The horse ran through the thick darkness of the night, tearing into its ominous black. The piercing whistle punctured the sound of the galloping hooves.
‘Too close’ she thought anxiously and pleaded her horse to race faster.
‘Run, Karuppa. Save me from ignominy. Run’. Just then her faithful animal cleared a thicket with hurried ease. But he landed on a marsh, skidded and fell on his side pinning the queen precariously to the ground. She gasped for air. She could not breathe. She could not move. She could not scream. All she could hear is her daughter, Vellachi’s wail.
She woke up with a start, sweating and shaking.
When I heard the queen stirring in her bed I knew she had a nightmare. My charpoy was laid very close to the queen’s bed that I could hear a faint moan. I got up to check on her.
‘Amma, are you awake?’
She nodded as she got out of her bed and went towards the palace balcony. I quietly followed her.
‘What time is it?’ she asked. The full moon was in the west, approaching the end of its night journey. ‘Close to dawn’ I answered and noticed pearls of sweat her forehead.
‘Are you worried about tomorrow?’
I thought I saw her eyes glistening in the moonlight. She rarely cried. I have been with her for a year now to know that.
When she turned to me, she tried to rein her tears.
‘I am sorry’, she said. ‘I wish it isn’t Kuiyili’.
‘If it isn’t my daughter, Amma, it will be another daughter of the soil who goes on this mission tomorrow and whoever goes will never return to her mother’s lap.’ I said.
‘It is destined that a daughter has to die for the kingdom and the mother has to grieve. If it is meant to be us, then so be it’.
We stared into the vast emptiness of the night, pondering over the previous day’s happenings.
Our espionage team had been tracking the movement of the British for a while now and the latest tipoff about their ammunition storage was our chance to launch a surprise attack. Though our army was head and shoulder above the British army in bravery and valour, we lacked were guns and ammunition that could inflict injury from a distance. Their storage unit was in a temple where only women were allowed. The plan was that a few guerilla warriors would enter the temple carrying innocuous looking earthen lamps. They would then sneak into the storage unit, douse one of them in ghee and oil from the lamps they were carrying and slip out. That courageous warrior would then set herself ablaze detonating the entire stock. Before the enemy could recover from it, an ambush would bludgeon the enemy to defeat. Deep South, far from their power Centre, a decisive attack would cripple the British. Throughout the day, maps were drawn, military formations were discussed and strengths and flaws were identified. All agreed that the best-laid plan’s success hinged on that one person of valour, who would agree to go on this suicidal mission. The person had only one shot at getting it right. If captured, the alerted enemy’s retaliation would be gruesome. Kuiyili, as the head of the guerilla warriors, volunteered to be the self-immolator.
Ah!!! Kuiyili, my daughter. My only daughter, whom I trusted, would give me grandchildren and breath life into my mundane days. My daughter whom I clung on to for strength when my husband died unexpectedly. My daughter, my child, my life’s justification.
I turned away from the queen to hide my tears and walked slowly to my charpoy.
I thought of my daughter as I hummed her favourite lullaby, the song that never ceased put a toothless smile on her face.
‘Sleep your sleep, my dear.
Before the world jolts you up with her worries
I am Queen Velu Nachiyar’s helpmate. All of 13 years old, I was called upon to be her servant, when she was born. My queen is the only daughter of the King of Ramnad and is, predictably raised to rule the kingdom. Her prowess in archery horse riding and silambattam is matched by her eloquence in French, English, and Urdu apart from all the Dravidian languages. After her marriage with the Raja of Sivaganga, I accompanied her to her marital home along with my family.
I have been her faithful servant and at times, even her guide and a mother. Today, when she gets ready to fight her first battle against the East India Company, I am sacrificing my own flesh and blood for her cause.
Eight years before in 1772, our king, Muthuvaduganathar of Sivaganga was on his way to the temple, when the army of British East India Company and Nawab of Arcot ambushed him. They had been planning to bring the kingdom of Sivaganga under the company’s realm. The King was slain and the British usurped the ruling powers of Sivaganga. When the news reached her ears, Velu Naachiyar could muster to feel proud about his valiant death. But what she could not comprehend was the gore that the enemy unleashed on her subjects that went beyond the fair show of might. There were slain and mutilated bodies of women and children everywhere. Then there was no time to cry. She had a kingdom to retrieve and a daughter to save and deaths to avenge. She knew she would be their next target. She disguised herself and escaped, seeking refuge in the adjacent kingdom of Virupaachi Gopala Nayakaar.
A fierce fighter that she is, she is also an artful negotiator. During eight years of exile, she appealed for support from small fiefdoms. She sought military help from Hyder Ali of Mysore. Her dignity in the time of distress and her well-articulated Urdu so impressed the King, that he promised infantry and cavalry support. The benevolent King treated her as the Queen she is and not as a refugee.
The Queen after gathering a strong army, including the formidable guerilla women warriors, was ready to strike. A network of spies kept trickling information about our enemies.
Finally, after eight long years of licking the wound, the tigress was ready to pounce.
Tonight, my daughter will visit me to seek my blessing. I took leave of my queen earlier in the afternoon to prepare my daughter’s last meal, her favourite fish curry. I will make it less spicy, for it might smart her tongue. I will make balls of rice and feed her as I did when she was a young girl.
How naughty she was then. Agile as she was, she would scale the wall and sit in the attic, teasing me to find her. To amuse her, I would search for her in the pots and pans and pretend to cry when I could not find her. Then she would jump down and hug me and wipe away my mock tears.
I am lost in these thoughts, when a soldier from our army, knocks on my door. Commander Kuiyili is still in discussion, he informs me. She will be late by a few hours. But a few hours is all that is left, I think. My eyes are glued to the door, each rustle, and creek, proving to be a disappointment to my expectant stare.
Finally, she is here. She is running late, she says and does not have time to eat. She touches my feet and ironically, I bless her with success.
What do I tell her?
Where do I start?
Do I ask her if it will hurt? Of course, it will.
As a two-year-old, she had singed her fingers once when she tried to touch a boiling cauldron. She had cried for hours.
Maybe she read the dilemma in my eyes or is she scared my yearning may break her will, for she immediately gets ready to take leave of me. She reaches for the door and hesitantly turns towards me for the last time. I run to her and she hugs me tight for one last time. Before I realize, she is gone, her warmth and smell, still lingering on me.
I stand there, looking at the door for a long time, not knowing what to do. Leaving the food untouched, I head towards the palace.
When I reached the premises, Anxiety hung in the air like an obnoxious smell. At the order of the Queen, I am conducted to the grand hall, where the commanders and the Queen herself are assembled, eagerly waiting for information from our messengers. I learn Kuiyili had already entered the temple in the guise of a devotee. The silence in the cavernous room is deafening. When the Queen sees me enter the room and she nods in acknowledgement. Each one of us in the room is occupied in our own thoughts, fixing their vacant gaze on the floor. We hear the approaching hooves of a sprinting horse and I can see muscles and fist clenched in apprehension. There are muffled murmurs before the messenger reached our hall. He heads towards the queen, his face barely hiding his pride while he delivers the parchment. All of us try to read the Queen’s eyes as it runs over the information on the parchment.
‘Victory’, she says and the crowd breaks into a rapturous celebration. The crowd hails the Queen, the kingdom, and Kuiyili. The queen calms the crowd to deliver her speech before they disperse to carry on their dawn attack.
‘Now that the first sword is drawn, there is no looking back. Our Kuiyili is the Phoenix. From her ashes, she will raise and kindle the fire of a thousand of us to fight for what is rightly ours. Long live her fame. Long live the Kingdom of Sivaganga’ she proclaimed with fervour.
Tears stream down from my eyes. I am sure they are tears of joy and pride. The cacophony is muted to me and all I can hear is my daughter crying out for me, amma….amma…. when the fire tasted her ebony skin.
Oh Kuiyili, Won’t you come back to me?
Velu Nachiyar is the first queen who revolted against the British. She went on to rule the kingdom of Sivaganga for another 10 years. She died of natural causes in the year 1790, passing on her crown to her daughter, Vellachi.
Kuiyili’s mother is fictional. All other characters, dates, and incidents are true to the best of writer’s knowledge.