Nobody ever challenges me to anything. Abhishek Mukherjee, on the other hand, gets a lot of delicious challenges, the latest of which is from the esteemed Devapriya Roy (whose lovely book I reviewed here)
The challenge was that Ms. Roy supplied Mr. Mukherjee with 14 photographs, of which he had the freedom to choose any 10, in whatever order, and build a story around them. This is the result of that challenge, and I request you to please read it before you read on. The story is perfectly fine, if a bit disjointed, but it’s a rainy Saturday morning, and I’m home alone, and I don’t want to read about a tearful spinster dreading her upcoming wedding.
As I just mentioned, nobody challenges me to anything, so I have to scavenge other peoples’ challenges for inspiration. This is the story I wrote this morning, based on the exact ten photographs that Abhishek used, in the same order.
Hope you enjoy it!
His men had asked him not to step out onto the balcony, but the Boy King went anyway, drawn by the sound of wailing. The royal courtyard was covered with bodies- bodies of sailors and fishermen, unmarked, unbloody, they could almost be taken for sleeping, had it not been for the ripe smell of carcass that hit him full in the gullet. Even the widows, wailing like alley cats, kept a small distance from the pit that now smelt like nothing apart from death.
“They washed ashore. In hundreds, the fisher-folk would have us believe. They’ve dragged these bodies out for His Royal Person to see.” The information came from his royal guard, Bankejiwan Murali, a giant of a man with an overall air of slickness.
“Wha..what’s killing them?”
“Kaali Kapalini knows. Some sea disease probably. They talk of some stone eyed monster from the deep. But that’s just fisherfolk talk, your highness. They want the King to protect them.”
The boy turned away from the gilded railings overlooking the sinister view below. “My father. They want my father to protect them. Take me to the Lizard Children”
The Lizard Children were misnamed. It would have been closer to the mark to have called them the Chameleon Children, for they could change their colors to match their environment, and had tongues half a mile long tucked in their throats. His father bought them back, suckling infants, twins from the womb of a Narigodhika, from his last conquest, the Garden City. The King had been grievously injured even in victory, and had lingered for two weeks before his bleeding, rotting innards took him away to a better place, but the twins had thrived. That had been four years ago. Now they no longer looked like identical wrinkled foetuses. Vedaara, at four, had the size and strength of a ten year old. Kataki had not grown after her first year, keeping her resemblance to an angelic toddler in a basket with wheels. They both looked perfectly human, till you peered into their eyes .
Today, the Lizard Children, grey against a grey sky, turned their head in unison to look at the Boy King approach them. “Your highness,“ Kataki krilled, “we have been expecting you. The days are dark.”
“You have heard, then, of the massacre along the coast?”
“The Godhaks do not need to hear, King.” It was Vedaara who looked at him this time.” We can smell death. We can smell the storm. We know what approaches”
“What approaches, then? What haunts my sea-farers? Tell me if you know!” the King was finding it difficult keeping the desperation out of his voice.
The children looked at him with cold, unmoving eyes. Then they spoke in one voice, the krill-krill of their throats making the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
“He sleeps the deep, the depth of dark
No god may ever touch his mark
He dreams the world, he dreams the sea
Awaken not the Mahitsuri”
The Mahitsuri. The boy suddenly felt like a child again, far younger and more helpless than his 12 years. “That’s ridiculous. Mahitsuri is an old myth. Nobody has seen him for two thousand years.”
“Then it looks like you will have to find out who it is that shook the old myth out of its slumber after two thousand years, does it not?” Kataki smiled with her gums.
“Would… would my father have wanted me to go?”
“We knew not your father, King, we were but sightless worms when he cut us out of our mother’s womb. But this we know- you are but the man you are.” Vedaara looked straight into the boy’s eyes while Kataki, bored, let loose her tongue and captured a sweetly singing nightingale in a distant tree. “Be you a wise man, learn yourself about the monster and gather up your men to slay him. Be you a songster, write yourself a ballad of a great slaying that never happened. Be you a lover, close yourself in your bed chambers and let dancing girls prepare your manhood for the Princess of Bahara whom you are to marry within the month. Be you a King, take up your sword, child, and go seek the fire before the fire seeks you out.”
The Boy King looked at the hilt of his sword unhappily. “I am a king, like my father. I shall seek out the evil, though it is certainly likely to be the end of me.”
“The end of Kings is like the end of stars, Your Highness. Dead kings live longer than live ones. Go to Bakuteshwar, where the sea laps at the land, and look for the truth there. Seek out Mushika, the old man in the cavern, he shall give you light” Saying this through a mouthful of nightingale, Kataki closed her eyes and pretended to fall asleep in the basket.
Vedaara took him by the hand and led him down to the river. There was a boat waiting, some tradesmen loading and unloading it. “That boat will reach Bakuteshwar in the morn, King. Leave behind your diadem, and your royal jewels. None shall question you, none shall stop you, none shall know where you have gone.”
“I trust you, Lizard friend. You and your twin are closer to me than the brother I lost” said the boy, as he stripped off his finery. “Tell none where I am going, lest my father’s men try to drag me back.”
As he parted from Vedaara, the Godhak arrested him once more with his krilling voice. “Before you seek the monster, seek the mount. The Mahitsuri is a terrible foe, but he does not ride alone this time”
The morning found the Boy King rubbing sleep out of his eyes in the cramped shelter of the Boat. It was raining, and the horizon was blurred, but he could make out the outline of the ruined watchtower of Bakuteshwar looming against the widening river as it sombrely met with the sea
The city had once been a thriving port, with an economy that sustained half the treasury. Centuries of seastorms and warfare had reduced it to a ghost town now. Fisherfolk lived on the coast, gambling every day with Vajra, the God of storms, and often losing. The inland was full of wild tribes, who had turned the city into some sort of a heathen alter. The boy could feel the evil in the salty air. Bakuteshwar was no place for mild-hearted travellers, and even his capital gave it a wide berth as far as possible.
The boy did not linger at the port, where unfriendly looking men glared at him and perhaps sized him up for a spot of thuggery later. He bought a platter of fried fish from a forlorn looking vendor, and clambered up the rocky beach to the deserted watchtower.
As he had hoped, he heard footsteps echoing towards him, not even 10 minutes after he had entered the building himself. He had disturbed enough dust to tell them exactly where to find him. His hunting instincts told him that there were two of them. They would be easy to ambush, on this abandoned roof, but a King does not use a machaan to catch his shikaar. His father had always taught him that. So he waited, hand on his hilt, till they lumbered in through the doorway, a young man and an old one, both of whom he had seen on the dock.
“Lovely, lovely boy. Maybe if we don’t have to kill him to get his golden sword, we can sell him to Ishara’s house on the far coast. Ishara is always in need of firm buttocked boys.” The younger one leered at him, but the old man only had eyes for the hilt of his sword. “Real gold, innit? ‘n are those roobies? Give it here, goat.”
The boy took out the sword from the scabbard and held it aloft. “Real gold, real rubies, take it but please don’t hurt me…”. The young bandit lurched forward with a winning grin on his face.
What happened next happened so quickly that it could barely have been said to happen at all. One moment, the bandit was reaching out for the sword with one arm and the boy with the other, the next moment, he had no arms at all below the elbows, only two fountains of blood. The boy took advantage of the shock and chopped off the bandit’s legs beneath him.
The old man rushed at him with a deafening bellow, just what he had wanted. With a deft manoeuvre, the boy felled the giant and held the point of the sword at his throat. “You’ll follow your friend if you don’t tell me what I want to know.”
“’e was my son, you buggering l’il demon! My only son!”
Better and better. “He’ll live, if you can get him to a healer in time and stop the blood. But if I kill you here, your son will die rolling on this dusty roof. Don’t make me kill you, old one. Tell me what you know about the Mahitsuri.”
The old dacoit became even paler, if that was possible, and made a mad scamper to get up and run to the door, but the boy’s grip was firm. “I won’t harm you, none will know what you told me. Just tell me what you know and I will leave in peace. You’re sea rats, there is no way something is happening here without you knowing about it.”
“I…don’t know…nothing” the old man gasped, “ Look seaward,… across the town,…temple of…temple of Avayvaruna” and with this, the old man fainted, or perhaps his heart caught up with him and he died, the boy did not stop to check. He put his bloody sword back into the scabbard and made his way out. It was the first time he had been in real combat, but he had trained for this moment ever since he could walk. He couldn’t feel a thing, no regret, guilt, or fear cramped his vision. It was just two half dead goons, and the name of a long abandoned temple. Possibly a false lead, but a lead all the same.
Avayavaruna, avenging deity of the seafaring folk, had a temple on the other side of the Pachali hill, which was a pinch of earth between the river and the sea. It was small as hills go, only half a day’s climb, but forbidding, full of silverback bears who could tear a man in two, and vicious dacoits who could do more. He decided to cross the hill while there was still daylight. He had just cut down two grown men, and he was sure he could do the same again for any man or bear that blocked his path.
Strangely, there were no bears. No animals, in fact. Pachali hill was sinisterly bereft of life. Feeling the evil in the air stronger than ever, the boy climbed on. The sun was already on its way down at his back when he reached the top and looked down. Bakuteshwar looked back at him, a pagan abyss that gave no hint of the civilization that once thrived there. The landscape was littered with flames. Tame flames, not wild ones, as if they were lit for a purpose. He could not make out people, but he knew they were there, dancing, chanting, fornicating, sacrificing, to appease some hideous god. His heart filled with a sudden revulsion, but the boy knew he had no way but forward. The heart of the mystery, he felt sure, lay in Bakuteshwar, in the Avayavaruna temple that he could see in the horizon, lit up by strange, many coloured lights. He could hear faint drumbeats, perhaps from the same direction
It took him a good part of three hours to reach the temple on foot. He could have been quicker, but he walked in stealth, not wanting to start a fight in this grim city. The temple doors were guarded, but he was a climber born, and finding a winding ivy tree along one wall, hauled himself up to a little niche on the wall, from where he could peek through a window.
That there was something weird going on in the temple there was not the least doubt. About 50 men and women, completely naked and covered with what seemed like fish scales, danced in a circle to the beat of a hundred drums that shook the grounds and the walls. In the centre of the circle was a figure. It may have been female, but couldn’t make out clearly because of the bright lights that surrounded her. She shook her hair and banged her head to the beats, occasionally chanting out strange words the boy did not know the meaning of.
There was not much that he could do by himself to stop the revelry, so he found a tree near the premises, climbed high enough to be able to see the temple from all sides, and tried to stay awake.
He had probably not tried hard enough. The day’s exhaustions soon brought sleep to his eyes, and when he awoke, the revellers had already left. He was about to descend from his perch in despair, when he spotted her, walking out of the temple and towards the abandoned beach that framed it. She held a four year old child by hand, it toddled to keep up with her.
The boy couldn’t be sure why he was so certain this was the figure he had seen in the centre of the circle the previous night. Perhaps it was the knee length hair, perhaps the rhythm in her gait. He nimbly descended from the tree and followed her in silence.
By the time he reached the beach, she was already in the water, facing away. The toddler stood on the shore watching her. When they boy came and stood beside him, he silently gave him his hand to hold without even looking up. A trusting child. The boy called at the sea “Woman! Face me!”
It took all the training of his kingship to not lurch and fall at the sight of her face. He knew this face. He loved this face. He had lit incenses to this face every day for the past four years.
“Who are you?! How dare you follow me to my bath, urchin?” she shrieked.
“ A king may go anywhere in his kingdom, as you no doubt know, having been the wife of one and the late lamented mother of another. Why have you been hiding, my mother, all these years? Why did you let us all believe you had jumped into the river with the babe after father’s death?”
The woman was as pale as ice, and her eyes glowed like coal. If she was shocked or surprised, she hid it well.
“You, son of my loins, did you come seeking me?”
“I sought the enemy that is killing innocents in my kingdom, and I found you, lady mother. Explain to your king what he should make of that.
She hissed. “You are no king of mine. You, born of his seed, that ogre. Bairama, my son born of love and passion, he shall be king! When I poisoned your ogre father’s medicines, I just had you to get out of the way, but they suspected, his ministers, and guarded you too well. What choice did I have but to stage our deaths at the river and flee with my lover to his city.”
The boy gripped the tiny hand and hoped he was still sane. “You… you killed my father?”
“I did, brat, and you shall be dead too, you and all your faithful citizens, before this is all over. Bairama shall rule the land, and I, mistress of the Sea Lord, shall rule the sea! I have summoned the Sea Lord, and he has known the love in my eyes. He shall slay my enemies for me, for his queen!”
“Soceress! I feel impure to have been born out of a womb such as yours! Who is this child’s father, then?”
She laughed at his rage. “It was Alankir, your father’s loyal guard. He gave me the love I had never known in your father’s bed. He is a good man and a good father, but he has served his purpose. It is time for me to take a new husband, son.”
The boy did not know what he was going to do till he had actually started doing it. He hefted the child on his back and ran towards the salt cliffs in the distance. His mother would try to chase him, no doubt, but she was a woman, and old, and hindered by her drenched saree. Before she had even made her away out of the sea he had covered two yojans of beach. The woman could never hope to catch up, but he could hear her harpy’s shrieks as he raced to the horizon.
The salt cliffs, so called because of the white and brittle rocks they were made of, hung steeply over the sea. Even the most sure of foot would have trepidations climbing down it on such a squally day, but the boy did not have time for trepidation. He told the child on his back, now whimpering softly, to hang on tightly to him, as he began descending the treacherous rocks. His plan was to hide here till sunset and then somehow take the child back to the capital. With the child held hostage, the mother would be helpless.
Near the middle of the cliff, he came across a very narrow landing where he could stand. His back was aching but he dared not put the child down. He would not have noticed the cavern at all, had it not been for the old man sitting there beckoning at him. His first thought was that this was one of the woman’s followers, but then he remembered Kataki’s voice “Seek out Mushika, the old man in the cavern, he shall give you light”
The cavern was a perfect circle, and the old man was not so much old as ancient, though his face was unwrinkled and this beard black. “Are… are you Mushika?” the boy ventured. The old man wagged his beard happily, “He is! He is indeed Mushika, rat of the sea, older than old, colorer of the sunrise. And today he meets a King! A King, and a King to be!”
“Can you show me light, Mushika?”
“The King is surrounded by light, and yet he seeks more! He came seeking blood and it is blood he found!” the old man wagged his head towards Bairama and cackled some more.
“Mushika, tell me how to stop my mother and the Mahitsuri. I command you”
Mushika’s cackling abruptly stopped, though his toothless grin stayed upon his face. “This King lives on commands, but that king knows only love and hate. It is love that rides him today, but imagine, boy, what could happen if that love were to turn to hate” He waved his hands in the Boy King’s face, “Think, boy, think, what would your father have done if he had discovered your mother with her lover?”
Comprehension washed the boys mind as suddenly and a softly as dawn in a dark forest. He knew what he must do, but not how. “Mushika, I have no men, no army, how can I do this alone?”
Mushika grinned hideously. “A king is never alone, boy, and all his subjects are his army. They sent you their dead to bring you out of their palace, do you think they would deny you their living when you needed them?” With this, the old man reached into the cave and brought out a headstrap fashioned from driftwood and seaweed. It was rotten and stinkful, but on the King’s head, it became a crown.
The rest was easy. The boy found his way to the coastal village through the tunnel Mushika showed him. The fishermen bowed to his crown and pledged their lives in his service. The child’s parents came rushing when they were sent news of his wherewithal. They had expected to find his kidnapper alone, but instead found themselves faced with a hundred strong army of glistening muscular men with nets and spears in hand. They had been decked in bridal wear and trussed in the most loverlike pose that could be forced out of them, and had been placed writhing and whimpering on a large rock hanging out on the sea. Mushika had said that her smell would summon the Sea Lord as no chants ever could. Now there was just the wait.
It was not a long wait, though it seemed forever. The moon had already climbed half the sky when the sea began to swell like a pregnant whale. Mightily, regally, gigantically, the Mahitsuri rose from the waters to see his lover in the arms of a mortal, and roared his rage. the sound was like a million bulls bellowing together, it shook the very foundations of the earth and the sea.
They said the Mahitsuri could slay with his stone cold stare, that he could breathe fire to immolate ships yojans away, but he did none of these things. He opened his mouth, like a hundred-foot tall cave lined with swords, and swallowed the rock, with the sacrifices on it, whole. The boy, crouching behind a boulder, could not make out if the demon chewed or swallowed, but he began to writhe, groaning his heartbreak to the unsympathetic moon. he let out a wail like a storm, and thrashing his tail once just hard enough to break off a piece of the beach, collapsed on the rocks.
It would be morning before anybody had the courage to approach the gigantic, unmoving body. There was no life in it. The Mahitsuri could not be slain by arrows or cannons or swords, but he had made the mistake of falling in love, and this morning he lay on the beach, heartbroken, forlorn, with eyes that once held fire but now were as dead as .. as.. as…