The sound of the sacred conches rumbled throughout the royal hall announcing the Princess’s arrival. Every single eye turned to look at the Princess of Tala, famed to be more beautiful than the apsara Menaka, rumoured to have caused atleast two wars because of her beauty, she was the earthly incarnate of Goddess Lakshmi (as written on the invitation card for the Swayamvar).
I looked at the sea of people in front of me, most of them with a fake laugh and a clap to match. A few of the freeloaders who had come here for the buffet were too busy to even laugh or clap. Most of the guests were trying to outcompete each other in the ‘Most garishly dressed’ and ‘Wear as much jewelry as you can’ events. I noticed the Raja of Ostentatiouspur covered in necklaces as long as his knee. He had decided to forgo his clothes for the day, following some kind of ill-conceived fashion trend and had only his bijouterie to cover himself and those weren’t doing a good job of it. I felt my skin prickle and turned to see the Rani of Ribaldabad and that of Rabelaisia pointing at me and jabbering away wildly, no doubt having dug up some salacious detail about me. Finally I turned to look at my suitors, all seven of them. I knew about three of them, the King of Kamanagar, who ironically was impotent. If reports were to be believed, every queen of his had to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement on her wedding night and it was said to be so boring, long and filled with devious clauses that by the time they were done with it, those poor women had lost all their desire. The next was the King of Vigourouksha who spent more time getting up from bed to relieve himself than to sleep. The third was Prince Hapshi, he was twelve. Enough said.
The head priest now stood up and announced to the assembly, “We are all here, to witness the Swayamvar of Princess Rukmini, and shower her and the man she chooses, with our blessings. May the best man-,” he tittered nervously and hastened to correct himself, “Not that all the suitors here aren’t the best. They are. Just the best as seen by the Princess’s eyes.” The man dodged a bullet there. He then went on to highlight their qualities and achievements. I totally zoned out there, though the words ‘mighty’, ‘perfect’ and their synonyms were repeated a lot. One of my maids, tapped me, and that brought me back to hear the words, “Let the Swayamvar begin.” The hall erupted and it sounded like souls were wailing in the pits of Naraka. I was escorted to the mandap by my uncle who handed me a heavy garland which I wanted to sling on my shoulder but I refrained and gathering all my womanly poise carried it in my two hands. I stood in front of a Prince of some unknown country; he smiled revealing a mouth full of stained teeth. I moved on instantly. There was a collective groan from his cohorts. I stood in front of another. He was as good as they come. Young, virile, hygienic, head full of hair. I almost garlanded him, but didn’t. He looked miserable.
Let me let you in on a little secret here. The fine print, if you please. Even though I was supposed to wed a man of My Choice, I had been specifically instructed to put the garland around the King of Oudh. You see, all these suitors had paid large amounts in cash and kind to my father. Oudh had won the bid.
I was moving on from my third suitor when the alarm bells went off in my head. A second later, the gigantic doors of the royal hall toppled over with a resounding crash squashing men like bugs underneath them. A woman in the crowd screamed only for me to realize that it was the Prime Minister, before everybody else did the same. One moment everyone had their rapt attention on the rituals, the next there was a stampede as hordes of rakshases, the feral and demonic cousins of the humans came pouring in through the doors and windows, biting, slashing and hacking through any and all who stood in their way.
The Swayamvar had been turned into a blood fest. Out of the seven suitors, three were dead, maimed or crying (Hapshi), not necessarily in that order.
I had heard of her, the Rakshas Queen Gazala. While her cohorts were all wild and savage and had horrible table manners (they WERE making unnecessary noises while chomping down the guests!), she was dressed in an immaculate black bandhgala suit and a blood-red sari wrapped around her knee. Some would say she was beautiful. She certainly had sharp aristocratic features and deep-set eyes which gave her the appearance of a hawk looking down upon its prey. Her head was perfectly dome-shaped, shaved clean with two small horns jutting out from the sides. She had a certain confidence to her, a subtle swagger in her actions and speech which stemmed from the fact that she was very good at what she did and knew about it. And although I knew she was in her late twenties, the lines on her face spoke otherwise.
“Hear ye, King of Tala”, she thundered and everybody fell silent, “You have insulted the Rakshases by not inviting my brother, crown Prince Ghatotkach and I am here to avenge that insult.”
“Our Princess shall not set eyes upon that pot bellied, monkey tailed abomination, much less wed him”, said someone from the crowd.
“Your Princess had a man the age of her grandfather, a Yeti with more hair in his nose and ears than I have on my chest and a Prince who with his bad breath sent the opposing army and his own to unconsciousness when he opened his mouth to issue a challenge, as suitors. Incidentally he was the reason why it is a rule to brush and bathe before a battle. We think our Prince qualifies”, shouted back a dim-witted demon.
“Silence”, said Gazala, displeased by this meaningless prattle. “I am here to take the Princess and anyone who feels I shouldn’t, can challenge me to a duel”
“We don’t fight women, rakshasi wench”, said The King of Oudh, the only one with an unsoiled dhoti, “It’s against the Rules of War”
“The Rules do not apply for warrior queens. Fight if you can or forever be branded a coward and an impotent”
The ‘impotent’ taunt set him off. Screaming like a maniac, veins popping in his temples, one of his steroid fuelled oversized fist crashed onto Gazala. I winced; she staggered, slipped but managed to stay on her feet. She dodged the other blow and struck his Adam’s apple. He choked and coughed, at which point she head butted him. He fell down unconscious. She took a bow amidst loud cheers and thunderous clapping from the other rakshases.
With murder in her eyes, she unsheathed her sword.
“Stop”, I cried, overdramatically throwing my arms around, “No one needs to die because of me. Stop this dance of death...”
“And her demons of doom too”, quipped an onlooker, whose hair was being hacked off by an overzealous tiny rakshas.
“Yes, and that too”, I added. “I am ready to go with you”
“No. I cannot let that happen”, shouted my father, “You will take her over my dead body”
“How about hers?” said Gazala, putting the sword on my neck. My father backed away immediately.
He stood there helpless as her horse was brought in and we cantered away into the sunset.
“This is the best wedding I have ever attended,” the Rani of Ribaldabad could be heard telling her band of bedraggled sycophants. “Ask the Keeper of the Book of Eternal Tattle to chronicle everything.”
* * *
“That turned out well”, I said to Gazala after we had crossed our gates. Gazala smiled.
“You were late though. I was afraid, you wouldn’t come. I half considered putting the garland around Hapshi.”
“Hapshi? Why?” she asked.
“Well his mother is old, can’t tell her underpants from her curtains and probably would leave for heavenly abode in a few months. That twerp’s yet to attain manhood. Who gets to rule the kingdom then?”
“Oh! You devious little woman”, she reproached me mockingly.
We snuggled close to each other (as close as you can be on a horse).
“That headbutt was a totally cool move”, I congratulated her. “I and his 30 queens thank you for deflating his ego.”
“Anything for you, my love”, she replied, kissing me on the neck.
“Father is totally going to blow his lid off when he discovers the note I left him.” I said.
“Well, I hope he takes it better than my brother who threw a tantrum when I told him he wasn’t getting a human wife for his 16th birthday.” We both laughed.
“Damn, this garland weighs a ton”, I complained shifting it to my other shoulder after a while. Yes, I had slung it on my shoulder for safekeeping since my not-so-unwilling abduction.
“Well, you can let me carry it on mine”, she winked at me.
We both looked into each other’s eyes (my eyes kept getting distracted by her cute horns) and then I put the garland around her neck. There was raucous cheering from the rakshases following us.
“And I hereby declare the Swayamvar complete”, shouted the same dim-witted demon. Not so dim-witted anymore.