(The story continues. Image is a photo of the Sivaganga Temple Tank, in Thanjavur)
His eyes looked eerily at the two men.
The harbormaster cleared his throat, fighting back a gob of phlegm, and then looked at Balaram. A sudden flash of lightning illuminated the sky.
The sudden flash threw a light onto him, leaving merely the harbormaster and the lieutenant in darkness.
“So, to continue, three years later his father got a new job opportunity in Kanchipuram. But my sister…bloody Saraswati! She’d taken a liking to this soulless bastard and wanted to go with him. Oh, by the bow of Lord Ram!” He threw his hands up with an exasperated sigh. “Well, our parents agreed to it! I couldn’t believe it and I just wanted to slap both my mother and my father.”
He paused awhile for a short respite.
“Now we too were going to the mainland, and that demon was going to be living wherever we were. I loved to trip, but Narasimha-though he never showed it, hated it-and finally, we lived there. I married young, and so did Sarasvati. Now, Narasimha, well…there’s so much to be said, but let me skip the details. His family had always been patrons of the biggest temples of the temple. And since Brihadisvarar and Chidambaram were major places, they decided to move out of Kanchipuram. They chose Brihadisvarar so this time they shifted to Thanjavur. Of course I still saw him, because we were already soldiers by that time, new recruits. Of course, I preferred fighting out on a ship to just fighting on land. It was also mostly a way of getting away from him. He rose through the ranks and became an excellent cavalryman and brilliant commander.”
“And I think he got married too. A young devadasi, an incredibly beautiful woman; she’s descended from merchants from near the River Ganga or somewhere from the old Pala territories. It was a love marriage, and his parents didn’t really care what he did what his life. I think they understood that she felt the same way about him that he did about her. Well, and here we are now. Narasimha is an enigma, trust me. How he can conform to society and be a husband”-he shuddered slightly-“I have no clue. And if the gods know, they won’t tell me. I still don’t understand how we can still be friends. Perhaps absence really does make the heart grow fonder.”
A leaden silence descended over the room as a cascade of rain fell from the heavens. Men everywhere rushed from the docks to the safety of the fort. The coastguards put into shallower waters as the sea grew rougher with every drop of water.
Umbrellas were unfurled wherever possible. The roar of thunder chilled the hearts of everyone in the harbor.
Balaram felt like he was in a tomb. Harihar himself looked like the ghost of a young man, taken down during the golden years of his life. “Thank God it’s not the actual monsoon,” he laughed, but was soon subdued by the terrifying quietness.
The harbormaster’s feeble hand navigated towards his sliced mango. He looked at the piece he’d picked up with a grimace on his face, and after a second of contemplation, pushed it away.
“I know something more.”
His voice was a bell in that dead void.
Another flash of lightning illumined his entire body as he stood up, towering over the swarm of flies like a mountain of wrinkled flesh, while his associates remained in the darkness. Balaram took a second to scratch his beard, but merely sighed and remained wordless.
Accidentally kicking over a still rather full squatting pan had not been on his itinerary, but when it happened he quickly covered his nose and mouth and turned away. The other two men with him hurried down the corridor, gripping their torches tighter in their hands.
“I can’t believe that Narasimha would even come to a damned hellhole like this! What does he do here?” demanded the disgusted Balaram.
The harbormaster and Harihar both sighed as they looked sadly at him.
The former hissed, “I still don’t know. But he keeps some rather interesting prisoners in this dungeon, that’s all I know. He doesn’t put them up for execution. Rather, he has this bizarre form of torture. Well, I wouldn’t precisely call it that as well, but he does something strange. See, all these prisoners are foreign. Well, there are a few would-be deserters from our side ready for the chopping block, but mostly Lankan men and women, soldiers and civilians.”
He paused at a cell holding a long-haired, extremely young, slender boy who stared at the world outside with widened eyes.
“People like this…um, outcaste here. His name is Yasa…it’s what he calls himself, at least. Sweet young thing and innocent as a doe. I think he’s about sixteen, but looks much younger. The locals call their outcastes Rodi. They’re a group stricken by poverty; of course, we’ve seen these poor bastards plenty of times in their little mud hut villages. Their women are forbidden to wear a bodice as per local law. Silly law, I should say. But more on that later.”
His eyes lingered on the boy, who tried to return his glance with a small smile, but went to looking disgustedly and dejectedly at the outside world.
Harihar’s mind still clung onto that boy in the cell.
That innocent youngster called Yasa.
His skin was essentially golden, almost matching some of the beautiful sunsets that Harihar himself seen during his stay. A faded and rather torn-up white sarong was wrapped around his waist, reaching his slender ankles. The white cloth concealed slim, smooth-skinned legs that pressed firmly against it as he walked up and down.
Harihar tried to hide a feeling of pity within him as he remembered the youth, but emotion still tainted his words: “So what did he do to find himself here?”
The harbormaster looked wearily at the young man. “It’s Narasimha. Nobody knows, although I think he was the personal attendant of some old Valanji on the enemy side. So he speaks Tamil and the native languages fluently, although he refuses to. I once heard some plans about getting some information out of him, maybe using him as an informant to spy on his employer, but I don’t know, really. Anyhow, there are plenty of female prisoners around here too. What I do know is that he particularly enjoys the company of women, which, frankly…” His own throat was caught up with a strange feeling.
“It frightens me.” He shuddered as he gripped the wall, guiding himself. Harihar, though, held his hand strongly and gently.
After a while, the lieutenant quickly added, “We could at least free the poor thing…I mean; we can’t keep him on what I believe are invalid charges…”
“Enjoys the company of women? That doesn’t sound like the Narasimha I know!” thundered Balaram, turning around suddenly. His right hand flew to the bars of a cell holding a recent prisoner, a thin man with a sizeable beard. Neither of his companions said a thing, but looked bleakly at him.
“I mean, he would never cheat on his wife! He wouldn’t, stop giving me that look, both of you! Narasimha is a good man. Besides, what would he profit from cheating on her?”
Harihar tried to speak, but the Rodi boy’s visage still rose up in his mind. Balaram saw the young lieutenant’s eyes wandering towards the outcaste’s cell when he turned around. He tried to force a dark look in his direction, but instead set himself on the harbormaster’s course. That Yasa, whoever he was, no matter how pretty his face was, was casteless in the end.
Harihar should have nothing to do with him.
They finally encountered a wider space that before, the corridor having opened up into what seemed to be a huge indoor ‘courtyard’. A few rafters had been broken due to rotting away in the damp air down there, and a few stray raindrops pattered into this squalid place. There were very few cells here, and most were empty. Balaram, though, was more confused to see his best friend seated on a stool facing the cell on the left corner. It seemed to be a spacious, almost homely for a prison cell.
Harihar leaned towards the sailor, and buzzed into his ear:
“This is the prisoner he’s most interested in. According to the reports he never says why. Only that this is a Lankan warrior who truly intrigues him. The Senathipathy has been reading about those warriors of old. The powerful giants who dominated this country thousands of years ago live inside this man’s soul, so he says. But he scares me,” he said knowledgeably, “every time he talks about this prisoner.”
“I’m guessing you want this one as a personal attendant too?” grunted Balaram in sarcasm. “But in all seriousness Harihar, what does this particular prisoner have to do with Narasimha? It’s like he hasn’t moved at all. And I’m pretty sure he knows that we’re here!”
“I only know this prisoner’s name: Anuruddha.”