Mother's irrepressible charm

Mother's irrepressible charm

Lalitamba had climbed one of the jaambakka( Roseapple) trees in the West Side. She was picking the ripe fruits and throwing them down to her sister Indira and her two cousins Snehalatha and Susheela, daughters of Elder Aunt.

“Akke, akke! “ all of them cried in alarm, “we’ll surely be caught! The maids have gone to report!”
“You don’t worry,“ Lalitamba said confidently, “I’ll take care of it.”
Princess Indira was extremely worried , “Akke you will be punished!” she moaned, “oh, please, please get down!“
It was at that point that Kulathu Iyer, who held an important post as one of the State as well as Palace Officials, appeared through the North Gate and walked towards the West Entrance which led to the Valiya Koil Thampuran’s Chambers.

Kulathu Iyer was a frequent visitor to the Palace. He was perpetually a comical figure to the princesses and their cousins. Dressed in a black coat over his “paalasaar” dhoti, his pepper grey “kudumi” bobbing as he walked, his portly, bustling frame was a familiar sight in the palace compounds. Full of self-importance, he hastened towards the porch. Kulathu Iyer, an unfailing figure of fun and an object of mirth, now tightly hugging some documents under his arm, drew near. They giggled uncontrollably at the sight of him.
Suddenly, he started. A jaambakka fruit landed “ plop” upon his head. He stumbled and lost his balance, as the princesses and their cousins suppressed irrepressible giggles at the comical sight. Kulathu Iyer’s confidence and dignity was shattered. His mouth flew open, his jaw dropped as he looked up and saw Princess Lalitamba astride a tree branch! All the footmen and maids tried ineffectually to conceal their laughter.

Kulathu Iyer was mortified. He had lost face in front of an audience. Especially was he chagrined since his appearance at the palace was looked upon by the retainers as the entrance of an individual of extreme importance and position of high status. He had lost face before palace servers. He almost suffered an apoplectic fit. He tottered to his feet and moved unsteadily forward, muttering under his breath.
“Akke, you are in for an awful punishment!” Indira was fearful, even as they were doubled up with laughter at the funny sight, “Gosh! What are we to do!” Almost immediately summons came from Lalitamba’s father, the Valiya Koil Thampuran, in the person of his Steward Thampan.
“The princesses are wanted inside,” said Thampan.
Indira paled with fear. Though physical punishment was never resorted to, strict “lock-in” within one’s room was agony beyond contemplation, especially for Lalita, who would rather die than be room-bound. And the scolding would be unbearable!
Soon they were in the presence of their father, the Valiya Koil Thampuran. Kulathu Iyer was standing respectably nearby, a wounded look upon his countenance. While the Maharani was an object of awe and reverence, her husband generated fear amongst all at the palace.
“You will apologise to Kulathu Iyer” he said, sternly.
Lalitamba immediately complied. She ran towards Kulathu Iyer and said contritely, “Please forgive me Kulathu Iyer. I am sorry the jambakka just landed!” She couldn’t say a lie that it was accidental, but at the same time she hesitated admitting she had thrown it. This way it was the truth— the jambakka had indeed landed.
Kulathu Iyer was taken aback at her charm and disarming air of concern. He fell under the spell of it as everyone usually did and found himself apologising to the princess for becoming her target!
“Oh no, no,” he protested, “ please do not think anything of it, Your Highness, it was my fault . I did not realise Your Highness was playing nearby.”
“You will wait in the verandah,” said Valiya Koil Thampuran, unrelenting, “Kulathu Iyer is about to leave. I have something to say to you.”
When Kulathu Iyer had left, he called the princesses in. “You did a very wrong thing,” he said , without mincing words, “your mother will soon hear about it and take appropriate action.”
This was something that Lalitamba was uneasy about. She could somehow get around her father but not her mother. The Valiya Koil Thampuran doted on his eldest daughter and saw in her the son he never had.

Lalitamba had always shown traits that were termed “un-lady like”, to the secret delight of her father, who recounted his hunting experiences to her, which she loved to hear, and even taught her to use a gun. She would often walk with her father to the further corners of the compound and engage in target practice under his supervision. She was an excellent shot. Her ambition was to go on a safari with her father one day soon. The Maharani of course strictly disapproved of these activities, but most of it she would not hear about, since the maids would not dare to report all of the princesses’ escapades to her, fearing chastisement for their laxity in guarding her.
However, when the Valiya Koil Thampuran had a pair of khaki safari shorts and shirt to match, made for his daughter at her insistence, the Maharani was appalled. “What is this Kunje!” she exclaimed, “have you gone mad? Your father is indulging you too much! This has to stop immediately. Hopefully, you have not ruined your reputation irrevocably! Bring the clothes to me at once!”

The Maharani was so disturbed that she snatched the khaki apparel and threw it out of her window. “You won’t ever want to see it again!”
Thank goodness Mother had not heard of the “palace safari” with Father! she consoled herself. She had enjoyed that very much. Wearing her khaki outfit she had accompanied Valiya Koil Thampuran to the back room of the extension at the Matappalli Wing on the South Side of the compound, furthermost from the palace main building.

This was a sequestrated area a few yards away from the Royal Kitchens, not frequently in use. Valiya Koil Thampuran would often shoot the jackals that came stealthily from the adjoining woods to steal food that was thrown from the kitchen. These animals were a nuisance to the palace staff.

Valiya Koil Thampuran would wait behind a concealed aperture in the back wall of the building. Armed with a .22 rifle Lalitamba waited excitedly with her father behind the window. It was quiet and eerie outside, in front of the edge of the woods. Her heart was pounding. Minutes crawled by on leaden feet. And then at last, a cautious head appeared through the branches of the shrubs.

It was the first time she was actually seeing a real jackal! So these were the creatures that plagued the compound workers! Soon there appeared four more jackals, their narrow yellow eyes sparkling malevolently.

She suppressed a shiver and took aim. Suddenly she realised that to hit a target object was one thing, but to actually kill a living creature however ferocious, was quite another thing altogether! She hesitated. The next moment the clear sound of a shot rang from her father’s gun and one of the pack fell. The rest, startled, fled towards the woods, but not before the Valiya Koil Thampuran’s gun had claimed another victim.
“What is it you really want to do in life, akke?” Indira had asked, curiously, and she had replied, “Oh, a hundred and one things! I want to fly a plane, I want to travel in ships, I want to climb the Everest, I want to ride a camel over the deserts of Egypt, I want to swim the Channel, I want to trek through the Amazon, I want to go on safaris.“
“But, akke, you don’t like killing animals,” Indira reminded her.
“True, but I can take photo shots!” she had replied, “ I want to travel all over the world and experience everything.”
The enormity of these ambitions had simply taken her sister’s breath away. Indira had stared at her sister in awe. Only her daring sister would even think of such things! She might even do it, Indira thought, trembling in fear and admiration.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

Rukmini Varma

Rukmini Varma is a leading Indian artist who paints in the classical tradition.