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Taalmel

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What made a King?

It was a question that had been asked through the ages. Did a luxurious upbringing make a king? Was it richly embroidered clothing? Was it the presence of dozens of servants? Was it being the supreme ruler of a kingdom? Or was it a virtue of Royal birth?

The answers to these questions were usually not complex.

Not unless one was thinking about the king sitting at the edge of the pond, elbow-deep in sudsy water, tackling a pile of dirty laundry.

“Maharaj, please,” said Damayanthi, one of the older women sitting next to him. “You shouldn’t have to wash clothes and clean dishes. I would be happy to do it for you. You have better things to do.”

“Amma,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes. “First of all, I am not the Maharaj. I am Amarendra. But you can call me Baahu. Secondly, what if I told you I enjoy washing clothes and dishes?”

The younger women sitting adjacent to Damayanthi gasped.

“Well, then you can wash my pile as well,” teased Aakarsha, a new bride and daughter-in-law to the village headman. The other women tittered at her cheekiness, except for Damayanthi and her daughter Sagarika.

“I would totally do it,” said Amarendra, unfazed. “But as Amma here said, I do have a whole bunch of other things to do.”

“Like what?” asked Chaya.

“Like… well, I’m not going to tell you. Plus, I need to figure out what we’re doing for our dinner tonight?”

“Oh, so you’ve to make dinner,” Aakarsha said. “Nice. What are you cooking?”

“Did I say I’m cooking?” Amarendra asked innocently and stood up to squeeze out the water from the clothes. He then wrapped up his small washboard, the bottle of herbal detergent, and his washing bat.

“You did say something about making dinner,” said Chaya, Aakarsha’s younger sister-in-law. “And it isn’t every day that a prince admits he knows how to wield a vegetable knife as well as a sword.”

“Give up already,” he said. “I would have loved to stay more and talk but I need to get started on the lentils.”

“Oooo… so it’s got lentils in it. Are you making Pesara Pappu?”

“Nope.”

Kandi Pachadi?”

“Try again.”

Chaaru?”

“Better luck next time.”

As he lifted his laundry basket on his shoulder, Chaya tried one last time to find out what he was making.

“Do you have the curry leaves and the mustard seeds for your recipe? Maybe I can drop them off at your cottage.”

But he only smiled mysteriously.

It was a secret!

XXXXX

“12… 13…. 14… 15…. 16….,” Devasena carefully counted the stitches. She had to fit at least 18 in every two inches for this pattern. Her fingers worked deftly and the pile of yarn on the floor became progressively smaller with each passing hour.

“Devasena?” He called out to her.

But she was so engrossed in her knitting that she didn’t hear him. He tried again, louder this time.

“Princess Devasena?”

She still didn’t respond.

He shook his head fondly and decided to go closer. But just as he placed his hand on her shoulder, she got startled and her knitting flew out of her hands.

“Easy, easy, relax, it’s me,” he said gently, trying to reassure her. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

He bent down to pick up the half-complete pair of baby socks that she’d been working on. “Here.”

“I’m going to have to start all over again,” she said, clearly embarrassed. “I forgot the count.”

“You were at 18.”

“Thank you. I shouldn’t get scared so easily. But I’m just so jumpy these days. I think it’s the pregnancy.”

“Are you sure? You can tell me anything, you know. I will never let any harm come to you or the baby.”

“I know. I know.” Devasena leaned into his arms. “But I am just so scared sometimes. I know I am being silly but your mother disowning us; that feels like a bad omen.”

“Come on, don’t be superstitious.”

“It is not superstition. Women have ways of knowing. I can’t explain it.”

“Okay, okay, I won’t ask you to. But before you get back to those socks, you need to sit down and drink something.”

“Baahu,” she whined. “I just ate an apple.”

“That was almost four hours ago,” he said patiently. “Don’t be a baby. Be glad I’m not forcing you to eat anything. Drink this glass of milk and I won’t annoy you anymore.”

“You are the worst,” she pouted like a petulant child. But something warm and fuzzy seemed to blossom inside her. She loved how her husband doted on her and the way he took care of her. She wondered if it was more so because she was pregnant. None of the other women in the village were treated with such adoration by their husbands.

“You are being so good to me right now,” she remarked. “But once I have the baby, it will all change.”

Baahubali was busy peeling a piece of ginger when she said this. He dropped his knife and looked at her.

For a long moment, he did not say anything.

“Why do you think I am being ‘good to you’?” he asked finally.

“Well, it is true,” she answered. “You do the laundry. You clean the dishes. You even cook on most days. By comparison, I am a useless wife. But right now, it is okay because I am pregnant. Once the baby comes, what if I am not able to live up to your expectations? What if I am not able to manage the household so efficiently. Some of the ladies in the village already talk. They think I am using you. And they blame me for causing a rift between you and your mother.”

Baahubali heard her out. He took a moment to think before responding to her.

“It seems to me that everyone else’s opinion matters more to you than mine.”

“That’s not true…” she started to say but then she realized it was true. She hadn’t given a thought to how he viewed everything. But now that she was wondering about it, she wasn’t sure what to make of him either.”

“Okay….” She began slowly. “You tell me. What do you expect from me as your wife? And what if I?”

“Shhhh…” he stopped her before she could complete that sentence.

“Princess Devasena of Kuntala,” he addressed her with her complete title. “Did I fall in love with your cooking skills?”

“No… but,”

“Did I marry you for your laundry abilities?”

“No… but,”

“Did I marry you because I loved you from the moment I first saw you?”

“Wait, what?”

“I said,” he repeated with deliberation, punctuating every word. “Did. I. marry. you. Because. I. love you? More. than. I. have. ever. loved. anything. or. anyone?”

Devasena sighed deeply. She felt ashamed of herself for doubting her husband.

But he wasn’t done yet.

“You are perfect to me,” he exclaimed reverently. “Laundry, cooking, cleaning; these basic chores don’t define our relationship. And trust me, if you are ever required to do them, you will manage just fine. But here’s my thing. Why should you have to bother yourself with them when you can apply yourself to the other things our family and our community needs.”

“I just don’t like how hard you work,” she said softly. “You labor all day in the quarry. You till the land in the fields. You spend hours on improving the infrastructure of the village. And then you do all these household tasks.”

“Only because I don’t know how to make medicinal tinctures, knit sweaters, stitch clothes, repair shoes, or polish the silverware. And that’s because I already have someone very capable at home to do these jobs.”

“You are a very special man, you know that,” Devasena’s words were full of tenderness.

“Only for a very special woman,” he whispered. “But now, she needs to lie down and rest for a while.”

She did not argue this time and allowed him to help her lie down.

As she closed her eyes, he took her feet into his hands and started massaging them.

“You don’t need to do that,” she murmured half-heartedly.

“I’m massaging my hands with your feet,” he said. “Makes me feel good.”

XXXXX

At last, she was resting.

He worried a lot about her. Of course, he could not share it with her, but he was also very aware of the elephant in the room. He shared her paranoia. And even his sixth-sense had kept him at edge all these weeks.

They were not safe. He knew it.

But he did not want to take the risk of traveling to Kuntala with Devasena in her final month of pregnancy. So much could go wrong.

Besides, he could protect her from any assassins or contract-killers here. He would be unable to do anything if her body decided to rebel against her.

He continued to think as he prepared the dinner.

He combined the partially-cooked rice with ghee and let it cook slowly. Then, he made the tempering with onions, chili peppers, mustard seeds, curry leaves, and lentils. After that, he started on the vegetables- a simple but flavorful curry made with bottle gourd, carrots, spinach, coconut, and eggplant.

Finally, he went to the little kitchen garden behind their cottage and picked out six ripe figs. This would be dessert.

It was dark by then.

He went back inside and lit the lamps. Devasena was still asleep. Her face looked peaceful. The lines of tension and exhaustion were nowhere to be seen.

Baahubali beamed at this perfect picture of innocence and bliss. A fond little smile played at his lips as he laid out the food on the durree.

He would have let her sleep a little longer, but the food would get cold.

“Time to wake up, my love,” he roused her gently.

“Mmmm, just a few more minutes,” she mumbled and tried to snuggle into this shirt.

“You can go back to sleep after dinner,” he said. “Look, I made your favorite puliodharai

“It sure smells good,” she said, opening her eyes. “I guess I can’t say no to that, can I I?”

“No, you cannot,” he agreed. “It would be sacrilege.”

“You are so cute.”

“Cute? Me, the mighty Baahubali, built like a bull! I am cute?”

“Yeah, you’re built like a bull alright. But you’re my bull. And I like my bulls cute.”

“Ah… then that’s why you married me.”

“That, and I could smell your amazing cooking skills from miles away.”

“Yeah, right,” he teased back. “Now walk the talk. Show me how much you love my food by actually eating it.”

She nodded and leaned forward to get up. She stretched a little and Baahubali marveled at how much she reminded him of a cat in that moment.

The next two hours were pure heaven for the young couple. Devasena enjoyed the food. But more than that, she enjoyed his company. He made sure that she ate properly. After all, she had to satisfy two stomachs instead of just one. She, on the other hand, savored the attention he showered upon her. She took great delight in feeding him the sweet, juicy figs with her own hands.

Later that night, they lay in each other’s arms; glad for one more day and hopeful that they’d grow old together like this… In companionship, in love, and in synergy.