Kaliyaadaman

Hanumandhoka Palace, Kathmandu

May 18, 1840 

Laccho tiptoes down the many stairs of the tall tower that is quickly becoming her favorite place in the vast palace complex. Her new Banarasi saree chafes at her waist and neck as she walks. But she is quickly getting used to the pain. Now at the ground floor she peeks out from behind the large carved door into the enormous courtyard standing between her and her destination. Instinctively she reaches into her mouth and feels the loose front tooth that has been wiggling for many months now. Three weeks ago when she left Dharza Gurwa, Amma had told her to keep working the tooth. Otherwise a new one would grow behind it deformed and yellow, and she would no longer be a fit bride for the darbar.  So she pushes and pulls at the tooth.

It has just stopped raining, after an unrelenting downpour that had lasted two days. She can hear the collected water trickle down from the thousand roofs into the hundred courtyards that surround her on all sides. It is not an unpleasant sound:

कल कल कल कल

From the safe hidingspot behind the door, the courtyard looks empty. No Bajai in sight. No guards. No old men with long noses and large tikas on their foreheads looking down sternly at her. Good.

She breaks into a run… lookstraightdonteventhinkandnobodywillseeyou… quickly enters the second smaller courtyard through a low door darts through the courtyard to arrive at the smallest courtyard yet which contains the object of her fascination.

Her chest heaves from the quick sprint. Her heart pounds. There it is… the giant scary serpent at the back end of the courtyard. Two weeks ago she had seen it for the first time when Bajai had given her a rather hurried tour of the palace complex. Bajai had breezed passed this courtyard, pointing absently towards the serpent and mumbling something about a very old sculpture and the name Kaliyaa. Back then, Laccho had noticed the mound of snake coils but nothing more: in fact she did not remember if there was one snake or a whole pile of them. Now she advances slowly toward the sculpture taking in every detail while trying to make her breathing as quiet as possible.  She traces the contours. The wave of coils vanishes over here… reappears here… it is indeed a single enormous serpent. The slippery slimy skin the distinct scales the many many coils wound up every which way below the strong body and finally the head, almost Godlike in appearance. But she notices now that a man is trying desperately to break free of the snake’s coils on the left and on the right a woman is buried deep in the many hideous coils wound around her. With folded hands, the woman pleads: someone, anyone: please rescue me!

Laccho makes up her mind: this is an evil snake ….. She follows the contours of the snake’s chest… head… crown… and finally the 1 2 3 4 five hoods spread out impressively behind its head. The undersides of the hoods, usually hidden from view, are now exposed completely in the fully unfurled state. They are decorated with beautiful faint lines like the folds of a human palm but much more patterned. Despite her fear she reaches out to touch the mesmerizing patterns…

हिस्स्स्स्स्

With a terrifying hiss the snake shrinks away. Rolls and waves of skin crawl past each other, become more tightly wound, more threatening. Laccho springs back in fright arm on chest mouth agape. But she cannot run away altogether. Frozen in fear she looks  at the snake’s eyes… They are completely still. In fact quite calm. In awe she looks down at the rolls of coils the glistening skin. Every part of the snake is unmoved. It is a stone sculpture after all she says to herself, and immediately feels silly about having to remind herself of this. And yet she could have sworn…

The sudden shock not entirely out of her she draws close again. Hesitating she touches the skin delicately: on first contact it is surprisingly cold. The recent rain mixed with the green moss makes the snake’s body more slithery, more real. Below the slipperiness she can feel the firmness of the sharply cut scales. They feel brittle and yet fold beautifully into the skin, following every curve of the snake’s coil without sticking out at awkward angles. A part of her still expects the snake to rise up and sink all five fangs into her arm. Slowly she moves her hand through the coiled mass, runs her fingers through the majestic body, up to the intricately carved crown on the serpent’s head, feels the delicate lines and tiny bumps of the hoods’ undersides, and finally rests her fingers at the tiny foot of the little boy who is standing lightly but with supreme confidence above all the snake.

The little boy smiles gently. His foot which Laccho had just touched rests upon the snake’s head. The other is balanced gracefully on the snakes broad shoulder. With one hand the boy grasps a hood. He is not worried about being bitten. Laccho feels like he is trying to discipline the snake with a flick of a small towel, which he holds in his other hand. He is a chubby boy. Almost naked, playful, mischievous. After he is done with the snake, he might very well go into his mother’s kitchen and steal some butter.

Laccho’s face becomes serious. She has made up her mind: this is Krishna. Her Krishna from home. Krishna in his Bal Gopal form. Krishna causing all sorts of trouble and stealing the hearts of everyone around him. Gazing at his supremely confident face, she knows that the snake is going to be subdued.

Laccho closes her eyes, brings her palms together in a namaskaar. Hey Krishna. Hey Basudev. Please rescue this poor man and woman from the coils of the snake. Please take care of Amma and Baapu and everyone else in Dharza Gurwa. Then please rescue… please stay with me at all times. You are all I have in this strange country. She furrows her brows, bows down a bit more. Small hints of tears well up below her closed eyelids. After a few moments, she opens her eyes and gazes again at Krishna’s tranquil face. She feels a little better inside.

Laccho turns away slowly to make her way back to the ladies quarters where she shared the smallest darkest room with Ramkali ever since arriving at this palace together with her.  On the way is a long, dark hallway that always smelled of dust and wetness. She enters this windowless passage with her mind still full of Krishna. Before today, whenever she thought of the small courtyard she had just left, the snake would come to her mind. But now all she can remember is Krishna’s tranquil face. The snake seems irrelevant somehow.

Suddenly, she notices at the far end of the long hallway, against the backdrop of complete black, a shape in pure white floating slowly toward her. As it draws near she can make out that it is an old man floating lightly in the air, his feet dangling several arm’s lengths above the ground. He is wrapped in an unblemished white shawl. He wears no hat or turban, and his head is full of untidy gray hair. Now he looks down and asks:

बिटिया, तोहर नाव कि बा ?

He knows my language!

Although taken aback at suddenly encountering Bhojpuri, she answers obediently: Laccho.

The old man smiles.

How old are you, बिटिया?

Seven.

The old man frowns softly, floats down a little, reaches out and caresses her gently on her head.

What is the red stuff on you neck?

The old man seems to not know what Laccho is talking about. Stretching his neck and making a longish face he feels around his neck with one hand, locates the rather nasty gash, and gets a flash of recognition in his eyes.

Oh, this? Don’t worry. It’s just a small keepsake from the time I worked for this darbar.

OK, Laccho says slowly. The hideous cut she can now clearly see does not look like a small thing. And she definitely knows what dried blood looks like. She can see many trails of it running from the cut well into his chest and body. His white shawl however is spotless. At least the old man is not bleeding any more, she consoles herself.
 
Well, it was an honor and a pleasure to meet you बिटिया. I hope we can become friends?

Laccho looks up. The old man had kind eyes. He is still smiling, but Laccho imagines that if she says No, he will immediately burst into a fit of crying.

Sure, she says kindly.

Thank you!

With that, the old man bows low in Namaskar, turns around, and starts floating away.

Wait! Laccho cries out. What is your name?

The old man pauses. Turning only his head around, he whispers his name softly before floating away into darkness:

My name is Bhimsen Thapa.

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  1. Anadi Risal says:

    Beautifully written… you have a gift! Keep it going.

    Moving forward, I will picture the future Queen and Bhimsen Thapa with your words.

    Reply

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