's when I was spotted.
'What are you doing here? You should have been in the temple!' screamed their leader.
And without waiting for my answer he dragged me out with him. We had barely taken a step when I heard a gunshot and my rescuer collapsed in a pool of blood. I ran behind a boulder. There were dozens of men dressed in local costumes, but their faces were European. As the gunshots raged, I ran into the woods. Behind, I could see all except one collapse in a heap, hit by bullets. I didn't go far before I tripped and fell.
'Get up and run ... or else we will both be killed!' ordered a voice behind me.
I ran behind him, taking a mud path into the woods. I didn't know where it would lead, but my companion seemed to know. After running for almost an hour, we came to a small clearing. I turned back to see that we had descended into the valley in front of the palace. High above me I saw the raging fire in the palace.
'Traitors! They are burning the palace!' said my companion.
Then, with some urgency, he hissed, 'Let's go!'
We walked an hour more before we came to a small house in the dense forest.
'Get in,' he ordered.
We opened the creaky door and entered to see a small dark room with no windows. I could see nothing inside. My companion entered and, running his hands around the wall, produced an oil lamp and lit it. We immediately closed the door so nobody could see the light from afar. I collapsed in exhaustion while my companion sat grimly by the oil lamp.
For the first time I got a glimpse of his face. He was not yet a man, probably just a little older than me. I recollected seeing him at the palace occasionally. He was one of the grandsons of Periya Thamburan.
'Scoundrels ... they planned this all ... to exterminate the line of Hariharapuram!' he intoned, furious.
'Anyone else escaped?' I asked.
'I doubt it ... They surrounded the palace. They knew all the exit points. That traitor Ramachhan!'
I thought of my aunt and uncle. Tears flowed down my cheeks. For the first time that night I had time to weep.
My companion had a stony expression on his face. 'We won't be safe here for long. Soon they will realize that I have escaped and come looking.'
'But where can we go?' I asked.
'Nowhere ... We are probably safe till early morning, and then they will search the woods. We have to get out of here in a few hours' time.'
He sat there with eyes closed, facing me, motionless. His handsome features were silhouetted by the light of the oil lamp. The long straight nose, hard cheeks, a large forehead, a broad chest, slightly muscular frame.
Suddenly he broke down. 'Periya Thamburan, we have failed you ... We have failed you ...' he repeated as he shook his head and hid his face in his palms.
Looking at him cry, I could cry no more.
'We have time till morning...'
'They won't spare the males -- those dogs! I could see them shoot all those who came out of the side door.'
'Was your father among them?' I asked.
'I don't know ... and it doesn't matter,' he said, resuming his grim posture. 'It just doesn't matter who died, but someone must survive. We promised Periya Thamburan ... for the sake of Hariharan ... and the people ... or else all the treasures will be gone! The people will starve!'
Amidst my fear and grief I couldn't help but marvel at this man. He had seen his entire family wiped out in front of his eyes, but yet grieved only for the people.
'Don't worry, you will escape,' I said weakly.
He remained silent.
'I don't think it very likely ... Anyway, you are the one from Moolapuram, right?'
'All right, listen. I'll take you to a family of hunters who live some distance away. They'll escort you safely to Moolapuram. No guest to Hariharapuram should be harmed. Let's go.'
'No, I am not going away anywhere,' I answered stoutly. 'Moolapuram is not a home for cowards.'
'But what can you do? ... Fight? With a sword against their bullets?' He was enraged at my audacity.
'No ... But I can make sure that at least a male survives to serve Lord Hariharan and his people.'
'You can't save me.'
'I didn't say so ...'
'Then get going ...'
'You are not the only one who can serve the people. Your forefathers did and so will your descendants ...'
'You!' he shouted, shaking in anger.
'I didn't mean to belittle you!' I said sheepishly.
He fell silent, probably ashamed at having raised his voice.
'Listen ...' I continued.
'You may not survive, but your son may live to do what you want to.'
'My son? I don't have one.'
'I know ... but you may have one tomorrow ...'
'Are you mad? I am only eighteen and not yet married ... Which son are you talking about?'
I moved closer to him and looked him straight in the eye and whispered, 'We have time till morning ... If Lord Hariharan wills, you may have a son. We may have a son ...'
The last part of the sentence jolted him. He remained dumb with an expression of horror on his face.
'See, as you said, they are after males, so I may escape alive even if caught, and so will my son -- our son.'
A long silence ensued.
'Do you know what you are saying?' he exclaimed, finally breaking his silence.
He stared at my face long and hard. Our eyes met, and stayed locked in an inexplicable bond. My heart was almost still. I hardly breathed. Neither did he. I don't know how much time passed. Neither of us blinked. Time seemed to have come to a standstill ... until he lunged forward and clasped me in a tight embrace. His broad shoulders seemed to me like the trunk of a huge banyan in which I happily nestled.
With tears in his eyes he looked at me. 'If you succeed, Hariharapuram will worship you forever,' he said. These were his first words in a long time.
'If Lord Hariharan wills, it will happen ... my Thamburan,' I said.
Gently he ran his fingers over my moist eyes and wiped them.
Swiftly he ran his fingertip over the streak of kumkumam on his forehead and brought it close to my forehead. As I looked into his eyes, he pressed his finger hard on my forehead a little above where the brows meet. I could feel the neat circular mark of his finger on my forehead that had been washed by torrents of sweat. He placed the oil lamp between us. Clasping my hands tightly in his, he whispered into my ears.
'We are one ... May Lord Hariharan be the witness ...'
I continued to look into his eyes in half amazement and half stupor.
He gently placed his hands on my head and then slowly and firmly on my breasts -- as if to say that our hearts were one from this moment. The small shack was glowing in the golden hue of the lamp. Everything seemed golden -- the lamplight, his face glistening in the light beams, my goldbordered sari ... just everything. It was the golden moment of my life.
I just realized that my sari was completely dishevelled after the run, and had become miserably loose. He noticed it too.
We were woken by the sound of waterfowl in the distance.
I couldn't move an inch. His strong arms had firmly woven a net around me. Soon he woke up too.
Quickly he jumped up and peered out of the crevice in the door.
'It's about to be dawn. Quick! Let's move.'
In a trice we were out and moving. We walked for about half an hour when we came to a small stream by the mountainside.
'You need to go down that slope and through the estates. The hunters -- they are our peop#8804 they will escort you safely to Moolapuram.'
'You?' I asked.
'I can't come in there ... The place will surely be watched. I will move into the denser forests on that side,' he said, staring into the distance.
I felt my heart sinking. But before it did, I sank into his arms again.
'Do not waste any more time,' he said as tears streamed down from my eyes.
I walked silently down the path, but I kept turning back.
He stood there looking straight at me. Then I looked back one last time, and ran away sobbing heavily. I could take it no more.
'You spent just seven hours with a man, but have lived seven decades living his dreams...'
Screech! The tyres screamed as our car came to an abrupt halt.
'Sorry, Achamma! The dog came right in between.'
'It's okay,' I mumbled. I was jolted back to the present.
As the car picked speed, I leaned back into the seat again.
The years following that eventful night had gone by in a blur. People said the entire household was put to the sword. My Thamburan was caught and exiled to Andaman. The temple was ransacked. But the treasures weren't found; except for the idol of Hariharan which was promptly shipped to England. Our son Udayan was born soon afterwards.
After 1947 I came back to Hariharapuram and lived there like a commoner under a new identity. With the help of the local people we formed a trust and revived the temple.
Udayan grew up to be a businessman of repute and then we had much more funds to manage. Ten years ago, with the help of archaeologists, the treasures were located and put under the custody of the temple trust headed by Lakshmi, Raman's sister.
Once things stabilized, I moved over to Bangalore where my son lived. Last year we found the idol of Lord Hariharan going for auction at a British museum and brought it back. But for all these years there was no trace of my Thamburan and I was fast losing hope. Then, just two days before the idol was to be reinstalled in its original place, Raman saw a report in the papers about some person who had been brought into a Mysore hospital with third-degree burns. The person supposedly had identified himself as belonging to the erstwhile royal family of Hariharapuram.
Immediately Raman and I headed for Mysore in his car.
'Yes?' I knew he was itching to start a conversation.
'You spent just seven hours with a man, but have lived seven decades living his dreams...'
'Our dreams,' I corrected.
'Okay, but ... it was just a ... a one night --'
'One night stand?' I smiled. 'That is the difference between love and infatuation, Raman,' I said gently.
'But don't you think you have just been a doormat ...?'
'Yes I was ... but so was he ... We both were doormats at the temple of Hariharan and his people.'
'You think he will remember you -- if at all we find him?'
'It may be a question for you, but for me it is a fact.'
He fell silent.
Soon we were at the hospital. I walked as fast as my old legs would carry me. An old man with a long beard met us at the door. Apparently he was the one who had brought in the patient to the ICU. He had a few words with Raman, who then came back to me with a somber face.
'Achamma, you have to be brave ...'
'Don't teach me bravery. What's the matter?'
'He is no more ...'
'Where is he?'
All three of us walked through a few doors. At one corner was a stretcher. I gingerly moved the bedspread away. The body was charred beyond recognition. I gently put my hands on his forehead. With tears streaming down my cheeks copiously, I stroked his head again and again. Oh! If only he could have been alive one more day, to see his dream fulfilled ...
I could take it no more. I put my face close to him and whispered, 'Thamburan, we kept our promise to Periya Thamburan ... Lord Hariharan will be back in his place tomorrow.'
A few minutes of silence ensued.
'Thamburatti ...' I heard a voice behind me. I was startled at being addressed as 'princess'.
The old man who had brought us in was standing just a few inches from me.
His eyes were moist. I looked into those eyes -- those very same eyes! Unmistakable!
I fell into his arms.
'Forgive me for this. I didn't know how else to find you!' he said.
'Thamburan, we kept our promise ... we kept our promise,' I said again and again as I wept uncontrollably.
'You kept our promise ... my princess! O princess of Hariharapuram!'
Excerpted from Love Stories That Touched My Heart (Rs 125) edited by Ravinder Singh, with the permission of publishers Penguin Books India.