Sachiin and Susan are in Kathmandu, doing washing by the river since they're avoiding laundromats for... reasons. Anyway, a bunch of kids from the adjacent ghetto have come down to do the same, and Sachiin tells them an old story.
Hope you're having a decent holiday. Enjoy the tale.
They began a randomized interrogation, the girls lapsing into hill dialect when he delighted them with his parochial replies; as he came to the end of his washing, one of the eldest produced a Hindi celebrity magazine and suggested that he read an article aloud, longing to be party to the text accompanying the brilliant images. The younger cohort objected loudly,and he compromised by offering to relate a story of his own selection. His court of miniature vassals ceased their clamouring and seated themselves about him, slim hands shading their eager gazes.
"This is about a princess, and is a very old story from a very, very old kingdom that was once part of India, but is now buried under a desert."
"There was a wicked king, more wealthy than all of the other kings around him put together, and so vain that every morning he insisted on being carried to do puja on an enormous white elephant, dressed from head to toe in silver with a tikka made of ruby juice. If he saw a grain of dust on the elephant's harness, he called the sice, and had him lick that dust off with his tongue, and then the elephant squashed his head on a stone with its foot. And the very worst thing about all of this was that the part of the garden he rode that white elephant over was from here..." He patted the stone of the ghat and then pointed at the far side of the street. "To there." The girls expressed their wonder and disgust on cue, and fell silent again.
The silent audience were visibly struggling to digest this new, expanded definition of largesse.
"One night a jamindar came running into the palace and threw himself before the king... he had found something the king did not possess, and he agreed to hear what this prize could be, sitting on his throne while a dozen brahmins fanned him with punkahs made from phoenix feathers. 'I have found, oh King, a girl who is the most beautiful in not only this kingdom, but twenty others.' The king demanded to know what he would do with a girl such as this... 'I am told that they are costly to feed, and that their voices can be disagreeable.' he complained. 'You can marry her, oh King, and once she if your wife, you can do with her exactly as you wish.' promised the jamindar. 'She is as beautiful as a deer and a bauhania flower, if those two things could be squashed together.' 'Well,' said the king... 'I certainly don't want anyone else marrying her... bring her to the palace, and make sure she doesn't give me any trouble, or it's the elephant's foot for you!'"
Sachiin paused, anticipating interruption. Several of the older girls conferred, and one of them asked him to quantify the cited maiden's beauty, watching him closely as he formulated his reply. They queried him extensively on the precise amount of jewellery worn by such a heroine, necessitating a lengthy digression. Susan eased her legs out before her at the edge of the stone and rolled herself a cigarette.
"So the jamindar returned to this girl's village and told her to pack up her things and say goodbye to her parents, which she did, because she didn't want the cruel king to be angry with her family. She set off to the palace in purdah so that no one else could enjoy looking at her, now that she was to become the king's wife."
"As soon as the king saw this beautiful girl, he felt jealousy stab him all over his body like a thousand thieves with knives, and when the wedding ceremonies were over, he ordered everyone who had spoken to the bride be put to death. To that wicked king, the thought of sharing her with anyone was as disgusting as eating rotten lizards. He commanded that from that moment on, if he should hear of her talking to another person he would kill them and most probably her as well, if he could be bothered, with his own sword. The princess was terribly sad, and told the king that such a fate would be preferable to the great loneliness she would feel, and the King replied that she was forbidden to be lonely because it bored him greatly. She agreed to do what her husband commanded, but she could not give up puja, because she loved Krishna and Durga Ma more than anything. The king agreed to this, but only in case Durga Ma struck down his elephant and forced him to walk somewhere."
"One night Durga Ma appeared to her in her dreams and she woke up the next morning, put on her best red sari and asked to see the wicked king, alone so that none of the guards or servants could see her face, just as he had ordered. The king agreed, and waited for her on his throne, already very angry because he had to fan himself, since there were no slaves to use the punkah."
"The princess reminded him of his horrible law and asked him if he would take it back, because it was selfish and stupid and cruel. He told her he was the king, and it was his right to do whatever he wanted, and besides, people would laugh at him if they knew his wife was bossing him around."
For a small while the circle of faces shared a frown, but one by one, the girls began to smile to themselves in appreciation, rising to their feet and pressing their hands together in a grateful namaste, all grins and flapping hands as they trundled back across the road.
"They're all going to marry you when they grow up." Susan murmured, putting out her cigarette and picking up the shirt that he had discarded earlier that morning. Sachiin sighed as he lay back on the stone with his head in the shade, closing his eyes.
"Are you cool with that?" he smiled.