Once i was a Prince

Once I was a Prince

by T. Wignesan

                   for Granny Letchumi (b. circa fin de siècle – d. 1978)

Once i was a prince in your highbeamed palm-thatched house
                                                              timber and stone
of hardened mud and cold green shiny cement
in your village ribbed with drying splintering palmleaf fences
         buttressed by ferns
palmyra jackfruit mango trees standing solitary sentinel in compound    

then just for a month
                                  i was a prince in your eyes
i hazarded the Bay of Bengal on a lolling steamer
and watched in unbelief naked children dive for coins in the Nagapattinam offshore anchorage
just to be with you
still a teeny dreamy youth
and there you were
afraid that your village ways might irk me
make me want to go back before time

the day i arrived a double murder in the island
a day or two earlier another
vendetta vengeance wreaked in blood for slights of caste contraventions
other threats other life-taking threats for mere unintended insults  
     innuendoes injuries
            to the state of one’s birth
                  to the validity of one’s finance one’s moral upstandingness one’s looks one’s genealogy
a longdrawnout court case for the plucking of a ripe mango from an overhanging branch in the neighbour’s compound

sitting squat on your two firm broiled scarred feet
your coarse borderless demure saree stretched to its apparent tatters
your stalwart all-bearing sturdiness masked in that humble crouching  
your rough-rolled cheroot smouldering on the edge of the kitchen-patio  
                                                               cemented mudfloor
and rolling off the corner of the wallbacked seat from where you listened to the swish swish of my coming down the fine sand-filled path rising swiftly furtively only to prepare the ceremonial washing of my feet hands face with the natural coolness from your own ancestral well the chembu as you reverently tilted it giving off just that much of thrashing water into my upturned cupped hands
your meloncholy dreamy gaze riveted on my face my hands my hair my feet recalling perhaps the husband you moaned and whom I had never seen not even in a word-picture
your eyes those bee’s full trusting warm honey-coloured ensconced within sharply falling epicanthic folds watching without imposing but who knows how nostalgically
your fear of touching me with those toil-knotted fingers lest I recoil worn yet tender frail still strong from serving two husbands over half a century lest I inadvertently even make a gesture that might make you feel unlike someone of your highborn bridal glory

Once i was a prince in your eyes
my every wish granted
even before I could wish it
                                          eevaa peerankal muuvaa maruntu

the hot kuul boiling complaining in the chemman earthenpot
your apparent fear that the nextdoor neighbour woman might begin her daily chant of your ancestors’ drawbacks failings mishaps for fear that my still sheltered ears might tire of your village ways tire of the lack of other comforts running water showers toilets for fear that your native untutored tongue might sound too outlandish to my ears
your pain perpetually shrivelled between your brows notching your fine  
                                                                        flanking nose

Once you touched me
for I had not risen at the appointed hour for my ritual bath
the huge cauldron of water simmering on stacked bricks
for you daren’t let me expose my yet-unscorched skin to the mild chill of early morning dew rising in the torrid heat
your full palm cupped protectively across my forehead
held a fleeting moment longer than necessary
in the freshly carpented wooden cubicle you had had made for me where I slept within fresh crisp cotton and soothing silk torn no doubt
                                  from your bridal saree
and again you brought it down after wiping off the cooking wet with one  
                                                                   edge of your saree
the consternation in your all-watching eyes you had no time to hide

i could hear you calling out to the boy passing down the pathway to the  
your urgent voice pressing instructions
and the boy then setting the wickerbasket full of corn down on the finesand track and retracing his fleeting steps as the familiar swish swish of bare feet slurping sand fills my ears an urgent call to the Ayurvedic doctor husband now some nights bedded by his concubine
then as the boy returned with the message of the vaithi’s arrival within        
                                                                                  the hour
the yet other curative orders to have fresh palmyra toddy milked for me
then you forbade me to leave the bed dabbed and cleaned me
and served me for seven long days on the toddy that made my flesh      
                                                                          swell and shine

how you never failed to precede me with the cut palmyra branch
like a ferocious Saracen with his scimitar – i imagine – before his  
                               advancing lord and master
every time i took it upon myself to take that narrow footpath into the    
                                                                      back compound
overgrown with palmyra coco-palm sweet mango guava and papaya and the swordlike rasping grass trembling upright in the low crumbling wind and the thorny touch-me-not ground-hugging folding brush
swishing away with your sunshrivelled burgundy knotty arms with broad disdainful harvesting sweeps
the cobras come out to water in the sweltering heat by the thatched fly-buzzed hole
your low under-the-breath warning tones a reminder of the will of your self-inflicted charge

you never ate until i gorged myself
like the dutiful wife given with a dowry
watching me all the time through the shield of the wisp of cloud of cheroot smoke in your sentinel corner against the far wall your eyes glinting fearing that i might take exception and even before my plate was half-empty you had already darted across the kitchen floor to bring me more fried brinjals mashed greens fried and sliced plantain the steaming rice lying bare by its metal cover hanging on the lip of the open pot-mouth in a clear aluminium pot by my side

now they say you are gone for some plotted and took your life in haste
even before you had time to ensure an heir
others say you were alone dismayed abandoned by your own
prey to enchanters coveting
the plot of land the house derelict forsaken by your absence
they say some one caretakes it for himself
others no a forbidden son of your husband’s has raked it for himself

alas would you have known how landless nationless stateless i’d be
this dot of ancestral land clinging clanging in memory

did you know then you might never see me again
nor probably ever hear of me
or if you had how might you have taken it all
did you believe the tales true and false they told
or only what you wanted to hear
of your precious prince you once served in silence and

                   who had gone to slave in other lands


eevaa peerankal muuvaa marunthu is a take on another well-known Tamil proverb:
eevaa makkal muuvaa marunthu meaning “children who obey even before the order is given are a God-send”. Here, in lieu of children, the word “grandparents” is substituted

chembu: a small usually copper vessel shaped like a rounded vase with a tapering neck and open mouth, used for holding drinking water or milk

kuul: thick holdall gruel which may also be highly spiced

chemman: red soil

vaithi: ayurvedic doctor, practising the traditional Indian homeopathic medicine


T. Wignesan

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