Book 3 | Chapter 4 | Dense Shrubs
The boat danced on the gentle waves. No one would have guessed that, just a few days ago, the waves had been the height of coconut trees. Poonkuzhali was manning the oars. Vandhiyathevan and Prince Arulmozhi Varman had deep conversations about what to do after reaching Kodikkarai.
Vandhiyathevan was trying hard to talk the Prince into going to Pazhayarai and meeting his sister first. The Prince was arguing against it, because he wanted to first meet the Emperor, as per his orders.
“Just think about whether you would like to go and see the Emperor as a free man, or a prisoner of the Pazhuvettarayars. If word gets out about the latter, this Chozhanaadu would rise in rebellion. You know how much the people love you. Do you want to be responsible for an uprising?”
This made the Prince rethink his decision about going to Thanjavur.
“Vandhiyatheva, that does seem to be correct. I do not want to cause an uprising. Even if we do want to go to Pazhayarai, how would we be able to do it? I am sure the Pazhuvettarayar would have his soldiers posted all along the Kodikkarai coast line.”
“Sire, we do not need to worry about that. Poonkuzhali would get us into the shrub forests of Kodikkarai without anyone knowing. Would you not do that for the Prince, Poonkuzhali?”
“If we row further westward of Kodikkarai, there is a canal that joins the sea. Both sides of this canal are filled with dense shrub forests. No one will even notice us there.”
“Great. Once we get into that canal, you can leave us in a discreet place, and head to the lighthouse to find out the happenings there.”
The Prince sighed. “Hmm, you are making me enter discretely and hide like a common criminal, in my own motherland.”
Silence enveloped the craft for a little while.
And then the Prince spoke in a feeble voice – “I think I will neither reach Kodikkarai nor Thanjavur. I think I will reach Lord Shiva at Kailasam directly.”
Vandhiyathevan and Poonkuzhali looked in horror at the Prince, who was now shivering uncontrollably. His body was shaking. Vandhiyathevan touched the Prince’s forehead, and it was scorching.
The Prince continued, “I think I have the fever that was spreading all across Lanka, the one I told you about, the other day. Take me to my sister. Take me to Princess Kundavai.”
The Prince became delirious and started screaming – “Akka, I am coming. I am coming to you. No one can stop me now.”
He tried to jump into the water. Poonkuzhali and Vandhiyathevan restrained him and made him lie down on the craft. The Prince was babbling incoherently.
Vandhiyathevan decided that it was now his responsibility to care for the Prince.
“Poonkuzhali, take the craft quickly to the canal you mentioned.”
Soon, they started nearing the shore, and saw a large vessel. Vandhiyathevan could see the stone lighthouse in the distance.
“I can see a lot of soldiers on top of the lighthouse intently searching the seas for something,” said Poonkuzhali.
“Will they be able to see us, Poonkuzhali?”
“Not yet. But they will be able to, if we go any closer. I think it is best if we go to the canal that I mentioned earlier.”
“Where does that canal lead to, Poonkuzhali?”
“It goes all the way to Nagapattinam.”
The Prince suddenly woke up and mumbled – “Akka, you were right. What the Buddhist monks from Nagapattinam told you was right. The monks in Anuradhapuram did offer me the Lankan throne. I denied it. I do not have the desire to rule a kingdom, Akka. You ask me to do anything else, I will do it for you. It is so exciting to sail the open seas. Did I tell you about this girl from Kodikkarai?”
Poonkuzhali was filled with anticipation and happiness. She and Vandhiyathevan looked at the Prince, waiting to see what he was going to say next.
The Prince suddenly regained consciousness, looked around, and feebly asked – “Have we not reached Kodikkarai yet?”
Before Vandhiyathevan could answer his question, the Prince became unconscious.
Poonkuzhali was ashamed of what the Prince had mentioned last. She couldn’t face Vandhiyathevan. She focused on her rowing. The sun was about to set, and darkness was waiting to envelope the world. The craft entered the canal that Poonkuzhali had deftly navigated towards. Just as she had described, it had dense vegetation on both sides.
She pulled into a small opening in the bank and said in a soft voice – “Please take care of the craft. I will be right back.”
She jumped on to the shore, and climbed the nearest tree, to the top, and looked around. She came down quickly.
“Thank goodness, we did not go to Kodikkarai. The place is teeming with soldiers. There is a watch on the coastline for as far as the eye can see. Let us go further into the canal. I know a safe place, where I will leave the boat with both of you. I will then go quickly to my house near the lighthouse, and try to find more information.”
“Please take care when you go. What will happen if you get caught? What will happen to the two of us? We will be in big trouble.”
“I have never feared for my life before. But now, I am afraid. I need to take care of myself, for the sake of the Prince.”
She swiftly paddled up the canal. Darkness was quickly falling upon them. She pulled up the craft into a small cove of sorts. She jumped swiftly on to land, and started walking briskly. In open spaces, she even sprinted a bit. She headed straight towards the Kuzhagar Kovil.
She reached the temple, just as the temple priest was locking the main doors. She looked around to ensure that no one else was present. She went and stood in front of the priest, who did get startled for a moment.
“Oh, it is you, Poonkuzhali. For a minute, I thought it was somebody else. Kodikkarai is just filled with so many people now. Where have you been? I was thinking about you, even today.”
“I was out of town, Swami. I heard about the commotion in town, and hence thought I would come and ask you about it. Who are all these people?”
“Oh, you do not know anything then? Did you not go home?”
“I went home, and saw too many unknown people. You know how much I dislike unknown people around me. That is why I came here.”
“The Periya Pazhuvettarayar is here. His queen Nandini Devi is also here. Parthibendra Pallavan from Kanchipuram is also here. That is his ship anchored off the shore. He has come with very bad news.”
“Oh! What kind of bad news, Swami?”
“It seems Prince Arulmozhi was also with him in the ship, which got caught in a squall in the middle of the sea. Apparently, the Prince wanted to save someone and jumped into the sea, and was never found after that. All these people are hoping that the Prince will wash up on this shore.”
He continued, “The Pazhuvoor Rani came to pray in our temple, a little while ago. What people say about her seems to be wrong. She is so concerned about Ponniyin Selvan. She came here to pray to Kuzhagar that the Prince should be found alive. Not everyone can be as stone-hearted as you. I have told you such news about the Prince, and you do not seem perturbed?”
“Sir, what is the use of me getting perturbed? You have only taught me that everything is controlled by fate. Anyway, I do not wish to go home, with so much commotion around. Can you please give me the prasadam of the day? I will eat it and stay here in the temple itself.”
“You are a different species. Most people want to go and see prominent people. You run away from all unknown people. Here, take the prasadam. Be careful.”
She heard the sound of an owl hooting. She stopped and listened. She took the prasadam and headed towards the sound of the owl hooting. Thorns scratched her as she made her way through thick vegetation. She kept walking. She heard two people talking in low voices. She heard a man’s voice and a woman’s.
“Oh magician! Everyone, including you, believes that the Prince died in the middle of the sea. The Periya Pazhuvettarayar also believes that news. But I do not believe it.”