They looked at each other, silently acknowledging that they were running out of time. In unison, they began chanting. It was an old mantra, one that had been lost in the years after the wars between the Chola and the Chalukya kingdoms, when magic had been outlawed in the capital city of Thajavur.
The sun was out and the heat was unbearable. The dust and sand of June temperatures in the dry parts of the kingdom affected everyone, rich and poor. At least, the weather was fair.
The small pathway under the arch leading into the slums was a cool respite from the bustle outside. The girls remained there completely concealed, as they prepared to finish what their mother had started.
Aksha’s dark brown hand held the Cinnabar tightly. It was an important element in the common alchemy of the three Southern kingdoms. Expensive and rare, it represented the chemical union of Shiva and Shakti, the Destroyer and his Consort.
She opened her right palm to reveal the dark red stone and gestured for her sister Ankara to place her left palm over it. Their mother had believed that power shared was power doubled, and Aksha was determined to prove her right. As the air around them began to ripple, Aksha’s relief was apparent. She smiled at her older sister. Ankara smiled back as she picked up both the volume and pace of the chant.
The air on the main street started to ripple now as well. Ankara knew they were close, close enough to the building opposite them. It was old and unimportant; or so it wanted to seem. Inside this house, however, the most powerful men and women in the kingdom came to meet with a beguiling young singer.
Born of the slums, the singer had risen to prominence by being the illegitimate daughter of a powerful nobleman with no other children. Her father knew that since he could never leave his wealth to her she would never be married. Instead, he had her installed as a student with a renowned Carnatic singer, so that she may have some access to the world he so freely moved in.
People now came from all over the kingdom to hear her sing, and then pay for her time – and other skills. After all, no matter how beautiful and wealthy, a slum girl was never going to escape her mother’s profession. And so on a weekly basis, the rich and powerful milled about in this otherwise unremarkable house.
Ankara kept the notes of the chant steady as she felt stone heat up under her palm. The enchantments that usually protected the house were not there today. She was surprised, but not unhappy. They did not need this to be harder than it was already going to be.
The ripples surrounded and permeated the house as they continued chanting.
Amshuda sat on her dais, smiling benevolently at the Minister of Trade as he pontificated in front of her. The harsh scar running down the left side of his cheek made him even uglier than he already was. Looking at the scar, her fingers involuntarily clenched into fists. His stench made her want to gag but she responded by artfully arranging her sari, making it seem as if she had dressed up just for him. The main foyer of the house was bustling with writers, musicians, landed gentry and some distant relations of the King. Many of the men in that room had spit on families like hers while exploiting them.
Now, they had all come to see the whore’s daughter made good.
Her teacher had hated her caste and dark skin, but even he could not deny the power of her voice. A voice like that could not be wasted, even on a half-caste mutt like her, he had often said. He never gave her affection or praise, but on the day of her graduation, he told her father that she sang better than the Brahmins who came from prestigious families. That had to be enough.
Amshuda took a deep breath and gestured to her musicians as everyone took their seats. She started with a song in Charukesi, her favorite raga. The raga meant ‘beautiful hair’ and she played with her black locks as she lightly tapped a beat on her right hand.
As she sang, she noticed the Minister was breathing hard at the back of the room. He clutched his arm and started to turn red. She closed her eyes, not willing to let him distract her. She continued singing as no one, not even his aides, paid attention to anything else. As she finished her song to Muruga, son of the Destroyer, she opened her eyes to see grown men with tears in theirs.
“Bravo, Amshuda! Truly stupendous! What talent!” she heard all around the room. She smiled and humbly accepted the praise. It was nothing new to her, but a low-caste woman must always appear humble and naive in front of such people.
“The Minister!” A sudden scream from the wife of the commerce secretary. “He is on the floor!” The spellbound aides came out of their reverie and rushed to him.
“He has had a heart attack!”
“How is that possible?”
“How did we not see him fall?”
“Call for the doctor!” Amshuda had a doctor on call at all times due to the nature of her clientele. She sent her coachman to get him immediately, but it was too late.
One of the aides started sobbing. “He is gone! What a great loss to the kingdom!”
Amshuda’s vision clouded and her breath came in short stops. Her hands shook as she buried her face in them, and allowed herself to cry.
Her bodyguards looked at each other nervously, not knowing what to do. In the years they had known her they had never once seen her cry. They had not thought she was even fond of the Minister let alone had loved him enough to cry like this. They wondered if she was putting on an act to avoid being questioned when the royal inquiry came. The other women in the room looked at her in sympathy but none went to her to touch or soothe her; the pollution of her caste always hanging over her.
Her doctor arrived and pronounced the Minister officially dead. Her men sent for the Minister’s horses and in a few minutes, they had loaded him into it. The others left to prepare his family for the news and the kingdom for the state funeral ahead.
Amshuda sent her bodyguards away, telling them she needed to be alone to grieve. She stayed up all night praying to Shiva, begging the Destroyer for forgiveness, for daring to trespass on what is his alone.
Before dawn, she pushed the cupboard in the corner of her room out of the way. The secret door behind it was already open. She ran down the steps into the underground passageways. Before long, she was out in the streets of the slums, feeling more at home there than she ever had anywhere else.
Footsteps approached behind her, small and hesitant.
She turned just as the girls rushed into her arms. They cried now as well, the aftermath taking its toll. She held them and stroked their hair. “It’s done, you’ve done it.” They looked up at her. “Thank you for doing what I couldn’t do.”
Her magic worked through her voice. She could only charm and influence, never directly harm. Her sister, however, had the power to physically hurt. Her sister had fought hard while being raped, sending out a ripple strong enough to slash her attacker across the cheek. In rage, he had killed her, leaving the body for her daughters to find.
Amshuda had to hide the anguish she felt upon learning her only sister had died in that manner. She and her sister had different fathers, and Amshuda had never trusted hers enough to tell him. In the slums, she had found her nieces surviving off rotten food with nothing but their mothers’ last inheritance to keep them safe.
Amshuda used every single bit of money her father had given her to get them onto a ship and into an academy up north that still practiced the old ways in secret, far out of reach of the three kingdoms.
“Your time at Dhatuvada has made you strong. Your teacher has taught you well.” The girls beamed. Their teacher, though she loved them, was not given to praise either. Perhaps this is how all how great artists are made.
“How did you manage to bring the protection enchantments around the house down? Can your magic do that now?” asked Aksha.
“No, I paid the slum witch. I didn’t want to test your new skills too much.” Amshuda ruefully replied.
They laughed as she straightened up. “Come, I have to get you back to school by midnight tomorrow. The ship is waiting. We must get to the docks before the sun comes up.”
She took their hands as they walked out of the slums, all three of them finally at peace.
Cover image Lady in the Moonlight, 1889 © Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons