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‘As ruler of Parambu, the welfare of my people took precedence over personal considerations,’ said Pari. ‘That was until my girls were born, but more of this later. For now, my daughters’ birthday celebrations. Their fifth birthday. That was when we first met, or rather, when I first saw you, if you recall.’

I smiled, for how could I forget our first encounter. The twins’ birthday celebrations culminated in a grand poetry reading event in Pari’s court. He invited many bards from all over Tamilakam but many more invited themselves. I was of the latter. He welcomed all.

The panegyrists, with an eye for royal rewards, stoked Pari’s esteem and sang songs of praise. Their pandering was embarrassing, and I took refuge behind a sun-baked smile. The poets followed a set pattern: praise the king, compliment the beauty of the princesses, and thank the monarch for his pujas, prayers, which beget rain and good harvests.

All the bards and poets took the well-trodden route; all except one newcomer. A full-bearded man about Pari’s age and with bony shoulders and high knotted hair but with a confident bearing that bordered on fatalistic arrogance.

I speak of myself, Kabilar, a mendicant poet who had been wandering from kingdom to kingdom seeking his father who had abandoned his mother when he was born. That great vidhuan, master of whatever he called himself, having enjoyed the pleasures of young flesh, had set off to find salvation for the hereafter. I suppose like all absentee fathers he had retired to the hill regions of the Ghats to fast and pray. But like all such cowards, he must have served as a poor meal for some wild beast.

My mother, my beautiful foolish mother, not wanting to return in shame to her parents, handed me to priests in a temple and left, and never heard from again. Some say she committed suicide; that she sat facing north and prayed and fasted unto death. Perhaps she thought having given birth to her son fulfilled her task on earth.

‘What do you hope to achieve today, learned-poet?’ A voice intruded into my thoughts.

I snapped out of my reverie and stared at the man who had spoken. He wore a pristine cotton wrap around his waist. Where the wrap overlapped, a single border embroidered in silver and black thread ran from waist to feet. A chiselled silver necklace covered most of his naked chest over which hung a garland of white lotus. A translucent white fabric tossed over his shoulders completed his all-white attire. Prime Minister Chitragandan.

He presided over the princess’ birthday celebrations. Recollecting my surroundings, I said,

‘To fete the egos of a king, hoping he would then see fit to feed my stomach.’

My manner was brusque, fuelled perhaps by the thought of my father, the vidhuan, the master of selfishness and irresponsibility. Chitragandan looked old enough, and I harboured an instinctive animosity towards all men who reminded me of that vidhuan. But my answer sent a shiver of disapproval among the school of learned men.

Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2019

Continued Friday 13 September, 2019