Tuesday 10 August 2021

Preetha Vasan, ShortStory 2021 Longlist

The Lac Palace


Savitri changes her name to Itri every morning when she leaves her hovel and walks, swaying her hips, towards her spot at the corner where the wide roads meet under the shadow of the wide banyan tree that shelters her from the summer heat of Varnavrat. It is impossible to solicit customers with a name like Savitri; prostitutes cannot be named after women who saved their husbands from the jaws of death. Her customers like the sound of Itri; it has a nice ring to it, and they roll it around their tongue as if it is wine and honey. Plus, one of them had pointed out, it suits her slim yet voluptuous figure. She has locked her hovel and hidden the key under the bushes. She dare not carry the key with her; they are safer here than in the recesses of her blouse. Every customer , desiring her for the night, always enquired where she lived .Nights in Varnavrat are dark and unsafe, and Itri prefers the shelter and solitude of her hovel to which she returns every evening after an exhausting day of satisfying cheating husbands and lust driven others. So yet another morn Savitri becomes Itri like she had done the past ten years since her miscarriage after her husband left her, pregnant and hungry.

Her corner has been taken, again, by those wretched beggar-children who drive away prospective customers with their dirty clawing hands, their booger –smeared faces and their stink. She must complain to Malikarjuna when he comes around in the evening to suck them dry of their day’s earnings. However he dare not ask her for hers, because she had made sure he wanted her services for free. Well, it was not completely without remunerations: Her occasional passing references to what his wife would do to Malikarjuna if she knew the many ways Itri can excite her husband abstains him from eyeing Itri ‘s cloth pouch tucked at her hip.

Itri hopes the old man from the forest, where they are building a grand palace, turns up today also; the last six days in his hovel, in the outskirts of Varnavrat, have been most lucrative .Plus he is less demanding than other out- of- towners. Most of them need her services the whole day, reducing her to the state of her threadbare sarees . The old man is simple. Half drunk most of the time, he had no idea how she aided him; by the time she was done with her hand, he was snoring. She would guzzle the rest of his drink, listen to him mumbling, in his drunken sleep, about the palace, pocket the cash and leave. She wonders, as she drives away the children, if he will ever take her to the palace; she has never seen one before. And this one, made of some special shiny wood with lots of drawings that tell wondrous stories, is supposed to be all white and brown and grand. Why wouldn’t it be? After all it will be housing the famous Pandava princes and their mother, queen Kunti .


Mallikarjuna does not like his job much, but it fetches him excellent income. He is very good with it too , especially the way- thanks to his whiplashing leather- he ensures the children give him their day’s earnings ( an amount fixed by him), every evening. The only thing Mallikarjuna cannot forgive himself for was the slip in his professionalism with that bitch Itri ,because( he is sure of it ) she had tempted him that evening : tactfully revealing her taut navel , the curve of her breast, and afterwards knowing, as she did, exactly what to do, to make him crave for more. No wonder she drew such a clientele! And she had refused his payment too! It was only after several exciting late evenings with her he had found out her real intention; he can never get over that trick. The bitch! Hence the latest offer titillates him with the sweet prospects of revenge because he is going to make her do something she hates to do: Mother the five beggar children.

The woman from the palace was referred to him, she had said, by some person with a vague name that Mallikarjuna cannot recall. It doesn’t bother him, because her offer, provided Mallikarjuna can supply her with a beggar woman and five children to partake in the charity feast organised for the palace’s inaugural, was beyond his best dreams. Of course he had to swallow the humiliating disappointment that followed. The woman had categorically told him he cannot, most certainly, attend the grand feast. Mallikarjuna loves a grand feast. The lucky little bastards! But he must convince the bitch first.

The sun sets in the distant horizon and Varnavrat is a deep orange. He can see the shadows under the banyan tree. The bitch is flinging gravel at the children to keep them away from her. A little girl grabs Itri’s hands and she smacks it as though it is one of the million mosquitoes that come alive in the darkness of the night, noisily demanding your blood. Mallikarjuna grins to himself; he is going to make her an offer she would not consider refusing .Yet how the bitch will cringe and squirm before she accepts it! He cannot wait to wipe that brazen smirk off her face.


The crook Mallikarjuna is lying, Itri is certain. What a foolish thing for a woman from the palace- Itri is sure she is royalty, though Mallikarjuna doesn’t think so –to insist! Why must she go as those ugly creatures’ mother? Why can’t queen Kunti serve her grand feast to the equally poor prostitute? She won’t, Mallikarjuna had insisted. The double standards of the rich: Need a prostitute to satisfy their needs but the uncharitable dogs will kick her out of their inaugural feast unless she will turn into a respectable mother. It is all too much to consider for Itri : the disgust of chaperoning those filthy , stinky things as their mother. But then again there is the eager anticipation of going to the palace. The palace is where the old man works for the famous architect Purochana. Maybe they can find a dark corner (she doubts this considering it is the inauguration of a grand palace) and she can make a few quick bucks. The double earnings would certainly not hurt her stomach.

Itri has worn her marriage saree, maroon and embroidered, as least seductively as possible. She cannot, Mallikarjuna had insisted, show her navel. Nor can she wear it like a string of cloth between her breasts. The moths have gotten to it before her, tearing a hole here, removing a seam there. But it makes her feel grand and reminds her of happier times. She wants to hold on to these glad thoughts; the dirty lot she has to escort dampen any rising mirth . Itri, however, is not going to the palace only for the feast or the two hundred copper coins Mallikarjuna has paid her . Oh no! She intends to slip inside the palace .She is sure she can blend with the servants. But the rogue Mallikarjuna had roundly chided her when she had made the suggestion, warning her against such daft behaviour, because the woman from the palace had expressly said that the beggar woman and the five children must come to the yawning backyard of the palace for that is where their food would be served by- and this was the grandest part of the deal- the splendid queen, Kunti Devi herself.

Itri sighs; if only she can go all by herself to the palace, she can easily defy Mallikarjuna’s pathetic instructions. But going as she is with the dirty , pongy brats( she is sure they have not washed themselves for the occasion) , she would be arrested if as much as their shadows crossed the portals. The royal woman had made that very clear. Itri also cannot understand why she must escort five- one is bad enough- of those noisy brats. And Mallikarjuna had firmly insisted on the five boys, certainly not the little boy’s elder sister. That dark, ugly girl had bawled most tiresomely the whole day when she knew her brother was to go and not her.


Well, the bitch had agreed and why wouldn’t she ? Her large eyes had turned, in disbelief, that sensuous discus when she found out what she was going to earn to turn up as a charity case at a feast at the grand palace. But the moment the shrew heard about playing the role of a Nishada mother of five hungry children to get the rewards, she swore and flung gravel and stone at him . She would go alone; she could eat for all of them. The gall of her! But he had put his foot down; the five children go with her or there will be neither feast nor the promised two hundred copper coins. He had secreted the five hundred copper coins he had pocketed earlier that day for supplying the woman from the palace her required five children.The brats must be feasting now. Mallikarjuna’s mouth waters when he thinks of the rich sweets and the crispy savouries the six of them must be stuffing into their reeking mouths at this very moment.


Itri wants to get back to her hovel. It will be dark soon and she is concerned about her safety while she walks across the forest, down the black alleys and up the narrow lane leading to her hovel. She stares in disgust at the sprawled sleeping figures around her. Classless, shameful lot-collapsing like stuffed pythons immediately after the meal! It is not that she is waiting for them to wake up; she would have been on her way, but she can’t move a muscle and her head is heavy with a fast approaching sleep. Even six jugs of Laka’s illegal arrack does not do this to her.

Hours later Itri wakes up fully aware that someone is on top of her. However it is pitch dark and she doesn’t sleep with customers in the night. She struggles to keep her eyes open. It is the old man, she thinks. She tries to smile at him. But her lips do not move and something is filling up her lungs. It tastes like her food which always has the flavour of log smoke. The darkness has disappeared and she can see a warm orange like Varnavrt morns all around her. It is the roof of the palace. No wonder the old man was in awe of the palace; it is blazing like thousand suns and she can feel the heat engulfing her. Before the roof collapses all over her, she catches sight of the five bodies slumped next to her; the brats have managed to creep in with her into the halls of the palace. The idea repels her. And just when her skull explodes spilling out her brains she wonders if they saw her and the old man.


Mallikarjuna is not at all surprised about the bitch’s absence from her usual spot under the tree; two hundred copper coins will take time to spend, even if one were to go by Itri’s extravagant standards. He has more serious concerns; he cannot find the five beggar boys anywhere. The wretches are probably sleeping off the heavy feast somewhere. The elder sister of the little boy had come complaining that her little brother had not returned from the feast. All drivel and claptrap! When he finds them what a lashing he would give them for absconding and cutting his day’s income to zilch. But no one in all of Varnavrat will help him search for the work-shirkers, because the blighted city is abuzz with gossips about the burnt down palace and the blackened dead bodies of the queen and her five sons. In the swirling talk about a conspiracy Mallikarjuna’s angry enquiry about the whereabouts of the sources of his everyday income is quite lost.


Kunti wakes up sweating. It is always the same nightmare: smoke filling up her lungs and her sons smouldering into ashes next to her inert body. On all the other mornings she had woken up with this dream she had convinced herself it was the memory of the bodies she watched burn : Karna, Abhimanyu, Draupadeya, Ghatothkach , Sutasoma, Shrutakarma, Shatanika , Shrutasena .... Names she would recall through the weary day, slowly forgetting the dream till it started with a fresh onslaught the following night, then the next, and the next like the endless bodies of grandsons and nephews she had burnt.

This dawn, however, not a single name comes to her rescue. She cannot smell the fresh grass of the forest amidst the Himalayas either, nor sip the waters from the stream behind the thatched hut where she lives with her brother-in- law and her sister-in-law, because everything tastes and smells of log smoke and lacquer. As she washes her aging face Kunti knows , as she has known all along, what the dream is about , because at the end of the nightmare they-she, and her sons – always run through a long underground tunnel .

Kunti knows she will never sleep again; unlike the knocked out Nishadin and her children who slept their drugged sleep in the pyre of a scorching lac palace, because a queen wanted to save herself and her sons, the future rulers of Hastinapura. The word sacrifice comes to Kunti’s lips but fades quickly in the growing fear of the night which though hours away, will surely come.


In the chapter “ Lakshagriha” in The Mahabharata Duryodhana plans to kill the Pandavas by building a Lac Palace in Varnavrat using his architect Purochana. The palace is made of lacquer , a highly combustible substance. He asks the Pandavas to stay there and plans to set the palace on fire. Forewarned by Vidura who builds an underground tunnel, Kunti and the Pandavas drug the food of a Nishadin woman and her five children who are invited to the palace. While the palace with the Nishadin woman and her children burns to ashes , Kunti and the Pandavas escape via the tunnel. The next day when six charred bodies are discovered it is believed Kunti and the Pandavas are dead.

My story is from the perspective of the Nishadin woman.

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