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 KARIKALAN' KAATHAL 

It was deep mid night. In Thanjai, the capital city of the great South Indian Chola empire, an unearthly silence reigned everywhere. Piercing the cumbrous pall of night , a shriek was heard inside the palace. "Murder...treason...my sons.." A wild tumult followed as attendants rushed into the sick chamber of the ailing emperor.

The Chola emperor was lying upon an ebony bed outstretched. His eyes were bent, fixed before him. The cadaverousness of his complexion increased as he gaspingly addressed the fancied phantoms in the hollow space in awe-stricken loud cries. "Yes...yes...I confess... I killed you... but don't wreak revenge upon my innocent sons...I plead with you..." A shudder crept over his emaciated frame and he sunk into the pillow.

A distraught princess Kunthavi approached the bed and sat gently by his side. The emperor grasped her trembling fingers and pressed them to his heaving bosom. "Daughter, sit with me...my mortal body has long been stricken with the hand of deadly decay. I need to relieve my heart of this ponderous oppression of guilt. I have terrible secrets to reveal before death extinguishes this nebulous light of my soul" Here, his habitual trepidancy increased and his voice reached a tremulous indecision. His thin, pallid lips moved . "Kunthavi, let not Karikalan touch this accursed crown. Let not the curse I had invoked fall on him...save your brother...."

The lamps burned flickeringly and a  strong gust entered the pent-up chamber. A spasm of coughs escaped the withering monarch. He sank into a delirium and his lips moved in a low, hurried and gibbering murmur as if unconscious of his daughter's presence."Yes... I can see her..all innocence and unsurpassable beauty. Saving me from the wild bear in the desolate, dreary island.. she soothed my spirit burning with the defeat at that disastrous battle...yes, I fell in love with her...I found a wild delight..wild passions, yet, pure and ecstatic.. but it didn't last. Soon the horrid news of my father's fatality reached me...I was forced to return home.. assume the throne and receive a bride of royal blood..I betrayed her love.. broke all the holy vows.. it was treacherous.. But the miserable wretch whom I betrayed didn't leave me.. I lost my peace to Vulcan..she haunted me. For twenty years she has afflicted my heart, like a deadly pestilence." Here, the agonised emperor ceased to talk abruptly and turned towards his bewildered daughter.

Tears were streaming down Kunthavi's face as she trembled in fearful agitation. She leaned over him and large tears fell upon his quivering arm and startled him." Dearest daughter, How your earnest love and sorrow soothe my soul! Kunthavi, I am fast sinking into death. Urge Karikalan to come to Thanjai immediately..." With a low moaning cry, Kunthavi fell on her knees and  begged " Father, would you demand him to renounce his birth right? Won't that be an unconscionably cruel demand of your son?" A sickly sad and self-reproachful smile quivered about her father's lips and his beseeching eyes hovered her face."Yes daughter, I will inflict that terrible wrong to my own flesh and blood...but to protect him from the blood lust of my tormentor...to prevent this curse from descending upon him..." He then frantically searched beneath his withered pillow and procured a torn portrait . " It is a drawing of my tormenter Kunthavi, in which I indulged myself during one of those traumatising sleepless nights."

With trembling fingers the princess opened the portrait and as her eyes fell on the immortal beauty delienated in human art, her countenance suddenly and vehemently changed.A galvanic shock pervaded her whole frame, and her eyes were filled with  horror. Greatly agitated she slowly withdrew to a window. Outside a storm was rising and the air suddenly became insufferably hot . Kunthavi  suffocated and her countenance became fearfully pallid. She listened to the low sounds of her father's tremulous breathing and her bloodless lips quivered " He will father, he will...although for another dark and hideous reason..".

 
 

Kadamboor. The luxurious chamber of queen Nanthini, the beautiful young wife of the aged king of Kadamboor. She was sitting upon a couch, her large and lustrous eyes rivetted upon the rapier that was lying on her lap. Her agitated fingers fondly caressed the serpent -like metal, and a deep tremulous sigh escaped her bosom. Half sitting and half reclining, her ethereal beauty was overwhelming. She slowly lifted her appealing eyes to the ceiling , and her countenance suffered a convulsive change. As if buried in a mesmeric trance, her lips trembled and addressed a bloody head, wildest of all sublunary visions. " I will fulfil my promise my dearest, I will prove to be faithful unto death ...cease haunting me and afflicting me with your beseeching eyes." An inexpressible misery of the soul lurked in her eyes as her cheeks burned with her tears.

Very suddenly, the low, distinct howl of an owl was heard without the wall behind the canopy of her bed. Startled from her reveries, Nanthini looked around and lowering her voice said "Come in". Slowly a trap- door within the wall opened and two fiery eyes appeared. Following them appeared a gaunt and unnaturally tall man  enshrouded in a sable pall. As the shroud covered his whole stature nothing of his features could be detected except that his leg was a little lame and he suppported himself with an unknown animal's large thigh bone.The goggle eyes of this mysterious arrival  reddened and Nanthini grew pallid and stood aghast at his furious gaze.

"Treacherous woman..you dared to mar the prosecution of my schemes with your debaucheries.You have freed that infernal worm and saved him from my claws.." with these words the mysterious arrival began chanting wild incantations. Terrified, Nanthini closed her ears with her trembling fingers and said "Have you unsettled your intellect Sorcerer? Why do you chastise me with your heat-oppressed brain? And why did you come here at this moment?" The Sorcerer's voice hoarsened and his eyes devoured her as he said "I am not here under any grand commission to meet her majesty the queen of Kadamboor Nanthini! I came to warn the wretched destitute whom I once saved from a burning pyre which she was doomed to enter,of the dire consequences awaiting her.Nanthini,the Chola spies are on my trail.I have exerted all my powers to escape them. If you fail in your cause,venomous snake,and if time had effected any material change in the nature of your feelings,my rapier is ravenous to drink your blood".

Nanthini shuddered and her eyes burned with fervid hatred as she said "Dispel your mad fears Ravithasan.Don't dare to exercise your powers over me. At any moment my husband might appear to take leave of me before his journey to the  accursed Thanjai". A laugh from the Sorcerer interrupted her and curdled her blood."Dare not nurture vanity any more, woman! That dying emperor has fallen prey to my metaphysicalpowers. Not to your arts over your ailing husband" gnarled Ravithasan and with a gesture of petulant impatience said "Get me another bagful of gold,wretch".

Confounded,appalled and subdued, Nanthini turned her  face away from him and  took out a small ebony casket.Handing it over to the wolfish Sorcerer she merely said "Will there be no end for your gold lust? When will it  satiate?".Seizing it by the hinder part, the Sorcerer replied only in a fiendish shriek and passed swiftly from the chamber and disappeared via the trap-door.The wild howl of an owl was was heard indistinctly beyond the walls,and Nanthini sank into her couch,her face buried in her dishevelled hair and trembling palms.

 

Kanji.The northern harbour town of the Chola empire, where the forces under the command of Crown prince Karikalan were stationed,stood erect inspiring a majestic awe in the hearts of the onlookers.It was the first half of night. A full red moon was shining vividly and a fine fire blazed outside the tents and  the soldiers were gathered around it.All were clad in traditional udai and were  indulging in warrior songs and lyre.Yet,a gloomy spell resided with the pair who were sitting side by side on the low,irregular rocks facing the sea.The brights rays of the moon fell upon them and revealed the figures to be the Crown prince and his companion.

The billows roared furiously.A tumultous sigh escaped Karikalan's hollow bosom and he pressed the hand of  the other whom he addressed as Vanthi. The Crown prince was in his late twenties and his face was handsome.It illustrated the possession of unusual powers of mind, yet indicated a subjugation to perverse moods of misanthropy and morbity.Vanthi was younger than the prince and his face was more handsome.His features revealed an intolerable weight of anxiety in his mind as he silently listened to the other.

Karikalan gazed at the two letters in his each hand and the wild reverbation of the surf resembled his frenzied delirium as he spoke. " My fate is doomed my dearest friend.And I fear that even your valiant efforts and my sister's love cannot amend it." His head drooped to his bosom and he seemed to be listening to a whisper which Vanthi couldn't hear.Erecting his frame,he raised his disquieted eyes towards the other and commenced"I was once blessed with a treasure that could now be found only within the abyss Vanthi.You will conceive me to be somewhat unsettled in intellect and heartless in refusing my beloved sister's pleadings. I can't come to Thanjai. My fate is long sealed.Long...even when I first set my eyes on the ethereal beauty residing in a poor fisher's girl in my adolescence."

Vanthi sat rigid and his eyes were averted from the prince.Karikalan continued agitatedly."Oft you have pressed me to reveal my heart Vanthi.But now,when I do, you dare not wish to hear it.I shall not name her,lest my agonised heart would burst and give away.But,you shall hear the tale of my doomed love Vanthi,and then you shall not urge me to return to Thanjai." He stood up and staggared towards the sea.His hollow eyes were glued to the filmy sky." She was of low-birth Vanthi, or so it was thought since her true parentage was never discovered.And,her foster parents were fishermen.I soon discovered that my royal blood stood between me attaining my bliss.She,whom I idolised, lured my heart with her unsurpassable beauty and the more enduring graces of her soul.I was tormented between passionate hopes and despair awaiting her response when she disappeared suddenly...snatched away from me by the cruel death which a sudden illness inflicted,so I was told by her anxious parents.

Distraught in misery I would have discarded my life to seek my angel in the hollow vale of death...Yet,the war intervened and duty called upon my soul. For three long and traumatising years I fought.A fire was enkindled in me and my spirit writhed in it.At last, the Pandiya king was routed and fled.In the wild intoxication of victory we decided to pursue his trail.In a dreary desert under a burning sun we searched for him...Soon I was separated from the others and alone followed a mass of bloody hoof prints upon the ground.Soon they led me to a desolate hut.

Upon reaching it I hesitated at the threshold.An inexpressible fear seized and numbed my heart.Yet,dismissing it as a fit of cowardice,  I looked into the eye-like wooden window.There,to my profound astonishment,I saw my idol- whom I have long thought dead- treating a wounded Pandiya king who was lying on a rugged bed. Her face shone in an unearthly placid beauty which I hitherto hadn't witnessed in her.The sight filled me with unqualified passion and maddening rage.I rushed headlong against the door and burst it open.I staggered into the  hut drawing my sword above my head. Beholding me,she ran towards me and fell on her knees and begged for his life. "He is my lover- he has given me life...spare his life for me whom you have once confessed to love" she pleaded.

I felt a forbidden fire enkindle within me. An inexpressible madness seized me.Had my enemy coveted my whole empire,I would have easily forgiven him.But he had robbed me of the idol whom I cherished in my soul.Burning with jealousy and hatred, I pushed her aside.Bestiality overcame me.One bound and I had reached the wounded man and beheaded him.

At that moment,my companions rushed into the hut, and beholding the beheaded enemy they roared violently and a great havoc of joy ensued.But my heart was in a great convulsion.I couldn't meet her eyes which burnt in fierce hatred and vengeance.I felt a terrible indictment upon my soul.Ashamed of my fiendish conduct I immediately left the hut and was overwhelmed by others' triumphant cries.I returned to the hut secretly the same night after everyone was wrappped in sleep. But alas! The hut was set on fire and I stood there aghast."

At this moment a warcry was heard from the soldiers and the triumphant music blast the air. Violently awoken from his wild dreams, the prince sprang to his feet.His eyes shone in a  mysterious glare as he turned towards Vanthi and passionately said "The call is distinct Vanthi.It is excruciating, turning the most exquisite of my dreams into the most hideous and most insufferable. Yet, I shall respond to it.I go to Kadamboor  to end my agony.I go with an unflinching heart to meet my cruel fate. Farewell my dearest friend, farewell." The prince's  face was distorted in acute agony.Thoroughly unnerved by his tale and his last words, Vanthi also rose slowly.Karikalan embraced him warmly and led him to the horse which was patiently awaiting for him.Casting a last gaze at his beloved master, Vanthi took hold of the whip and the horse galloped away.The prince stood there erect , his bosom struggling to overcome the terror which suddenly pervaded his whole frame.The sea roared loudly reflecting on the unfathomable nature of  the human heart which hid immense misery and dark deadly secrets.

 

Three days after his last meeting with the prince,before sunset Vanthi's horse reached Kadamboor. He stopped at the main road about nine milesaway from the fortress and gazed at the lofty and ponderous walls that engirdled it.And with a sigh he turned his horse and entered a seemingly impenetrable coppice.Scrambling his way through the gnarled trees, after an hour's travelling he reached a desolate wrecked shrine in the inmost recesses of the woods.

Alighting from the exhausted horse,Vanthi set it free near a stream hidden amongst trees.Then he returned to the shrine and waited for the sun to sink completely.It was a day of remarkable chill that increased the eerieness of the atmosphere. Soon a crescent moon rose in the sky and emitted its pale rays.His long patient awaiting was not futile.Soon a grating sound like that of the creaking of stones was heard beneath the ground. At first it was low but grew in volume and heard distinctly.While Vanthi was eagerly awaiting,the ground under the wooden image of dwarf, which stood for decorative purposes at the frontyard, moved and  a head slowly emerged.Its goggle eyes stared cautiously all around. Vanthi hid himself more behind the nearby tree and waited for the possessor of the head to come out.He was a short, corpulent man who helda lamp.As he bent near the dwarf and strenuously began to turn the bottom part of the image to close the trap-door Vanthi sprang to his feet and hurled himself upon him.A short fight ensued at the end of which he bound the man with a heavy rope to a gigantic tree.Taking up the light which hadn't died out fortunately he descended cautiously  into the tunnel.

The steps were hard  and Vanthi passed down them with great difficulty. At the foot of the descent he came to  damp ground.After about twenty minutes of walking in the musty long and narrow path,groping the rough walls which smelt of pestilence,he at length ascended some steps.At the next instance, many goggle unearthly eyes were glaring at him.

The horrible sight thrilled him to the very marrow of his bones and he dropped the lamp.With loud, furious shrieks that pierced the air, the gruesome animals bound at him and seized him.With the faint light of the flambeaux which one of the unearthly beings held high, Vanthi perceived that he had entered the hunters'chamber of the Kadamboor palace and that those hideous creatures were men hiding their bodies with the stuffed bodies of dead animals.Instantly he was dragged in front of Ravithasan,the Sorcerer.

With his vulture eyes Ravithasan penetrated Vanthi's face and roared in a hideous voice "Infernal wretch...you have again crossed my path." He cast off the dead animal's body and in his right hand held a huge human thigh bone.Vanthi grinned dauntlessly and said "you are much mistaken Sorcerer.You are the one who has often crossed in mine." A furious roar escaped the throats of the spies and Ravithasan growled as he drew out his rapier and held it near Vanthi's neck."Many a time I have asked you to join us Vanthi. But you have refused. Now your hour has come and you shall face the dire consequences of your impunity" he chuckled maliciously.

Vanthi slowly paced the chamber with his eyes and turning to Ravithasan said with a jaunty air "Don't rest compacent Sorcerer! I shall soon unmask you and your deadly schemes." He took a step backward and shouted loudly  "Help...Queen...treason..  murder.." With furious roars the spies sprang at him and Vanthi thrashed the flambeaux to the ground and ran to the trap-door.

Instantly the trap-door was thrown open and Nanthini's voice was heard. "What is the fray here Sorcerer?How dare you enter into a commution at this mo______" Her upbraiding eyes fell on Vanthi and she stood speechless for a moment.He was taken prisoner by the spies again and slightly bowed to her amidst struggle."Madam,I have comein a commission from your mother, bearing her message to you."

Nanthini gazed at him confounded.Vanthi's acute eyes observed a tremor in her lips and an expression of deep disquietude in her eyes.However, she made every exertion to hide her agitation and beckoned Ravithasan to freed him. The Sorcerer's eyes shone hideously and he uttered a torrent of curses as he freed Vanthi grudgingly.

Following her image of unearthly beauty Vanthi entered her chamber.Seating herself in a couch Nanthini fixed her eyes on him.Her lips widened slightly to show her pearly teethc and said " I could only smile at the vividity of the imagination you possess sir, yet I freed you as a token of my gratitude of you bearing my letter to the prince". She was clad in a richly embroided ruby silk saree and her eyes glazed as if speaking from a trance.

Vanthi walked away from her musingly.His eyes fell on the rapier lying on the couch which shone luridly.Nanthini placed her cold hand upon it and said mockingly " The prince has lately arrived in the palace sir. Do you intend to take your leave of me now and seek him?Perhaps prevent him from entering this chamber forever?". Vanthi shook his head and said in a deep beseeching tone "I possess no such power to deter him madam. Yet, I fancy that I have some mode of power over you - the innermost  chambers of your heart and I shall exercise it presently".With this brief prologue he drew out a folded portrait  hidden in his sword layer and unfolded it.

The bright light of the flambeaux fell upon it and Nanthini stood up aghast.An inward shudder crept over her whole frame and her eyes devoured the portrayal."No,No...you are deceiving me.I have known no mother and I bear no intention to learn your deceitful message" she shrieked. Her breast heaved fast,her knees tottered and her whole countenance revealed an inexpressible terror.

Vanthi sighed deeply and drew the portrait near her person."Do not you comprehend madam? The same cantour of person...the same eyes...the same lips..I cannot doubt the evidence of my senses madam. Could it be within the bounds of human possibility that the person I behold in front of me is none but the daughter of this desolate woman? Can you declaim your own blood madam?" he asked passionately.

Nanthini sank on the couch,tears streaming down her face.Vanthi looked at her earnestly and said "I make no apology for my cruelty ma'm; in this behaving I am but fulfilling my duty to my master." He held the portrait near the flambeaux and it began to burn. Beholding its destruction, as if possessed by maddening rage,Nanthini sprang out and fell on her knees. "Stop..stop..give it to me..give her to me.."She pleaded with violent sobs escaping her.

Vanthi's heart melted at her affliction.Yet he pertinaciously held the portrait away from her and demanded "Give the rapier to me madam..you have nursed vengeance enough and inflicted suffering to your enemies-in the prince's heart,in his suffering for his crime and betrayal..enough ma'm. You shall wreak no further revenge".Vanthi's voice was choked in emotion and the odour of burning portrait pervaded the chamber.Slowly Nanthini rose and took up the rapier.With her eyes burningwith anguish, despair and deadly  hatred she lifted it towards him.With his left hand still holding the half-burnt portrait away fromher,Vanthi advanced and touched the rapier with the right.

Suddenly the doors of the chamber were thrown open and an agitated guard appeared near the doorstep.He bowed to Nanthini and announced the imminent visit from the prince Karikalan.Instantly Nanthini withheld the rapier away from Vanthi and as its sharp edge tore his finger a drop of ruby-coloured fluid spilt upon the rapier's blade. The metal fell down at his feet upon the floor with a terrible ringing sound.An instantaneous and dreadful sickness of heart seized him.He felt the soft but determined footfalls of Death upon the floor. Suspecting it to be more than a freak of his fancy, Vanthi rushed behind the canopy hanging upon the couch. His brain reeled with a multitude of thoughts.At the same time,a shreik of owl was heard without the walls, curdling his blood.

 

The prince entered the chamber abruptly and instantly his eyes fell upon the rapier lying on the floor. A derisive smile spread his features and his hollowed eyes pierced Nanthini's heart. Noting the deadly livid hue upon her lips and the frantic agitation of her whole frame, Karikalan said "I thank you for your valiant welcome ma'm. It befits this corrosive hour and this hideous atmosphere'

Nanthini's eyes burned with anguish and she attempted to walk away from him. But Karikalan seized her hand and took up the rapier. The cadaverousness of his complexion increased as he said darkly "Nanthini! you remain silent.. yet you can impose  deception on me no more. This chumber smells of Death Nanthini..these unhollowed pillows, this wicked bed and these mysterious tapesteries all serve as demonitions.."

Karikalan's voice became bitter and acrid and he cried "Don't feign innocence Nanthini. I came to meet my death.. my designed punishment..you have tormented me day and night.. this shall be the final death agony". As if driven by a fenzy Karikalan struck down the tapesteries with the rapier and ran across the chamber in his wild fury. Another howl of the owl was heard outside and the prince laughed aloud,wild and bitter.

He pulled the distraught Nanthini on the bed and placed the rapier on her neck."Tell me only this truth Nanthini..my brain is reeling with madness.. once you have told me that you loved me..then..on that accursed day you told me of loving my enemy..now you have married this aged scoundrel..why, infernal wretch,why? is it for drinking my blood? tell me..what is your hideous intentions? Tell me the truth Nanthini before killing me with this same hand which once I dreamed would hang around my neck as my beloved wife". Karikalan laughed ruefully and his eyes sparked with fire as he thrashed the flambeaux that was hanging on the wall.

Vanthi trembled lest the mad prince would kill Nanthini in his rage. Yet he refrained from intervening and caught a glimpse of the trap-door slowly opening and the Sorcerer put forth his head .Both Nanthini and Karikalan were shrieking and their bodies were violently shaking. "I came to elicit the truth from your mouth Nanthini! who is your father? tell me are you my sister?..my own flesh and blood? or is it a conspiracy against me and you, imposed by my enemies Nanthini?" The prince almost trampled her with his lifted leg when she shreiked with a violent sob and lowering her voice said" my father..my father___________"she gasped for breath and Karikalan stood aghast as if bitten by thousands of venomous snakes. A cry evincing his intolerable agony escaped him "I am the most accursed of all sinners Nanthini,outcasts of all outcasts.."with this words he seized Nanthini again and drew the rapier near."For my unpardonable crime and your unspeakable misery, this is my redemption Nanthini" with this last death cry and the clangour of the rapier the prince fell prostrate, victim to the terrors he had anticipated. Vanthi burst out of his his hiding place but the handsof the Sorcerer interposed and began to throttle his neck .

The fallen flambeaux died out and the darkness was now total.Frantic footsteps echoed all over the chamber with the cry of someone being dragged out of it. A bitter laugh choked in tears was followed with a loud last shriek and then heard no more. Vanthi's eyes began to start from their sockets.With a violent effort he freed himself from the throttling hands and staggered towards the fallen prince. A rapier aimed at him fell heavily on his shoulder and bore him to the floor near the prostrate body of the doomed prince. Strenuously bending closely over the dying prince Vanthi's ears drank the terrible import of his last words "I yield my self utterly to death..that, Nanthini, is my redemption!"