Sudeshna, King Virata’s youngest and favourite queen, was an extraordinary woman with an intriguing passion. A strong swimmer, she harvested freshwater pearls from the lakes in Matsya, her husband’s kingdom.
Virata became listless whenever Sudeshna went diving for pearls. Ever conscious of the prevalence of crocodiles and water snakes, he worried for his young wife’s safety. But she was adamant, and he gave in to her wishes. The Matsya king could not send men to guard his queen, because the thought of men catching glimpses of her in wet, clinging clothes drove him mad with jealousy. The best he could do was to select and send the bravest women from among the palace maidservants to look after his beloved queen.
On two occasions, Sudeshna had escaped from crocodiles. On another occasion, a water snake had bitten her. Fortunately, it was a nip—a warning bite—and the snake had not injected a full dose of venom. But it took all the skills of the royal physicians to save her life.
“Promise me you’ll not venture into the marshes again,” said Virata.
“I promise to be careful, my love.”
That was not the reply he wanted to hear, but over the years and after several discussions, he gave in to his queen wishes. Virata could not accompany her as he suffered from vertigo and swimming posed a mortal danger.
Several armed women waited in rowboats on the water. Dozens of maidservants had pitched tents along the water bank. Some women beat drums to scare off wild beasts while others climbed trees and acted as lookouts.
Sudeshna, accompanied by half a dozen female swimmers, entered the lake. Her search for oysters brought her to the marshes. She surfaced, took a deep breath, and dived. The faint familiar hum filled her ears; air bubbles rose to the surface. Sunlight wavered on the corrals and shallow river bed. As she swam among the water plants, she encountered warm and cold water.
A muffled cry reached her ears; and the safety rope around her waist tugged. Sudeshna rolled over and looked up towards the boat. A swimmer appeared, one of her trusted servant girls. The woman floated; limp. Sudeshna’s eyes widened. Wisps of blood leaked from a chest wound and thinned in the water.
With that thought, Sudeshna kicked and breached the water’s surface. She was alone amidst thick plantation. Shouts and screams reached her. The tall water grass blocked her view. The queen could not tell where the noise came from. Kicking hard, she parted the vegetation and swam, but confronted with thicker vegetation. Sand under her feet told her she had reached the shallows.
Sudeshna waded out of the water and reached the bank. She had swum quite a distance away from the tent site. Shouts and yowls attracted her.
Her servants were defending themselves against a swarm of attacking warriors, strangers to Matsya. Sudeshna’s women were trained to ward off wild animals, not fight warriors. The women were ill-equipped and caught unprepared. They died in their dozens. A chill ran through her body. The strange men had come for her.