The Queen and the Concubine
by Jyotirmoyee Devi Sen
“Everybody heaps blame on us,” Nalini’s grandmother said. “They say that nowadays children are so restless that they cannot sit still for even a moment. All day long, two girls, each holding one end, keep whirring a rope round and round through which another child jumps till she is flushed and breathless. As for the boys, we hear nothing but the clickety-clack of counters sliding on the wooden surface of carrom boards.
“Our folklore no longer interests you. For medicine, we have always taken dried, crushed leaves from the kalmegh tree, but now none of you will swallow anything unless it comes in a glass bottle. Although I must say that some of you can still create the traditional alpona patterns, at times. Come autumn, why not decorate this house for the Lakshmi Puja celebration?
“Anyhow, it’s getting dark—you kids should all take a break from your hectic games, pull out some mats, spread yourselves out, and hear some tales.”
Those engaged in the frenetic activities took a pause and laughed. “All right, why don’t you tell us a story?”
* * *
Grandma shut her volume of the epic Mahabharata with a snap and took off her glasses. “Once upon a time . . .”
“Goodness,” a grandson said, “another fairy tale.”
His older brother nudged him. “Be quiet.”
“There was a king and he had four queens,” continued the narrator, unperturbed. “His wives were from powerful neighboring kingdoms, and their fathers had bestowed upon them, as part of their dowries, vast sums of money as well as a trove of gold, diamonds, and pearls befitting a Rajput royal. To the ruler, of course, this was mere spare change. Each bride also brought with her about a hundred beautiful ladies-in-waiting.”
“Did the ranis ever get pocket money?” asked the youngest child in the audience.
“An allowance, my dear? They had their own expense accounts, granted directly to them from the treasury. Royalty lived in great style. They owned motorcars, stables of elephants, fleets of steeds, and an army of servants.”
“I have never heard of a fairy tale with cars in it.”
“Well, your mother and aunts glimpsed gleaming Rolls-Royces when they visited the palace recently,” Grandma said. “The monarch had his own private polo grounds too.
“These ladies, however, despite their untold wealth, nursed secret sorrows. Their husband seldom, if ever, visited them. He was taken up with hunting and horseback riding, and his many concubines demanded a lot of his attention.
“The queens found time hanging heavy on their hands. What do you think they did? Spend it squabbling with each other? They did not even have that pleasure, since each rani had her own villa, palanquin, female guards, and an enormous retinue of maids and attendants. And who would they quarrel over? Their spouse belonged to no one. None of them had any children, so they could not occupy themselves engaging in petty rivalries either.
“Glittering in rubies, emeralds, and other gemstones set in pure gold, swathed in fine silks, they lay languidly against their cushions day by day, at times conversing with their handmaidens, or nibbling sweetmeats and sipping cool drinks made from freshly squeezed limes. Sometimes, a hidden longing could be seen lurking in the depths of their eyes.”
“Why were they so sad?” asked a preteen.
“Oh, they did not remain unhappy for long. They were, after all, well-educated women, unlike us folks. To while away their hours, they held pageants and dance dramas in their own sumptuous villas. To do that, however, they were still required to obtain the express permission of the monarch himself. His Majesty was always invited as their most honored guest, and it was only on these occasions that each consort enjoyed the pleasure of her husband’s company.”
The old lady smoothed her hair, sat back, and began her story.
* * *
Tales from the ancient Hindu epics were usually enacted; stories from the Ramayana, the celestial romance of Radha and Krishna, and the valorous deeds of Dhruva and young Prahlad were very popular. The queens themselves, with the assistance of some of their ladies-in-waiting, chor-eographed the performances. The artistes were all women of the royal residence; none of them had known any other life. Destitute villagers eagerly sold their better-looking daughters to swell the harem ranks, while others freely deposited them at the castle gates. Each princess bride, as part of her dowry, brought over a multitude of female attendants, and it was from among these girls that dancers were culled.
One day, the maharani wished to host a musical soirée, and at her bidding, the senior-most aide, a corpulent and majestic woman, sought His Majesty’s consent from the eunuch. The royal permission duly arrived, and she went around the vast palace precincts to personally invite all the harem inhabitants.
Upon nightfall, the junior queens began arriving in silver palanquins. Their ladies-in-waiting and maids sped in happy anticipation through the dark labyrinthine alleyways where at each turning stood huge oil lamps. These were gigantic, shallow, earthenware or stone containers filled with gallons of the flammable liquid in which swam handmade cotton wicks, each as thick as a human finger. The flames flickered and cast a pallid glow. The king’s concubines, too, had been invited, and there were some in this throng who spoke of phantom spirits seen in recent weeks in these inky corridors.
A stripling of a youth fidgeted with the edge of a large woven mat. “Tell us a ghost story instead.”
“I don’t know any,” Grandma said. “Don’t be so restless, my lad, and listen to my tale.”
* * *
It was close upon eleven o’clock at night when the performance began. The sovereign and his wives reclined at ease against their silk cushions on the divans. The maharaja sat at the center, with the queens to his right; the maharani, the highest-ranking woman, occupied a seat next to her consort. The courtesans took their places on his left.
Talented young women enacted the story of Dhruva for almost two hours. Costume colors, like uniforms, distinguished each troupe. The maharani’s dancers shimmered in pale gold, the second queen’s artistes glided in mauve, while the third rani’s team pirouetted in eggshell blue, and finally, the fourth royal’s group swayed in the hues of freshly sprouted banana leaves. Their attire consisted of form-fitting blouses and ankle-length, flowing skirts gathered tightly at the waist. A long, filmy stretch of cloth draped their coiffed heads and bosoms.
The episodes in the play of Suruchi’s jealous rage at her stepson Dhruva, the child’s tears and search for solace from his mother, Suniti, and his eventual banishment into the forest; later, seeing the vision of Lord Narayana in the woods: All these scenes were part of the drama. Court musicians and singers accompanied the rendition.
The royal personages as well as the invitees gazed in rapt attention at the series of tableaux.
Around this time, food began arriving from the kitchens. Eunuchs and maids stepped forward with silver salvers filled with thirty to forty minuscule bowls or katories containing many kinds of curried vegetables and placed them on low tables set before the sovereign and his wives. Pilaf and puffed fried breads lay on each platter as well. Puddings and sweets came in separate dishes. There were so many scrumptious things to eat, most beyond the wildest dreams of ordinary folk.
The king periodically nibbled at the savories, all the while observing the dancers and making an occasional remark to the maharani.
Crimson streaks rippled across the eastern sky. Nightingales, nestled inside golden cages, trilled, and cockatoos, tied by their feet to long silver chains, rustled their wings. Richly plumed peacocks roosting on the rooftop gardens awoke to another day with their haunting cries. The oil lamps flickered and dimmed, and still the dancers danced.
In the flowerpots nearby, buds burst open in the cool morning air. Suddenly, the sun emerged from the rose-blushed clouds hanging thick over the hills.
Eyes heavy with sleep, the royals watched the finale, as one by one each danseuse approached their majesties, made their deep obeisances, and, still facing them, walked backwards out of the courtyard.
The maharaja sat lost in thought. All of a sudden he asked his queen, “Where did you get that singer?”
“The one who played the part of Suniti?”
“My father bought her for me when she was a young girl. She has just begun learning some intricate steps.”
“She is a pretty thing. And dances too?” The king paused for a moment. “What is her name?”
A frown creased his wife’s brow. “Kesar.”
The monarch, oblivious to his consort’s displeasure, cleared his throat. “She sings beautifully. If you will lend her to me, she can give voice lessons to some of my courtesans.”
The lady remained silent. Then she turned and faced him. “Why, your favorite, Sumeru, is most accomplished, she can teach your women just as well as Kesar can.”
His companion lowered her eyes and remained silent for a long moment. “No, you may not have her.”
Her husband refrained from further comment. The maharani was a king’s daughter, and by both birth and breeding, no less his equal.
The festivities came to a close. The principal consort took her customary leave of the sovereign and his retinue and retired to her chambers.
* * *
“Then what happened?” the children said. Some among them asked, “Why didn’t she give him the girl?”
The storyteller smiled and shrugged. “Who knows why?”
Copyright © 2019. The Queen and the Concubine by Jyotirmoyee Devi Sen