Summer was unending this year. Temperature kept rising every day. Every day people looked hopefully at the sky, waiting to see a dark patch which promised rain.
But the days remained dazzling bright and evenings poured bright merciless colours all over the earth, yellow, orange and fiery red. Slowly the green turned yellow and then arid ochre and then brown. Wells went dry, and rivers turned into parched sand filled wasteland. Cattle started chewing dry grass and thorny bushes.
"Too much sin... in high places" the idiot sitting on the temple steps kept muttering to himself. The flower vendor listened intently and nodded wisely. It was believed that God spoke through the simpleton. The flower vendor made a note to himself to discuss this matter with the priest later. This needs looking into. Meanwhile the sun kept pouring fire from the sky and air was heavy with dry dust.
Ujhaali sat next to her father's dead body. There were no tears left in her eyes. Her mind whirled with questions about her future. Her husband still had not come to fetch her. She had waited long enough for him. She was sure there were things which must have kept him occupied, like looking after his people to whom he was God. To Ujhaali too, he was God. She must go to him.
She laid her father's body neatly in the centre of the hut, gathered her meager belongings and with a burning torch set fire to the hut and stood there watching it burn to cinders. Her entire existence was going up in smoke before her eyes. She had known no life other than the one here in the forest with her father.
Bidding him farewell with ache in her heart, she asked for his forgiveness. She couldn't afford any last rites beyond these. Then with one last look at the burning hut she turned around and walked down the path that would take her towards the city. She would never come this way again.
'What is it that you claim? That You are our king's wife?' The minister from the king's council had asked her with an incredulous look on his face. She stood before the council with her head bowed and told them her tale, unperturbed by the disbelief in their eyes. Her simplicity and sincerity touched a few, but they were soon silenced by cynics in the group.
A year ago, in a heavy rain storm, a horse had stood outside Ujhaali's hut in the forest. With her father's help she had brought the rider inside. He had remained unconscious. They had made him as warm as they could. But there just hadn't been enough warm or dry clothes for that. As the fire in the corner had died down, Ujhaali's father had said,
" My daughter, only you can keep him warm."
Ujhaali had stared at her father, stunned and not understanding.
"Your young body has the warmth which will help him live through the night."
And closing the door of the hut he went out, leaving her with the unconscious man.
Looking at the sleeping man's face she had wondered, it is so easy? Giving yourself to a man?
With a sigh she went to a small idol in the corner, prayed deeply asking for God's blessings for what she was about to do.
Then removing her clothes she had joined the shivering man on the tattered mattress, engulfing him in her young warm embrace, warming and calming his twitching body.
"And what happened next morning? The grateful king made you his queen of course." One councilor asked with a slight sneer in his voice.
"I didn't know he was a king. Not then. He was just my husband. I had married him before God. That was the only way to save his life."
Ujhaali tried to explain in some confusion, not being used to city folk's sophisticated speech, while the councilors watched her intently. She doggedly continued with her story.
At the break of dawn, the man had opened his eyes. His colour had come back to normal. He still had shivered with cold, but had been clearly out of danger. He had looked around in surprise and seen a simple girl sleeping next to him. Sensing his movement Ujhaali had woken up in confusion and covered herself with her Odhani.
Ujhaali had told him haltingly about the circumstances which had made her take such measures and the man was filled with gratitude and admiration. Promising her to make her his queen the King had gone away. He would come back later and take her with him, he had said. She must enter the city like a queen. He had gone away, leaving behind memories of one day of bliss. And that had been almost a year ago.
The King sat watching the whole proceedings from the inner chamber. He remembered the whole incident and the generosity of the girl. But make her his Queen? He had rejected princesses who were far more beautiful than her. She was just a young uncouth woman who lived in forest. It was not as if he had seduced or raped her. He had been unconscious for God's sake, where as she had known what she was doing. She was clearly out to trap him. His head was throbbing and he was finding it difficult to think straight. He didn't remember summer heat as bad as this.
The prime minister silently entered the inner chamber to ask him what should be done about the young girl.
" Just see that she doesn't create any problems for us." The king said impatiently. Prime Minister hesitated a little, found himself dismissed by at a wave of hand, and silently went out with a bow.
Outside the councilors were still cross-questioning Ujhaali.
"Girl, this clearly is a trick! Do you think it's so easy to trick a man into marrying you? Are you with child ? Who put you up to this ? Tell us."
" And there are no witnesses to this, of course! Your father is dead, that leaves only God! Do you care to call Him to intervene on your behalf ?"
Outside the window, she could see the merciless glare of Sun which hurt her eyes, blinding her momentarily. She wiped the perspiration from her face and tried to focus her eyes on the old councilor talking to her in earnest. The words fell on her ears like a buzz. It was like a collective sound of the city, rejecting her.
"Go girl. Go away. Our king is kind. He will give you money if you are in need. Do you need a house? We can arrange for one, with a big garden. If you are in trouble, we will help you find the father. But don't slander our good king."
"You are young and not bad looking if I may say so. With money and a house you should not have any trouble getting a husband," One councilor suggested a little cynically.
But Ujhaali was persistent even as she faced the barrage of questions and insulting suggestions.
" Find me a husband ? But I am married, Didn't you understand ? I am married to the king. He is my husband. Let me meet him. Why doesn't he meet me ? He will tell you that I am speaking the truth." She refused to budge and soldiers were reluctant to use force on a girl.
Seeing that she would not move from the palace, the King emerged from the inner chamber and stood looking at her with haughty, remote eyes. He looked so different from the tender man she had met & loved.
"You do not remember me Sire ?" She asked eagerly.
"I am Ujhaali... That night.... in the forest..." She faltered when her eyes met the cold glare from the king's eyes. But she resolved to state her case.
"I have never seen you before in my life and if you insist that I am your husband, you are lying."
Finally after half hour's pleading and cajoling, she ran out of all she had to say. The king stood looking at her with impassive face and watchful eyes.
She stood erect before him, looked him straight in the eye, and said,
"Maharaj, I do not want gold or money from you. Reject me if you wish to. I know now that I shouldn't have come to meet you here. But in front of this august audience of respected councilors, do not make me wrong, nor deny your own promises. It will be a grave sin. Let it not be said, the king broke his word to a humble girl. Just say once, you remember me, and you had made me a promise. Say that and I will go away."
The king refused to remember her and continued listening to her without a flicker of emotion on his face. Finally after ordering the guards to show her the door, he retired to the inner chambers.
Ujhaali walked the molten streets bare feet. She neither felt the burning earth under her, nor sun pouring fire from above. Her mind was in turmoil. She realized how unequipped she was to cope with the world and people. It all was so different from the forest she had lived in. That had been His promise and as the old man at the court had said- only God was her witness.
With dry unseeing eyes and numb mind she roamed the city. People looked at her with pity and curiosity. The story of the young girl from the forest who claimed to be the king's wife had spread like wild fire. Even in the noon day heat people followed her to see what she would do, but she was blind and deaf in her rage and misery. No one dared to talk to her or stop her. The simpleton followed her everywhere, muttering to himself.
"Sin... grave sin..." People tried to hush him.
She kept walking all day long unaware of everyone and in the evening reached the seashore. For a long time she stood looking at the sun. People thronged on the shore, curious to see what she would do.
All day long King's spies kept bringing him the updates about her activities. He was secretly worried she would take her case to people, and then he would be publicly denounced. Looked like she had no such plans. Spies brought the news, she was now on the sea shore and could be seen her from the terrace of palace. The king hurried to the terrace. He could see her clearly.
There she stood, unaware of the crowds around her. She stood there like a statuette, gazing intently at the setting sun. At long last, just as the sun was about to set, she turned around, looked directly at the king standing on the terrace. The brilliant rays of setting sun lit her, turning her briefly into an ethereal being, an avenging angel. The merciless hot wind carried her words to the king clearly.
"My husband, remember, we will meet in heaven three days hence."
And turning around she entered the waves. People watched with bated breath, no one even dared to stop her. There was a murmur of sorrow which was quickly hushed. King wanted to order the guards to stop her, but stood paralyzed by the intensity which she exuded. Ujhaali kept walking till people couldn't see her head above the water anymore and the last rays of the setting sun blazed brighter as a pillar of fire rose from the sea. People gasped as they watched the unearthly scene. They waited for some sign of her, but nothing was left behind except an acrid smell of ashes in the air. Men were silent, women started to weep.
"Sin... grave sin..." the simpleton was chanting loudly now. In the mournful silence his was the only voice heard clearly.
The king went to his apartments, filled with dread and remorse. He wished he could undo what he had done. He called his ministers to ask for their counsel. None had any advise for him except - wait and watch. After telling him vaguely to be careful, they all went away.
The king tossed on his bed. Longing for the elusive sleep and dreading it at the same time. He kept seeing that the strange fire every time his eyes closed. The heat was making breathing difficult. He went out on terrace, hoping for some respite from heat and stood looking pensively at the sea.
Next day the king sat on the terrace, staring at the sea. Maids fanning him, offering him glasses of chilled juices, sprinkling rose water on him, but he still burnt with heat. The sky should have been heavy with dark clouds by this time, he thought as he scanned the sky with anxious eyes. Was there any truth in what the idiot had said? That it won't rain because someone in high places had sinned? Had he sinned?
The raj vaidya gave him medicines to bring down the fever, but finally gave up. For two days and two nights the king lay in bed, tormented by rising fever and heat. All over the kingdom people prayed for the king's recovery.
The king kept mumbling Ujhaali's name again and again in delirium. On the third evening, as the sun was setting, the king breathed his last, his eyes fixed on the spot where Ujhaali had vanished.
And during the night the dark clouds gathered in the sky, with thunder and lightening the rain arrived, filling the wells, streams and river, soaking the barren fields, quenching the thirst of the earth which had waited for a long time.