By Sangeetha G
It was one of those harshest summer days. The simmering hot sun was sucking up the remaining moisture from the already parched soldiers. The small contingent of infantry, cavalry and elephants led by King Mahendra himself was moving at a snail’s pace. The elephants and horses kicked up the dry soil, which formed a cloud of dust. The whole unit was moving inside a red cloud of dust.
The purpose of their mission was accomplished, but no one cared to rejoice in the victory. They did not attach much significance to the events in the battlefield. It was the eighth time they had defeated the neighbouring state. Every move of the other side was as familiar as the back of their hands. There was nothing new or exciting about the battle. King Jayavandan of the neighbouring state never wanted to accept defeat. He continued his incursions into the border areas of the princely state of Rajgarh. Eighth time, King Mahendra decided to put an end to it by finishing off the king. He had pardoned Jayavandan seven times and let him off with stern warnings. This time, he himself led the unit, asking the Commander-in-Chief of the army to stay back in the capital city.
Soon, the flag of Rajgarh, atop the fort and the canon-mounted bastions, became visible from a distance. As they got nearer, the drawbridge over the moat was lowered and the fort gate opened with a giant creaking noise. The guards bowed their heads to pay their respects to the King. Once the King was in, the door once again creaked as it shut behind him.
The soldiers, horses and the elephants moved towards the western gate and entered the other side of the fort. The stables for horses and elephants, the ammunition storage room, jail and the soldier quarters were closer to the western gate.
The King on horseback moved towards the large palace that stood tall at the centre of the fort. On one side, was a temple and a durbar hall on the other.
As he alighted from the horse, his younger brother Prince Upendra came out of the palace and walked towards him. Midway, he signalled to the guards on both sides. The guards moved fast with their drawn swords and circled Mahendra. It took just a second for Mahendra to realise that it was a coup.
A large contingent led by the commander-in-chief took control of the situation. The soldiers lined up behind him. By then, the prime minister and the members of the ministerial council stood on either side of Prince Upendra.
“Chain him,’’ Upendra ordered. Mahendra clasped his hands as the soldiers handcuffed him and clamped iron chains around his wrists. They led him towards Upendra.
“From now on, I am the King of Rajgarh. The entire administration is under my control. Those who have objections, can raise their hands,” he said to a group of people who stood in pin-drop silence.
Mahendra too maintained a stoic silence. He stood calm and composed. There was no sign of anger or shock on his face. He looked at the people who stood around him.
“Put him in jail. Two days later he will be executed,” Upendra announced. As a customary obligation towards a dying man, he asked: “Do you have any last wish?”
Mahendra looked around and pointed his finger towards a guard and said, “He will die with me.”
Everyone turned their heads towards the guard in dismay. The guard stood shell-shocked.
“Take them,” Upendra ordered. As the soldiers held him and dragged him after Mahendra towards the jail, the guard kept on pleading innocence. “I have done no wrong. Please spare me. I have a family to take care of,” he cried aloud.
Inside the jail cell, Mahendra walked up and down. His life resurfaced before his eyes — one episode after another. When he thought about his father, he saw his 10-year-old self staring at the royal court from near the throne. His father sat on the throne exuding power and authority. When he remembered his father, his heart swelled with the same pride he had felt decades ago.
The next scene that rushed into his mind without an invitation was not a pleasant one. People inside the palace were running out towards the gate of the fort. There was a commotion and he could hear women crying. As the fort gate opened, he saw his father’s mutilated body being brought back from the battle ground.
He remembered the day when he moved out of the large palace along with his mother and brother, to the servants’ quarters. It was after his uncle’s ascension to the throne. The new queen’s servants came into the palace room and asked them to move out. He had never seen anybody talk rudely to his mother till that day. The servants did not even allow them to pick up their essential things. Bare-handed, they moved into a dingy room in the servants’ quarters.
He thought about the secret meetings with the generals in the army and with King Jayavandan of the neighbouring state, promising him a few villages along the border in return for a favour. That was just before his uncle’s last battle. Then he remembered with pride the day when he walked up the steps, which took him to the throne. He sat on the throne like his father decades ago and looked around at the royal court. It had completely changed in the intervening years.
A soldier interrupted his chain of memories. The soldier walked up to him and announced: “The royal priest is here. He wants to meet you.” He unlocked the door of the jail cell for the royal priest.
Mahendra stood up to show respect for the royal priest. He was an old lean man with overflowing grey hair and beard that gave him a saintly look. The priest held his hand and said, “This has been quite unfortunate. Everything happened in such a short time. I had no inkling about what was happening behind the scenes.”
“You should not worry. I have reconciled to this reality,” Mahendra said.
“Don’t you feel betrayed by Upendra?” he asked.
“This is the life of a king. I had a predecessor and the moment I ascended the throne, I knew I would have a successor. When you climb the steps pushing someone down, it is certain that someday someone else will push you too. That is how power works. I had visualised this scene several times in my mind. Just that, it was not clear who would replace me,” Mahendra said.
“What about the ministers and the Commander-in-Chief?” the priest asked.
“They serve the throne and not me. They also have to look for their own personal gains. Plants grow around the tree when it falls.” Mahendra was more philosophical than what the priest had imagined him to be.
“Why did you wish death for the guard? Everyone found it intriguing. You would have never noticed him. You don’t know him, leave alone having any enmity with him,” the priest was curious.
“When the new king ordered death for me, I was looking around. Upendra’s face was filled with jealousy. He is still jealous of me, of my greatness and my achievements. He would have usurped the power, but he still feels that I am much mightier than him. It made me feel good.” Mahendra’s face filled with pride.
“Then I looked at the prime minister and the other ministers. They had hung their heads in shame. They never looked up. Despite supporting Upendra, they continued to feel that I was right and what had happened to me was unjust. The Commander-in-Chief had a frigid expression on his face, revealing his helplessness towards what was happening around. I looked at the soldiers. Most of them were in a shocked state. When they looked at me, I understood that they still had immense respect for their deposed king.”
“Among them, I saw only one scornful face. This guard – he was in fact sneering at me. I accepted jealousy and treachery. They always come along with power. That will never diminish your greatness. But that sneer. It made me feel like a despicable creature. It stripped me off the pride I had carried all through my life. One day I would relinquish the throne and one day I would leave this world — that was certain and I was prepared to face them. But, I wanted to leave behind an image for posterity – that of a great ruler and a powerful king with awe-inspiring achievements. While looking back at the history of Rajgarh, I would shine as the mightiest king. I could not afford to give an opportunity to even a single person to think lowly of me,” Mahendra said.
The guard interrupted them. “The Commander-in-Chief says your visiting time is over, Royal Priest,” he said as humbly as possible. The priest walked out of the room as the door closed behind him.
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Sangeetha G is an Assistant Editor with Deccan Chronicle newspaper in India. She writes on business-related news and has over 20 years of experience in mainstream media, including visual media, news agency and newspaper. Her short fiction has been published in the literary magazine ‘Indian Review’.
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