Murder Most Foul
When the sun retired on cool evenings, purple shadows crept across the fields and villagers sat in stout, mud-brick houses either gossiping or telling stories. The elders sat closest to slow burning fires of cow-dung cakes dried during summer’s ferocity, and whenever they mentioned King Chitraketu’s name, they praised him.
Yet the king found his life more barren than a desert because he had not received a son from any of his wives. Whether he resided in his capital city Mathura, in the Indian province of Surasena, or whether he travelled by horse, elephant, camel or chariot he lamented.
Whenever he saw a man with a son, he asked himself. Which sinful action in my present life or my past lives prevents me from having an heir?
He put this question to ambiguous brahmin priests who replied. “Do your subjects complain there is any lack in the kingdom. Aren’t there enough grains and pulses, vegetables and fruits, nuts and spices, herbs and cloth?
The king sighed, listening to rain drumming on roofs where people sunned themselves during spring’s pregnant promise or slept during summer’s ripening heat.
The priests assured their pious king there would be no lack. Even the grass Mother Bhumi produced for cows and oxen made dung to nourish her and provided fuel for cooking and warmth.
When his spies confirmed his subjects were contented, he again asked himself. Why don’t I have a son? In my kingdom even racketeers can’t find black market goods because my people lack nothing.
Despite his country’s and his personal prosperity, Chitraketu grew thin. To have a son, he would gladly renounce his education, his health and his treasury filled with chests of gold and precious stones
His golden skin paled, his long black hair lost its shine and his moustache drooped mournfully at the edges of his unsmiling mouth.
The more wives he accepted the more he suffered from anxiety and the less he ate. Brahmin cooks made his favourite preparations, wafer thin unleavened breads, fluffy rice, tit-bits of vegetables fried in chick pea flour batter served with spiced sauces or yoghurt, and rice simmered in condensed milk with honey and almonds. Obsessed by his desire to hear his son’s laughter within the marble walls of his palace, he only ate enough to keep himself alive.
He never gave up hope. He accepted wife after wife and provided each one with a soft bed to lie on, silk clothes, gold girdles, earrings, nose rings and bracelets. Each queen consort sported in water gardens, crops were harvested, and although the still autumn air over-heated the blood he never dived into swimming baths of clear water to splash, tease or play with his consorts.
Until the day when Sage Angira, master of mystic knowledge, visited Chitraketu, each queen, famous for her good qualities and beauty, witnessed his self-pity, heard his lamentations and prayed to become mother of the heir apparent.
The king bowed his head, pressed his palms together as though he was praying and gestured to his gold throne set on a dais. “Please sit there, Sage Angira.”
In silence, the courtiers watched the ascetic go up the short flight of steps and sit down.
Sage Angira’s skin rippled over a spine disdaining to lean against the cushion furnishing the back of the throne.
Everyone, including the king, knew how indifferent sages were to comfort. At night their arms, with which they pillowed their heads, satisfied them as much as pillows as soft as swansdown.
Sage Angira did not bend his head topped with lustrous, black hair partly arranged in a bun and partly falling to his waist, around which was tied his only garment, a pleated, ankle-length, saffron cloth. In silence the holy man scrutinised his host, who circled a slipper-shaped brass dish containing a lighted ghee wick before him.
Following the custom, Chitraketu worshipped God’s representative. To the accompaniment of a tinkling bell and chanted hymns he continued the ceremony by offering incense, flowers, clean cloth and water to the sage and concluded it by blowing a conch shell.
He then sat cross-legged on the floor and Sage Angira the yogi, the master of all five senses addressed him. “My dear king, words are insufficient for me to express my appreciation of your hospitality and humility.”
The king stared at the ground while waiting for his visitor to continue.
“Are you in good health? Is your mind troubled? I hope that just as the earth receives showers, Lord Krishna’s delegates, the demi-gods and goddesses, shower you with blessings. In other words, I hope there is neither anything lacking nor any problems in your kingdom.
Chitraketu knew the sage used conventional phrases while piercing the fleshy veil of the body with omniscient eyes.
“My dear king, are you in complete control of your mind? Are you in control of your family, the courtiers, provincial governors, merchants who, with your permission, deal in silks and wool, spices and jewels? Can you control tax collectors, farmers and labourers?
Feeling the weight of his jewel-embedded, gold crown Chitraketu bent his head, stared at the sage’s feet and listened attentively.
“Have you no reply to make? Has someone let you down or have you failed to achieve something? Your pale face reveals you are distraught.”
The king took a deep breath. “My dear sage, you are a great personality, who neither rejoices over happiness nor laments over distress because you understand each condition is temporary. Nevertheless, you understand someone like me who alternates between cheerfulness and misery.”
He broke off, then, with tears spilling from the corners of his eyes, he continued. “A traveller is dissatisfied when his host puts flower garlands round his neck and gives him fragrant sandalwood pulp to cool his body. He wants food and drink. A king is discontented without an heir. An heir to light his funeral pyre and save his ancestors from hell by offering them sweetly perfumed flowers and flower garlands.”
Instead of replying, Sage Angira first offered Lord Krishna, The Supreme Personality of God, sweet rice and then gave it to Kritayouti, King Chitraketu’s senior wife. After she ate it, he said. “My dear king, your queen will present you with a son who will cause laughter and tears.”
The royal parents assumed Sage Angira’s words meant their son would play childish pranks and sometimes be disobedient.
After the sage left, rain impregnated the earth, the seeds within her swelled and the queen received a son into her womb.
As the days of her pregnancy passed Chitraketu observed Kritadyouti progress from moon-sickle slenderness to harvest moon fullness.
On the evening of the prince’s birth, the queen looked out of the latticed windows at the night sky, admired spangled points of light dispersing velvet darkness and said. “My dear husband, I rejoice because our son’s spark of life vanquished your melancholy, which was as black as the sky during a lunar eclipse.”
As soon as Chitraketu announced the heir’s birth, the townsfolk rejoiced. In the palace the prince’s male relatives bathed and dressed themselves in silk tunics worn over trousers fitting tightly at the ankles. They adorned themselves with elaborately wound turbans, ropes of pearls, diamonds and other precious stones, gold belts, earrings and arm clasps. When they were satisfied with their appearance, the king, the uncles, great-uncles, first, second and third cousins and other relatives assembled before going to see the child.
After everyone admired the prince, a brahmin astrologer named him Harshasoka. Delighted, Chritraketu rewarded all his brahmin subjects with gifts of gold, land on which villages provided incomes, horses, elephants, mountains of grain and thousands of cows.
Every morning, as happy as a beggar finding a fortune, the king loved Harshasoka more than he did on the previous day and his love for Kritayouti increased until his interest in his other wives dwindled.
The queens observed their husband’s devotion to Kritayouti and yearning to receive children from him did not sleep well.
All of them hoped to regain the king’s attention. They wore the finest silk, satin and velvet clothes. Some accentuated their shapely figures with saris, others either wore long tunics over trousers gathered into cuffs at the ankle or figure hugging blouses and swirling skirts.
But the beautiful wives were not puppets to dance at the end of a string. They were well-educated women qualified to raise heroic sons and give their husband advice about the government of nations.
Immersed in her personal happiness, Kritayouti neglected her duty to her co-wives. She neither behaved as a mother or a loving elder sister and had no time for them. They felt like insignificant servants within their husband’s palaces. Frustrated, because they neither had sons nor felt protected by a husband qualified by his character to have many wives, they complained to each other.
“Oh! A woman with no son whose husband and senior wife ignore her should live in the forest instead of being humiliated by neglect,” exclaimed the blonde daughter of a northern prince.
“Our husband accepts the services of Kritayouti’s maidservants and thanks them politely but doesn’t speak a word to us,” stormed the raven-haired daughter of a desert prince.
Anger and envy burned in her charcoal black eyes and was reflected in the eyes and expressions of all the consorts.
Kritayouti wondered why Harshasoka slept for so long. She went to the nursery, bent over his intricately carved sandalwood cradle and decided to let him sleep for a little longer. An hour later, uneasy because Harshasoka still slept she commanded the nurse. “Bring the prince to me.”
The woman padded into the nursery, approached the cot, saw the pallor of Harshasoka’s face and screamed. “I’m cursed.”
The queen ran in and saw her dead son. But she did not suspect her rock-hearted co-queens of conspiring to poison the prince.
The murderers entered the nursery, wailed louder than anyone else and made no attempt to comfort their husband or Kritayouti.
The fire of lamentation grew in Chitraketu’s heart, raged and consumed everything else. His hair was disordered and his tunic twisted. When he fainted the physician remarked. “His breath comes unevenly.”
In the presence of his ministers and priests, the king regained consciousness and repeatedly tried to speak.
Seeing her protector in such a condition Kritayouti sat next to him and wept. The flowers tucked into her hair fell to the ground and black eye make up smudged her face. Soaked by the waterfall of her tears red kum-kum powder decorating her breasts stained her thin silk blouse.
Kritayouti clutched a bar of the cradle. “Why has this happened to me? My husband never harmed anyone. Why did God take our son? I’ve never hurt anyone. I’m a virtuous woman, a merciful queen, and a kind mistress. Why did this happen to me?”
Forgetting the laws of karma applied to millions of her past lives, lives during which every good and bad action led to a favourable or unfavourable reaction in her present and future lives, she only saw and thought of her dead son.
Seeing Kritayouti shared his grief, Chitraketu moved closer to her. “Harshasoka, my son, my dear little prince, why have you gone away? Please don’t go with Yamaraja the demi-god who presides over death. Hear me and return to me.”
When he paused to wipe his eyes on the sleeve of his tunic, his queen continued. “Dearest of children, your friends want you to play with them, wake up and let me feed you, you must be very hungry. I beg you to open your eyes and smile at me. Please speak to me.”
With open mouth Chitraketu sobbed and everyone in the court wept.
Sage Angira understood the king was drowning in a death-like ocean of lamentation and came to court with the sage of sages, Narada Muni.
When he saw the king lying on the floor as though he was dead he abandoned the formalities he employed on his previous visit. “My dear king, do you believe you and the dead body in the cot have anything to do with each other? Why do you and your queen think he is your son? Was he your son before he entered the queen’s womb? Is he your son now the body he lived in is dead? Do you have any relationship with the dead body you are mourning? Will it be your son tomorrow, next week, next year?”
His words shocked the king, the queen and the courtiers. They stopped weeping and remained silent.
Sage Angira continued. “Seaweed clumps together on the ocean’s surface, rising and falling until waves toss it apart forever. People meet during the waves of time and no matter how much they grieve they are separated by the laws of nature.”
King Chitraketu propped himself up on his left elbow and wiped his eyes with the back of his right hand. “Sage Angira, please save me. I’m a man more ignorant than a village dog scavenging for scraps. Please give me scraps of real knowledge.”
“Your majesty, material life is an illusion. It is a dream because it is temporary. When I last visited you, I could have spoken of spiritual matters, but you were preoccupied with thoughts of your unborn heir. So, I gave you a son and warned you he would cause happiness and distress.”
The king sat up, did not, could not look at the dead body while remembering he had not paid much attention to Sage Angira’s warning. He’d been happy on the child’s Naming Day and given no consideration to the literal translation of Harshasoka, jubilation and lamentation.
He crossed his legs, straightened his back, folded his palms together and thought. This lifeless body is my enemy. It causes me so much anguish.
Narada, an eternally handsome, celibate young sage, stood up. With compassion he first looked at the king then addressed the inert body in the cradle. “Dear soul, may you receive good fortune.
“Enter this inert body. See your parents, your relatives and friends who are in mourning.”
The queen consorts looked uneasily at each other. What would happen to them? Too frightened to whisper of their crime to each other the murderesses clustered together and stood with clasped hands and downcast eyes.
Narada continued. “Dear soul, you departed prematurely from your last body. Now permission is granted for you to return to it. In due course of time, you may inherit your father’s throne.”
Colour filled the infant’s cheek and the faint smell of decaying flesh dispersed. Harshasoka stretched, yawned and sat up. He regarded everyone and asked. “Who is my father? What kind of father is he? My soul has transmigrated to many bodies. Should I look for a plant, insect, fish, bird, animal, human or spirit father?”
Chitraketu and Kritayouti embraced the child.
“Ah!” said the soul through the vehicle of the body with which he no longer identified himself. “You think you are my parents. You don’t understand you’re swept along by the river of existence in which souls sometimes surface as kinsfolk, friends or enemies.”
Chitraketu and Kritayouti glanced at each other and accepted their son was dead to them although his indestructible soul would transmigrate to another body.