By P.Muralidharan

That early morning started for Sanjay normally. He got up around 5 AM, spruced up, and set out for his morning stroll. The venue was well lit. Nevertheless, huge trees blocked the street light and there were patches of pitch dark below the trees. While walking under a tree suddenly, he felt a jolt from behind and fell down and before he could get up, someone pressed his back and caught hold of both of his hands hard and another person tied a cloth around his eyes and gagged him.  Sanjay decided to push them away when they would try to force him to board a car but within a few seconds,  he fell flat on some floor with a thud. Someone removed only the cloth around his eyes. He remained gagged and his hands tied behind. It took him a few seconds to adjust his eyes to the bright lighting on the stage of the auditorium. Why did they bring him to the auditorium where his plays get staged regularly? How could that happen without any car ride? There was none in the audience seats of the auditorium. He pushed on the floor below and tried his best to twist both his hands to open the knot to get the hands free. But the knot was very tight. Same with the gag, which hurt his mouth and nearly choked his throat. His mobile phone was still in his tracksuit and.he could ask for help but gagging would still prevent him from talking over the phone.

Suddenly the curtain went up, and he saw a king, with full costumes like a crown, anklets, golden chains on the neck, golden shield on the chest and silk lungi who had been gagged, seated on an ordinary wooden chair with hands tied from behind. A middle-aged man clad in cotton white lungi and bared chest appeared on the stage. He walked forward and back and sideways, holding both his hands together behind as if deeply pondering on something. He stopped at the center of the stage and addressed the empty auditorium, “Oh, the knowledgeable audience! Are your hearts melting at the sight of a great king sitting on an ordinary chair, that too gagged and hands tied behind? You feel much to find the symbol of your proud past sitting helplessly. The lion-hearted bravo who won so many battles is on a small wooden chair not at all suiting his larger than life-size image. Much more than you dear audience, the playwright you find on the floor of the stage is feeling for the king because it was the playwright who excited all about the greatness and nobility of the king. Dear audience! You have always applauded the hype and pomp of kings inflated by the playwright. Please spare some invaluable time of yours to watch the deflation of the hype.

The man disappeared for a few seconds and surfaced on the stage again and put a pot on the center of the stage. Then he went backstage and brought a few palm leaves with him and put them one by one into the pot and came to the front. “This playwright has always praised the democratic setup, and the election of local leaders by the peasants by way of palm leaves cast as votes. My question dear audience, is very simple. Who were the citizens who were permitted to vote? Were the daily wagers and lower caste allowed to vote? Were the womenfolk allowed to vote? How many voted for who and for what? I tell you here, dear audience! I am one of the untouchables of the king’s era. I was not allowed to vote. All the workforce and downtrodden and lower caste we were the majority but a minority upper-caste conducted elections between themselves and decided our fate. The king who upheld democracy! Bullshit!” his face was red. While going backstage, he kicked on the chair of the king and the king in his chair fell with a thud.

Sanjay felt very agitated. What an insult to him and a great king! He slowly pushed on the floor with his feet and crawled like a snail towards the king. Someone suddenly held Sanjay by his hair and knelt to get close to his face “You sycophant of the king! Worried the king got hurt? I am here. I am his physician.” This one was taller than the first one who kicked the king and was darker in complexion. The man went and put the chair back on its legs and checked the king whose crown had rolled away to the corner of the stage due to the impact of the fall. He put his right hand on the head of the king and tilted the head both ways as if it was a piece of the iron ball and then came to the center. “Your king is safe! Don’t be tense. I was his barber and physician. Do you know how I and my community doing medical services used to check the ailment? Besides checking the pulse on the wrist joint of the patients, we used to go and check the first stools of them to confirm what was the cause of the ailment. We did it ignoring the nauseating stinking job because we were committed to the wellbeing of the society. What did we get in return? Do you people know? Affluence and respect you people give to the doctors of the modern age? Nay, it was a poor hamlet outside the city and we were untouchables!” His voice was interrupted by the sweet clutter of the brass bells of a dancer’s anklet. Soon a Devadasi clad in white silk saree and white blouse aptly wrapped around her to allow freedom for swift movement appeared by his side. He saluted her with folded hands and rushed backstage. The dancer was decked with gold all over. A golden pendant on her forehead had been connected to another one at the back by a diamond-studded chain, her earrings were mango shaped, her neck was cramped with necklaces in gold and her forehands and wrists flaunted bracelets and her slender hip was covered with a golden belt full of minute shapes of different flowers. She joined her forehands and saluted moving them to both her sides and moved her head very gently and said, “Namaste, audience! I don’t agree with the criticism of the playwright by these two men because I was a very happy temple woman. I was respected and rewarded by the king and my art was respected..” but she was interrupted by the barber and the worker duo who joined her on the center of the stage. The barber asked, “Do you mean to say all Devadasis were happy like you? Were not women artists amongst you who longed to be a wife and mother inside a family like all other women did?” The worker asked,” Who advised the king? Who questioned him? Only his parents and a coterie of his ministers. None of them knew the pain of the workers, the downtrodden and the untouchables and underprivileged. How do you think folk arts survived. By the dedication of the tribes. Except for sculpture and classical dance, what was the patronage for the art of the aboriginals by the kings?”

“Do you people want to carry on this with these two men gagged and tied?” she retorted. “You let them off. And then argue with me,” her tone was commanding. The barber and worker discussed in a husky voice something between themselves and untied and freed the king and the playwright.

“Unbelievable Mr.Sanjay that all these happened in daylight. It’s going to be nine AM shortly,” remarked the Police Inspector.

“Sir. I am coming straight from the auditorium. Your teams will be able to identify the culprits from the  footage of the CCTVs.”

“Sure, Sanjay. You, please write down your complaint and we would file an FIR.”

During day time, Sanjay felt better when he got a very positive response from the drama troupe members who expressed solidarity with him in the Whatsapp group. He went ahead with his routine work in the office and was very jubilant.

When he opened the door of his home in the evening, back from work, he was surprised to find both his wife and son missing. But to his shock when he opened the bedroom door, a couple both in their sixties were having intercourse. Despite all the anger and shock, he wondered at the erection of the older man’s penis which was no less than his own. “Don’t you people have shame? How dare you both fuck in my room!”

“Ya. I wanted to shame you,” said the old woman covering her breasts and thighs with a bedspread, “I am one of the numerous mothers you depict in your dramas as breathing in and out family duties and having no sensual urges at all. Who are you to close our personal lives?”

“I will call the police.” he thundered.

“Please do call,” replied the man, “but please close the door. I was about to enter her, and you interrupted.”

Sanjay locked the bedroom from outside as instructed by the Police Inspector, but the empty room slapped a nose cut on him. “Even the auditorium footage didn’t give any leads for us Mr.Sanjay,” remarked the Inspector,” Please don’t waste our time like this.”

“This year’s award for best playwright goes to Mr.Sanjay for his historical drama ‘Raja’s sword,’ the anchor announced on the stage of the TV show. Sanjay who had been lost in thoughts, got up from the front row, and the whole audience thundered with applause. He walked slowly, took the exit adjacent to the stage of the auditorium, and headed to his car. Someone was calling from behind frantically, “Sanjay! What’s this? Please stop!” He ignored that and went ahead. He drove his car out of the auditorium, crossed the city limits and entered the highway. He speeded up and slowed down after about 100 Kms after crossing a bridge across the river Palar. He stopped the car after slowly turning to the left of the bridge nearby. He walked towards the river. The heat of the afternoon still hungover even at 5 PM. Except for a very small stream of water, there was no indication of a river. A small girl in a tiny frock ran towards the stream and he followed her. The stream wasn’t deep and she walked across it and reached the other side of the river. She stopped looking at something and clapped her hands happily. There were different shapes like waves, clouds, flames, hill ranges, petals of lotus and rose and so many beautiful shapes on the sand deposits along the river. Some parts of these shapes were pink in color and some red and some ordinary sand color. Both Sanjay and the child were lost in appreciation of this art with their eyes wide open.

About the Author:

P.Muralidharan, effectively bilingual, lives in Chennai, India. His short story Shoulder written in English has been chosen by HydRaW for their annual Anthology 2020. He has been awarded the Bharathidasan Award for senior writer. He won the second prize in 2019 for a short story based on the third gender. He stands out in the Modern Tamil literature for more than a decade. His works have been published in renowned literary magazines. Besides the collection of poetry  ‘kaippaikkuL kamaNdalam’, ‘kuthirai erum kaathal’, ‘Veliye veedu’, short story collections ThaadaNgam and Thol pai, his novels Mul veli, Bhodi Maram, and Vigraham have been published. He has also translated into Tamil 2 books, inlucuding Shashi Tharoor’s  ‘Why I am  Hindu’.

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