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Our servants secreted much coin in their hands in return for carrying letters and news. Unlike the wealthy who wrote on velvety cloth, the common folk wrote letters on palm leaves. Our servants, worthy of working for Father, an accomplished merchant, charged more money for messages carrying commercial import.

There were half-a-dozen bullock carts, each drawn by a pair of sturdy well-nourished buffalo. Father, his man-servant, and the caravan master rode the first cart. Mother and I, and our hand-maidens, followed in the second. The third cart carried our luggage, and presents for Uncle, Chinnamma, and people of the village governing council, the panchayat. The servants, provisions, utensils, and tent and bedding material filled the rearmost carriages, which were larger and built for load rather than elegance.

Father also hired an armed escort of ten impressive young men led by a stern captain. These men, Maravars, carried iron-tipped spears and swords in scabbards slung across their backs, and wore leather body armour and brightly coloured turbans. Their horses were nervous and energetic and bobbed their heads and stomped the earth with eager anticipation. The escort also roped along several mules which carried their bedrolls, tents, and gear. It was quite an impressive company befitting the wealth and esteem Father enjoyed in Puhar.

In our wake was a long stretch of camp-followers—families, itinerant traders, and lesser merchants—who were also going our way but lacked the resources to hire an armed escort of their own. Travelling in caravan gave the camp-followers camaraderie and security. Unlike other caravan owners, Father did not collect payment from the hangers-on. It was beneath his station to do so. But this did not stop our servants from exacting taxes from these people. Father, well apprised of our servants’ activities, chose not to know provided they did not impose exorbitant levies.

During our journey, I became acquainted with the soldiers of the escort: wonderful and hardy warriors from the paalai, the semi-arid regions. These scarred men were bachelors—though many had lovers back in their desert homes. Lovers, and not wives. I found their family arrangement extraordinary but, for now, no one explained these matters. The soldiers yearned for meals cooked by a woman’s hands. They missed their lovers and mothers, and relished the food offered by the women of the caravan. I too shared leftover meals with them. And these men, who risked their lives every day and some only a few years older than Kovalan, took to the food with such gusto it put me to secret shame. After the first day, I apportioned the food before eating my share. It was a good habit I adopted, and for the rest of my life I always set aside food for the less fortunate. Father approved.

Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2019

Song of the Ankle Rings, an adaptation of Silappatikaram

Continued on Monday: Arakan Debauchery