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I wondered why we required an armed escort, for did not our Cholan king’s reputation send even snakes slithering into their holes? Mother admonished my careless talk regarding the king, but I persisted with a litany of why-why-why.

She said the divide between the Cholan and Pandyan realms was with deep forests and hills, and a wild race of demonic people—Arakans—inhabited these lands. I had heard the name mentioned in whispered awe. The Arakans were cannibals and would attack unwary city-dwellers who commuted between the towns.

‘And they are especially fond of carrying away young damsels such as you.’

‘Does that mean you are safe, Mother?’ I asked.

She pinched my arm and I let out a sharp cry. But Father’s cart was several paces ahead and the clattering of hooves, the tinkling bells festooned to carriages, and the ever-present noise that accompanied people on the move, drowned my cries. Deciding not to risk more pinches, I wiped my tears and asked.

‘Will we encounter these Arakans?’

‘I hope not and, as I said, these thick ugly men are especially fond of young maidens.’

And Mother gave me a look of silent challenge. I was young but not stupid, and no naughty words ensued from my runaway mouth.

Mother also recounted stories of debauchery, human sacrifice, and drinking of blood. When I asked about the Arakan women, Mother paused. Having made up a story, she said they were even worse than their men: they went about with exposed breasts, and smeared their faces with the blood of young boys. I saw through Mother’s ruse and did not believe all she said—except for the part that Arakan women were worse than their men. In that aspect at least, these wild women shared the traits of their more civilised sisters.

I yearned to meet an Arakan, perhaps a young girl or boy who would not alarm Mother. Once, during the journey, the soldiers tensed and the bullock carts tightened into a knot, sending a sizzling fear rippling through the petrified people. Unfortunately, the gods answered Mother’s prayers and there were no Arakan sightings. Another night we heard the faint sound of drums in the high hills, but again, nothing more.

Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2019

Song of the Ankle Rings, an adaptation of Silappatikaram

Continued on Friday: Adult Games and Drama Children