7. Lovers’ secrets
The following day, King Paali’s court Naalolakkam, started with the performance of the Koothanaar group. Koothanaar commenced the programme with his exceptional performance of the Kodukotti koothu, which held the audience in spell-bound wonder. The Thannumai and the udukkai (a small percussion drum made of monitor lizard skin) of Muzhavu Thalaiyan, reverberated like thunder in the Himalayas, the abode of Lord Shiva. The programme ended with Valli koothu. Panmozhi in the role of Valli the beautiful kurinji maiden, and Yaazhini playing Lord Murugan, were much appreciated by the court.
“Kaarvanna, you are a scholar from Chozha country. What do you say about this nearly divine art of our performers?”, asked King Paali, proud to consider them as belonging to his own Kurinji country.
Then Kaarvannan delivered a short but heart-felt speech praising the skill of the artists. He concluded with a poem which reflected the theme of the final piece of Valli Koothu.
While the crescent moon was spraying light in the west
The charming girl of the kurinji with chiming salangai
Walked with style and reached the cascade of water;
Where she found Murugan sitting with his spear!
Later the artists left the court, satisfied with the success of their performance, talking happily among themselves, reliving their shining moment over and over as they walked back to their temporary home.
Panmozhi, left alone, recollected the poem which Kaarvannan recited at the end of his speech. She understood Kaarvannan’s cleverly delivered personal message for her. She anxiously awaited the evening …
Polankuzhai, Yaazhini, and others wanted to go to the naalangaadi (evening bazaar) for some shopping. They asked Panmozhi, but she excused herself under the pretext of a headache. After they had left, Panmozhi left for the elephant rock near the waterfall. All along the way she was tortured with the thoughts, “Will he be there…?”, “Suppose he had not meant anything beyond…”, “What if there had been no hidden meaning in his words… and I had imagined it?” “How disappointing that would be… Disappointing?! Chee! It would be worse – mortifying, embarrassing… shameful!”, “But no! It can’t be… surely his eyes sought mine and gave me the secret message quite clearly!” She reassured herself the next second.
The sky gradually darkened, and the stars started twinkling one by one. A waxing crescent moon had risen over the Kodagu mountains. In the dull moonlight, she walked towards the small cascade of water that appeared like a silver thread. Now she could see the elephant rock. And was that a figure seated on the rock…? Yes! He was here! Oh joy! She had not misunderstood his hidden message! Her heart beat faster with the thrill of the anticipated meeting.
Kaarvannan’s legs were spattering the water of the running stream. He had been waiting there right from sunset, getting accustomed to the forest sounds and keeping his ears tuned for the sound of her anklets every moment. As the evening wore on, hope and dejection alternated in his mind. What if she had not understood the hidden meaning of my couplet? Or even after understanding, what if she didn’t relish the idea? Or didn’t like him? If she rejected him… ah, that thought was too much to bear. In that mood, he felt himself being mocked by the gurgling sound of the waterfall.
He would not let dejection win. He would keep his hope strong. His eyes peeled on the path she would take, ultimately when her figure appeared, his heart gave a leap of joy, just as hers had done. If she has taken the risk to come out alone at night, he reasoned that surely, she had feelings for him. On that very thought his heart was overwhelmed with joy.
Panmozhi stopped hesitantly under the kadhamba tree on the bank. They were both silent for a few moments, each absorbed in their own thoughts, trying to calm down their heartbeats. Kaarvannan broke the silence, admitting his feelings in a slightly coy manner: “I was anxious and restless. What if Valli, that charming maiden of kurinji with tinkling anklets didn’t come?” Then, seeing her so shy and hesitant, he added more playfully, “Oh Valli, don’t I look like the Lord Murugan of your dance performance, sitting here with his spear?”
Panmozhi smiled shyly and descended from the bank. Kaarvannan jumped lithely into the stream and stretched out his right hand towards her. She looked in his eyes for a moment, and then took his hand. Her feelings were all in a jumble, happiness mixed with the thrill of doing something in secret, that her people would be shocked by.
Cascading waters of the stream in the front, Western Ghats behind like a black elephant herd, and branches of Kadhamba trees laden with fragrant flowers leaning towards the stream, were creating a magical world around the lovers who sat hand in hand, on that elephant rock.
After a while, Kaarvannan said, “Panmozhi! When I came to Pali’s country, I never imagined that I would meet the girl of my dreams here.”
“Just a few days ago, I was innocent, without a care in the world, with nothing more important than my dance. But that was all before meeting you and losing my heart to you …” confessed Panmozhi.
“Speaking of your dance, aha, what beauty, what grace! You are simply the highest form of poetry Panmozhi! You have drawn me with your art!”
“Oh! My art is the main thing you are attracted to?”, Panmozhi asked coyly, wanting to hear him admit how he felt towards her, not just her art.
“Never! Panmozhi! I have met numerous dancers before and praised them for their art, but never felt like how I feel about you. I love you, and only you, Panmozhi!” Kaarvannan expressed his surging emotions, firmly holding and pressing her palm warmly.
On that delicate touch they both felt an electric current surging all over their bodies. They felt an unknown ecstasy filling their hearts. Her lips whispered, “This moment of inexpressible joy should continue forever …”
“With the pure Kaveri and the crescent moon as witnesses, here and now I swear to be yours forever!” Vannan vowed placing the palm of his right hand on her head gently.
Panmozhi, with bowed head, gave silent consent to him. It was unspoken but, in her mind, she was his forever.
Unable to take his hand away, he softly caressed her hair. She then gently lifted her face up to him, and he closed the gap and kissed her.
A few moments later, he pulled back to look at her face, his hand still playing with her hair. In a slightly unsteady voice, he said, “So, it’s true!”
“What is?”, she asked.
“A lover asked the bee which flies from flower to flower seeking honey, ‘O! Honey bee! Have you ever smelled a fragrant flower, more fragrant than my lady love’s beautiful tresses?’ Until now, I dismissed this as the abstract imagination of a poet, but now I realise that it is literally true!”, he replied.
“Whether the fragrance is in the hair or not, it is definitely in the mind”, remarked Panmozhi lightly.
“Panmozhi! Isn’t it wonderful and strange? We did not know each other until a few days ago. But today I feel as if I’ve known you for ages. How is that?”
“Coming from completely different regions, different backgrounds, how is there this feeling of knowing and belonging to each other? When it rains on the red soil, the rain water merges with the soil and becomes red. Like the rain water, I feel I have become one with you …”
Unnoticed by the lovers, who were so wrapped in each other, time was slipping by fast. The moon has gone behind some clouds. Only the twinkling stars were resisting the darkness of the night. A nightjar chirped somewhere close by, snapping Panmozhi suddenly out of their dream world. She realised that it was well beyond the time her family would have returned from the evening bazaar. She said to Kaarvannan, “I should now hasten back. My people would be anxious and have probably set out in a search party by now!”
Vannan realised in some surprise how much time had passed. The first quarter of the night was about to end. “Yes Panmozhi! Let us go. I must return to Puhar tomorrow … but we will meet soon.”
“Tomorrow already?” There was disappointment in Panmozhi’s voice. “But in this moment of boundless joy, I am reluctant to think of separation … On the completion of your job tomorrow if you depart for Puhar, how it is going to be possible for me to live in separation?” Panmozhi buried her head in his broad chest.
He wrapped his arms around her. “Panmozhi! Hereafter for me, there is no life without you. After discharging my official work at Puhar, I will talk to my parents, and then I shall definitely come back for you. I guess your group is headed to Puhar next. I will somehow meet you in the Chozha country and marry you with God and the whole city as witness! Please don’t be apprehensive on this count, not even for a moment!”, Kaarvannan tightly embraced her and reassured her.
They went downhill holding hands, deeply content, with the feeling of having come home to each other. Up in the sky, the stars twinkled, alive with this new lovers’ secret to gossip about!