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“I have to go before its dawn,” Ulma whispered with an intense face.
Kunwar, who was still asleep beneath the warm duvet made few moaning sounds and began to snore mildly. He heard her words but wasn’t much bothered to respond. Seeing his cold response like usual Ulma got down from the bed, put on her blouse, her cotton ghaghra that had simple work of mirrors and beads over it and tucking one end of her georgette odhni from her waist she covered her head and got out of the bedroom.
It was dark outside still; even the birds weren’t awake. Ulma had to reach home before the dawn’s arrival. She was moving swiftly over the narrow lane that ran along the woods. Her slender silhouette was shivering in cold, as in a rush while leaving the mansion she left her shawl on the bed where Kunwar was sleeping.
“What fate dear lord...How long shall this go on?” She cursed her fate and a tear escaped from her big sharp blue eyes.
She finally reached the derelict home at the outskirts of the village where rarely people came or passed by. It was near a cemetery and Ulma had been hiding here for six months now. After entering inside that kaput house she once turned back to make sure no one saw her going inside of it. She remained hidden in that hide out for the entire day time, waiting for the dusk to pass and no sooner the stars twinkled in the far sky she would come out of that derelict structure and would shove towards the Pithoragarh mansion.
“Did you make sure you are not being followed by anyone?” Nayanthara asked her with a serious face.
Ulma shook her head left to right, right to left few times. To this Nayanthara nodded and allowed her to go inside the huge bedroom of Kunwar ji. “Your food shall be sent right away, change your clothes, a fresh pair are kept on the bed. And don’t forget to take a plunge into that bathtub before putting them on. Adorn all the jewellery I have kept over the dressing area.” Ulma silently kept nodding her head to young queen’s every order.
She then left with swift steps, as Ulma kept gazing her for a while. She then came inside Kunwar ji’s royal bedroom and staring all around the spherical room she heaved a deep sigh. She wanted to take some rest before doing all that Nayanthara has asked her, but the clock was already running faster and it was almost 1o’ clock and she had no further time to waste. As she was about to undress and bathe there was a knock on the door. Ulma knew it was the handmaid with the food. She opened the door and allowed her in. The woman in veil came inside quietly and kept the food on the marble table and was about to leave when Ulma called her from behind.
“Hey listen...can you help me in putting this dress on. It’s quite difficult you know every time for me. You just wait I will be out from the bath tub in few minutes.”
The handmaid nodded and stood inside the room waiting with her head bowed. Ulma was out from the bathing area within some ten minutes, it was just a dip in the tub filled with rose petals and sandalwood oil. Kunwar ji loved these fragrances and Nayanthara made sure that Ulma was taking good care of his needs. The moment she came out the maid lifted her head and her eyes widened in sheer awe. Ulma looked like a fairy on earth to her eyes. She had radiant fair skin, long curly hair falling down till her loins, a statute body, big long eyes with blue iris and a betel leaf shaped face that looked so youthful, the maid couldn’t take her eyes off her bare body. Ulma always stayed covered from head to toe in a cloak and face in a veil. The handmaid was the first one to see her real beauty tonight; even Nayanthara didn’t know how she looked.
“Please dear make it fast before Kunwar ji comes,” Ulma muttered softly. Dressing up in full royal attire was a huge effort and Ulma wasn’t still accustomed to it. All her life she had lived a carefree life. She was an archaeologist who hunted excavation sites and stayed there for as long as her excavations weren’t completed. But this time a red balloon that caught her attention and she followed it made her end up in the mansion of Kunwar Ojas Pratap Chand, the king of Pithoragarh.
As the handmaid was giving the final touch to Ulma by adorning her long hair with jasmine buds they both heard heavy footsteps approaching towards the royal sleeping room. Ulma could make out easily it was Kunwar ji’s footsteps, she asked the handmaid to leave immediately and the woman followed Ulma’s words. No sooner the handmaid was out of the room, she sat on the bed quietly with her face covered with a veil like a new bride. The moment Kunwar entered the room her heart began to pound faster; she began to feel uneasy with anxiety that was making her shiver and perspire with myriad droplets resting over her forehead.
Did I do the right thing? Will he come to know of the truth tonight? Will my efforts of going through so much hardship for the past six months will finally bring him closer to the truth. Myriad questions would rise up in her head every night while she was here in this room, leading her nowhere near the Kunwar. She was beginning to lose her hope, Kunwar ji was an adamant man and she was still not able to break him as of yet. She followed every order of Nayanthara but nothing seemed to be working. He hasn’t come closer or touched her in these six months.
After entering the room he wouldn’t even have a look at her. He would come and lie down on the bed every night and would fall asleep within a moment. And Ulma would pass the night away sitting on the bed, waiting for that moment when she finally had to leave the mansion. She never liked the departing, it reminded her of the past and she felt the twinge more within her heart. Every night of her fruitless practice were making her lose hope, she had a lot of pressure over her head. It was a year’s contract that she had signed with the young queen and six months had already passed away. If Ulma wouldn’t be able to fulfil it she would find another woman for it. This was making her even more worried time was slipping away like sand, seventh month had already begun and Ulma hadn’t had any luck so far. She hasn’t been even able to show her face to the Kunwar who was also her husband whom she left years back.
Every night was passing by in long waits and in complete vain. Ulma sat like a frozen mannequin beside the sleeping body of Kunwar counting the stars to pass her time. She knew tonight was also going to be the same, so she remained quiet watching from behind the veil Kunwar ji’s alluring silhouette moving from here to there inside the room. He changed into his sleeping robe and was heading towards the king sized bed when all of a sudden he stopped near the marble table where the platter full of food was kept. He had noticed it every night but never cared before, but something different happened tonight. He picked the platter from the table and bringing it closer towards Ulma said in a harsh tone, “Starving won’t do any good, here...have it.”
Ulma didn’t respond for a while and kept her head bowed. Seeing her like this he yelled at her, “Have it I said.”
She hastily took the plate from his hands. While she was taking it Kunwar’s eyes fell upon her delicate hands and he stood there slightly bewildered for some time. Soon then he moved away and got inside the duvet on his side of bed. Ulma gently rose from the bed and with gentle moves went near the marble table and pulling out one of the low heighted marble chair sat down upon it, taking care of the heavy attire she was carrying with much difficulty. She didn’t remove her veil and began to eat slow bites. While she was eating, Kunwar who hasn’t slept till now like other nights began to watch her with his sharp prying eyes. In that dimly lit room he was merely able to see the shape of her nose and her lips moving. But for first time in six months, he was noticing her.
Ulma however remained unaware of this, kept eating slowly. She was a slow eater, always had been which is why she could never eat the food sent to her, in fear that Kunwar ji might arrive and find her eating and she would appear to him like one greedy village woman who has come here for surrogacy. Kunwar ji’s young wife Nayanthara was not able to bear him a child, but she didn’t want to let this news fly out from within the walls of Pithoragarh mansion. She was in search of a woman who would surrogate Kunwar ji’s child and she would fill her with all the riches. That’s when she found Ulma. But she had merely seen her hands wondering why she covered her face and didn’t even reveal herself to the queen. To this she had only responded by saying “I want to keep my identity hidden from everyone, even from you. When my job here is done I shall disappear, so that I could have a life.”
To this the queen had agreed and never forced her to show her face. But Ulma had come here on purpose. The queen hasn’t found her; it was she who came by herself when she heard about the news from the gossiping of two handmaids’ near her excavation site. But why she chose to be the surrogate mother had a reason, merely she knew and she wanted to keep it clandestine until she was done with what she has come for.
As Ulma rose from the chair and began to head towards the bed, she heard Kunwar ji babbling which almost startled her. “So my wife Nayanthara has sent you, she thinks I will do what she desires. Never, I am a man of pride and I shall not lose that for her naive wishes to be fulfilled.”
Ulma however stood overjoyed with past emotions rising high inside her whole body to hear that same voice again after so many years. Same way of talking, that arrogance of manhood it’s all same. Ulma left Ojas, her husband long back out of her own ego and only after being far from him she realized how much she missed him and couldn’t live without him. As she was still in the mid of her thoughts standing at the side of his bed, he shouted, “Go away from here...nowwww. Ulma immediately turned and as she began to walk with hurried steps she tripped over her long ghaghra which made her fall down on the floor flat. In the process her odhni which covered her head and face till her bosoms came down and her long wavy hair got loose falling upon her face. Kunwar who was least bothered about her fall suddenly sat upright and jumped out of his bed. He went closer and without thinking a bit or without any hesitation removed her hair from her face. His eyes widened in disbelief and he could only utter one word. “Ulma”...
Silent tears began rolling down his cheeks. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It was his wife, his love whom he could even die for, if she hadn’t left him. He lifted her gently by holding her from her arms, then making her sit on the bed asked her in a whispering voice. “How...how did you know I was here? And for the last six months it had been you staying by my side and I never come to know. Why...why didn’t you told me before? How you could do this to me? He was shaking her from her shoulders, gazing at her face for answers.
There were many but she answered the first one. “I followed the red balloon.”
“You remembered!” He asked with the most curious eyes and face.
“It was the last words you said when I was leaving. That you will fly a red balloon with my name on it every year on the day of our anniversary and this time I was fortunate to notice.” Saying this Ulma began to sob profusely. He immediately filled her in his embrace and for many long moments they stayed like this and cried together. Their relationship died long back but love in their hearts was still alive and tonight meeting after such a long time all those bruises of hurt, despair and segregation were spilling out through liquid emotions.
“Look Ulma...it has started to rain; even the heavens are pompous to see our love.” Kunwar said in a mellow voice and placed his lips over Ulma’s soft petal like lips. They have kissed after a long time. And didn’t mean to lose that moment any sooner hadn’t there been louder heavy thuds over the main wooden door. Ulma’s blue eyes widened and she squawked in a worried tone, “Oh my god...I am late. What have I done?”
Ulma began to run here and there almost falling many a times and slipping on the marble floor while probing for the clothes she had come in to the mansion. It was all worn out and looked dirty and old. Kunwar’s eyes were wet seeing her like this but he was staring it all patiently and then commanded her in an intense voice, “Ulma...Ulma calm down. You don’t have to rush. Get yourself out of those rugged clothes and put these on.” He pointed at the royal attire she had just taken off her body.
Ulma who stood motionless to Kunwar ji’s command was staring him with questioning eyes. She wasn’t sure what to say but she had no say to his words as she knew he was the royal heir of this whole place and his words were like stone. She had come to know of many other things about his highness in the six months period, thus she simply followed his order.
“We are going out of that door as man and wife. I will introduce you as my first wife in front of the court, the courtiers and all the inmates of Pithoragarh.” There was pride resting on Kunwar ji’s face as his fingers were dancing over his heavily grown beard.
Ulma became pale hearing this and tears of qualm began to roll down her cheeks.
“Open the door, open it now. It’s my order.” Nayanthara was yelling and knocking at the same time over the wooden door like an insane woman. She was raging with fury as it was late in the morning and Ulma hasn’t come out of the royal bedroom yet.
Soon the door got open from the inside and both Kunwar and Ulma came out of it, hand in hands. Naynathara’s eyes were red with fury but at the same time she was in complete awe of seeing for the first time how beautiful Ulma was. She looked like a goddess in the traditional royal Pahadi attire. And as they both walked past her she was still standing flabbergasted as to what was happening. How that village girl was walking in the position of a queen. It was her position, she was the queen.
That morning in the court and in front of all his courtiers Kunwar Ojas Pratap Chand, declared Ulma as his first wife and the new queen of Pithoragarh. At first there was no word of rebel, she was welcomed with utmost nobility, with all the rituals performed for her royal position. But soon questions were being put upon her about her clan, her status, who was she, where has she come from and how did she became a queen in the matter of one night.
Nayanthara who was burning day and night in the fire of being betrayed and vengeance, decided to make her the fallen woman. The young queen was not able to bear the truth that Ulma is Kunwar ji’s first wife and has become the Bari Rani (Superior Queen) of Pithoragarh. She began to spill hatred and made sure it reached every corner of Pithoragarh’s mansion even outside of it, to every nook and corner and to all men’s ears. That was her plan, to turn the entire mob against Ulma.
“Kunwar Ji...there is an immediate meeting that has been called in the Court room. They are all waiting for your arrival”. A messenger brought the news and was knocking on the door of his resting room. He was nowadays barely interested in his royal duties and spent most of the time with Ulma. Ulma’s beauty was also talked about everywhere. She was eyed with great allure and deviant intentions rising in the heart of myriad men. This became the weapon for Nayanthara, she created such an hullabaloo inside the hearts of all the positioned men in the kingdom who were also in the position of raising questions on Ulma’s new status as the queen that they decided to call for an urgent meeting.
“Tell them I am coming,” Kunwar responded from inside his room in his deep voice. He then put on his royal attire and within thirty minutes he was present inside the court. He was already fuming with anger of being disturbed during his private moments and it showed clearly over his fine looking face. “What’s the urgency Mr. Singh, why have I been called on such a short notice?” He asked his minister with crooked brows that expressed his annoyance.
“Kunwar Ji... on your words we have accepted the new woman as queen but what about her caste, her status. Does she belong to the Brahmin’s clan or to any royal household? We are not even aware about her religion, where does she come from. Is she even a Hindu woman? The minister laid all the questions in front of Kunwar that had been doing rounds in the heads of many and were being talked about in hush tones from the day she was declared the Queen.
“Hmmm...I see, so that’s the urgency...she is an orphan whom I met ten years back, while I was in London for my studies. She belongs to a Christian Orphanage where she had spent the whole of her life until she joined the college. Her parents are not known to her, she herself doesn’t know to which religion or creed she belongs to. But now she is a Pahadi woman and your queen. And you better accept her. Will that be all to your questions.” Kunwar proclaimed in an intense tone and rose from his throne and was about to leave from amidst many mouths agape prying him still with questioning eyes.
“I beg your pardon Sire, but this is impossible. We cannot accept a woman whose religion, caste and creed is not known. Moreover she is an orphan. Who knows she could be belonging to some lower strata in the society or perhaps she could be the daughter of some sex worker. Forgive me my lord but I have to say this that you have brought shame to the entire Chand clan and to Pithoragarh as well. We shall not accept her as our queen, not in this life.” The minister replied on behalf of all the royal members present there and they all nodded their heads in affirmation to Mr. Singh’s words.
Kunwar was breathing heavy breaths of anger with his brawny chest rising high and low. He was huffing with anger when all of a sudden Nayanthara entered the court room and all men rose from their seats in respect towards the queen. “Tumol bhal kara Singh Ji (You are right). Mr. Singh whose caste is not known... how could she be declared a queen just after a night? She was there to spend a night with Kunwar ji. Its true royal men can be with any woman they want for the night but that doesn’t mean that she becomes a queen the other day. What does it makes her, a mere bed warmer, a slave.” She added and began to stare at Kunwar’s face from behind her veil. Having said her words she left the court room like a squall.
Kunwar stood there frozen with a shocked face in the middle of the room with men whispering words into each other’s ears and eyeing their Prince with questioning eyes. He uttered no word afterwards and left the court room too.
“What happened down there...why are you perspiring so badly? Ojas please tell me something.” Ulma began to ask many questions seeing his disturbed face but Kunwar remained quiet for some time. Soon the wall of his patience broke and he yelled at her with full intensity. “Why did you come back...when you had left me once?”
Ulma took few steps back in sheer shock; she felt her heart stop in that very moment. She uttered no word and quietly went outside of the room. Kunwar didn’t stop her either. Night cascaded after that incident and it was time for the supper and Ulma hadn’t returned to the room yet. Kunwar began to look for her. She was nowhere to be seen in the mansion. He sent two of the guards to find her. They shortly came with the news that she was sitting in the royal garden that was just behind Kunwar’s bedroom.
He went near her and sat down beside her quietly. For some time none of them spoke a word. They kept glancing at the stars in the sky, soothing gust was flowing and in that moment Kunwar muttered in his deep voice, “I will marry you with all the rituals one month from now. There is a propitious day just after a month.”
Ulma turned towards him with a twinkle in both her eyes and tears that sparkled in that moonlit night. She went into his embrace, her heart was pounding faster in glee which even the Kunwar heard and whispered into her ears, “It says my name...I can hear.” Ulma closed her eyes in his embrace, she felt safe and loved.
Rains started early this year in Pithoragarh; it was going to be longest one month wait both for Ulma and Kunwar. And in between that time she faced verbal abuse, shaming and even adulterous enticements from men inside the mansion but she kept it all hidden beneath her heart. She knew if any of it went to Kunwar’s ears the consequences would be gruesome. She didn’t want any massacre because of her, as she could smell merely despise and loathe in people’s eyes for her.
Nayanthara was also burning day and night with serpents of twinge and retribution crawling over her chest. Kunwar did not ever come to her after Ulma’s arrival and this was making her grow bitterer from the inside. She was counting days trying to find ways to change all that was in Kunwar’s mind and heart for Ulma. How...how could I turn this love into hatred? With this one question bothering her day and night for many days, she finally had the answer.
She spread words through few handmaids and finally it did go to Kunwar’s ears. Ulma’s beauty and her buxom body was something all talked about. Nayanthara used it against her and made a plot in which all the courtiers played there role. Kunwar couldn’t tolerate any further the words coming to his ears as he was practising celibacy for that one month period before his marriage to Ulma and slept in a different room. He keenly began to wait for the days to pass and for the day of their marriage. He knew accepting her with all the rituals in front of his entire sovereignty would put a lock on every horses’ mouth.
Myriad stories of her being an infidel woman were reaching his ears and he did fell into the vicious trap. The night before the marriage day he decided to meet Ulma in that private garden of his. When he reached there he found her already sitting into the garden, adorned in a white ghaghara with intricate silver thread work all over it and a lilac hued net odhni on which there were mirrors and pearls adorned, was covering her fair face. She appeared like a wingless cherub sitting on earth beneath that starry night sky.
Lulling his earthly desires, Kunwar went near her and asked her gently, “Do you have them...butterflies in the stomach? I have them, wow...it seems I am seeing you for the very first time and slowly falling for you. Can’t wait for tomorrow.”
Ulma smiled and shook her head few times. He then sat near her, held her hand and after thinking a lot whether he should ask or not he finally brought the subject in front of her that was bothering him from so many days. “I will marry you tomorrow and all the talks rising about you would be laid into their coffins. Oh! I forgot to tell you that tomorrow before our marriage you will have to come in front of the courtiers. There is a gathering of all our elderly courtesans and they want to ask you few questions. As...ummm...there are rumours about you being adulterous. But I have faith on you. I know its all crap.” And he grew quiet observing the expressions on Ulma’s face change from being timid to a questioning one.
“Wait a minute...what. Why I have to be present in front of a podium full of men asking me questions. You are the king here; you could have said them ‘No’. I don’t understand what do they want to know about me, haven’t you told already that we are married.”
Kunwar remained quiet and heaved a deep sigh. “Alright...I get it; it’s not them it’s you who want to know things about me.” She mocked him.
“Ulma for god’s sake, why don’t you understand? It’s a critical matter; you were there inside my sleeping chamber for whole six months hiding your identity from me as well. That presents you nothing more than a concubine. You will have to tell them the truth.” He said in a much agitated manner.
“A concubine...I am your wife damn it. Now I need to prove it. Aren’t your words enough for them all? I put my whole life behind me, my job, everything for you just to be your side, rotting in that abyss day and night without food, without water for months. I was close to you, but did I ever try to use those moments in a bad adulterous way. I wanted you to see me and feel how much I have burned for your love. And you tag me a bloody prostitute. Great...what more could I expect from you. The same possessive you... who doubted me then and even now you have come into their narrow headed talks.” Ulma broke down and hid her face into her palms.
Kunwar was eyeing her with callous expressions, seeing the same hard headed woman she was years ago. He rose and began to walk away from her when her voice stopped his feet. “It doesn’t really matter what they think, what you think is more important for me.” She asked in a shaking voice.
After a silence of good long minutes he replied in a deep heavy voice, “I doubt they could be right.” Something that Ulma hadn’t expected to hear from his mouth, it completely shattered her. She sat there quietly for sometime even after Kunwar was gone.
Night passed away without a blink on both sides. The next dawn as Kunwar was getting ready for the meeting in the court room first, he heard knocks on the door. A messenger came running inside the room with uncontrollable breaths as if he had come running from a long distance.
“Kunwar ji...huhh...huhh, Bari Rani...Bari Rani has disappeared.” He said it in one go still breathing swiftly.
“What are you saying?” Kunwar asked while gnashing his teeth with crooked eyebrows.
“She has left this”. He handed over the neatly folded paper into Kunwar’s hand and left the dressing area with a bow.
He opened it and read the words written on it, ‘Demigods are alive’.
He twisted that paper in his fists and threw it on the floor. He himself fell on the floor and broke down into tears. Damn you woman...I know you wouldn’t give up on your hard headedness. Kunwar thought inside his mind and remained sitting on the floor with silent tears flowing.
“Rani Maa...Bari Rani has disappeared” one of the handmaids broke the news to Nayanthara.
“She was not Bari Rani...call her a slave.” She was grinning saying this. She helped Ulma to escape from the palace and spared her life too as she had planned to murder her that night.
Ulma reached that derelict house, packed few of her things and joined her archaeologist team that was based at one of the excavation sites. They were all overjoyed to see her back as they were worried with her sudden disappearance. Ulma did elope from being ruled or controlled by a society of men deciding upon her fate. But only this time she didn’t came back alone...