Wednesday, January 28, 2009


(Entrance of Brihadeshwara Temple in Thanjore, India)

Here's another installment of my Great American Lesbian Novel (in progress), Ginny Bates. If you are new to reading GB, go to the section in the right-hand column labeled Ginny Bates to read background and find out how to catch up.

Autumn 2018

In early October, Myra moved ahead Heroic Quest Day one week because that Sunday was sunny and warm enough for all the children to spend hours outside. She had done a fair amount of homework for this particular quest, and much of the rest of the family intended to participate or at least watch.

While Myra began assembling gear, Ginny took each child into the bathroom and painted a different colored dot in the middle of their forehead, telling them the meaning of their particular symbol. She called in Mimi last, shutting the door to tell her “Myra says you are to be the main hero today, Rajaraja, ruler of the Cholan empire in India over a thousand years ago. He was divined to be the intended king because he had a sacred symbol on his back, which I'm going to paint on you now. You're not to let on, all right? Even when we begin the search for the symbol and everybody is pulling off their shirts, you act like you don't know. Take your shirt off last and act surprised, can you do that?”

Mimi, her eyes alight, nodded vigorously. Ginny painted a quick representation of Kali on Mimi's low back, which was not historically accurate but Ginny claimed artistic license when Myra objected. Ginny helped Mimi drape half an Indian print bedspread from Cost Plus around her upper torso, held in place by a brass clasp, before they left the bathroom.

The other three older children also wore various bedspread drapes. Myra gave David a pair of satin dress shoes she'd found at Goodwill that she hoped would not be too big on him. Lucia received a dot on her forehead and a silk drape over her sling around Myra's neck. The gear was hauled outside and the children lined up to begin the quest.

“In the Indian language, raja means king. One of the most famous who ever lived was named Rajaraja, which means king of kings. He pursued dharma, a life of virtue, and his reign of Cholan is considered a golden age, a time when people prospered, education and art were promoted, and justice was to be had.”

Myra paused to let this sink in. How could such small children already have intense yearning for Golden Ages?

“Now, it was not clear at first that Rajaraja would be the chosen king. There was tension in his family. But it had been written that the divine ruler could be identified by a secret symbol on his back, and a search of all the possible personages was conducted to see if this symbol could be found.” Myra and Ginny helped each child remove their drape and shirt, then back up to a brass platter Myra had polished into a mirror.

Mimi did a creditable job of assuming nonchalance, although she wouldn't have fooled any adult. When she turned around, her siblings gasped. Charlie's expression indicated he believed that figure might have always been on Mimi's back and he had somehow overlooked it. Mimi looked over her shoulder and gave a fake jaw-drop. Leah's protest was thwarted by Ginny and Myra bending deep and placing their palms together in obeisance to the newly-discovered king. The others, even Leah, followed suit.

Mimi was given a cloth bag heavy with undisclosed items to carry over her shoulder. Myra whispered “When your people are hungry, open this bag to feed them. I'll give you the signal when.”

Myra declared that Lucia would play the role of Rajaraja's royal daughter Madevadigal, who embraced Buddhism as an adult and did not marry. Ginny began giggling. Myra ignored her as she outlined the other possible roles.

The sacred temples at that time had dancers (Myra saw David look alert), one of whom, named Tirumahalah, was renowned for her ability to recreate the holy dance that god Shiva performed, with drum, to spin the entire world from nothingness into being. Before Myra had finished, David's hand was waving wildly in the air. Myra handed him a drum and draped extra flowing scarves around his neck. He immediately began experimenting with flinging them around as he spun.

The Cholan empire was famous for its rice production, harvesting three crops a year, which kept people well-fed and wealthy. Irrigation and protection of the rice was maintained by an inherited caste, one of whom knew how to make rice drawings at critical times. She was named Nisumbhasudani, after a goddess. Leah was already looking expectantly at Myra. Myra handed her three small drawstring bags filled with white rice. “Allocate these wisely” said Myra. “One bag per drawing.”

She continued “But the reason why we know so much about Rajaraja is because his scribes took enormous care to preserve his record, etched in stone and written in palm leaf books. His epic was also translated into song. Thus, we need a musician, named Tyagaraja, who will write the story of our adventures and sing the exploits of Rajaraja, who was also known as Jananaathar, the Lover of People.” She handed Charlie a roughly-sewn book and a crayon, and whispered “When it's time to sing the stories, I'll signal you and you make up what comes to you, all right?” Charlie would love nothing more, she knew.

“Now, as we begin, we are in the coastal city of Kanchipuram. It is time for a great festival in the capital city, Thanjore, at the magnificent Brihadeshwara temple, called Raajarajeswaram, which Rajaraja had built. We must make our pilgrimage to Thanjore, a journey of many days by foot, through sometimes hazardous or mysterious territories. Is this band of pilgrims ready?”

Of course they were. They began with a small rice drawing on the terrace of Kanchipuram, which Leah arranged grain by grain with Ginny intruding here and there. Charlie warbled a meandering ditty that was not reliably intelligible but his passion was evidenced by tightly closed eyes and his toddler sway. David, admonished to save his big dance for later, compensated by beating his drum and fluttering around Rajaraja, who sat on a bench with crossed legs and beamed at her subjects.

Once they set out, they immediately ran into a region (the canopy over the avocado tree) dominated by wild elephants who chased them screaming through the countryside (Ginny with one arm held up like a trunk). They navigated a canal region with the advice of the irrigation caste member, and stopped for a speech about kingly philosophy by Rajaraja atop an ancient stupa (the meditation bench). Myra was dismayed by the condescension in Mimi's voice, but she seemed to be the only one who noticed it. She stepped to the side to quickly text Margie about their approach.

As they gathered before the gate to Margie and Frances' yard, Myra said solemnly “We now must travel to Tirumalay, which is a city surrounded by six forests. This is perhaps the most dangerous part of our pilgrimage, because the jungles are known to be home to the Flesh-Eater of Aaru Kaadu, a fearsome tiger the size of ten people. Take care. The Flesh-Eater is accompanied by two wild dogs, who are no threat themselves if you are brave enough to not run from them. Instead, observe the dogs carefully, because they will give away the hiding place of the Flesh-Eater, if we are lucky.”

Charlie suddenly needed hand-holding, and Ginny obliged. Rajaraja bravely led the way. The wild dogs immediately rushed them, and even Charlie managed to stand his ground as they were licked and gamboled by Moon and Gidg. The side bench had been covered by a garish drape, providing a decent concealment for anyone who might be crouching behind it, thought Myra. She didn't know who had assumed the role of the Flesh-Eater.

The bushes and flowerbeds of Aaru Kaadu's jungle were tentatively searched. When no predator was found, Rajaraja eventually decided to sit on the bench while Tyagaraja sang another ode to her valor. The Flesh-Eater waited until the ballad was under way before pouncing from behind the bench: Frances in fake tiger fur with long canines extending from her painted face.

The pilgrims forgot any unity and nearly trampled one another in their shrieking bedlam to escape. The gates, however, were locked, and the wild dogs, thinking it was a game of tag, knocked down children right and left. The Flesh-Eater's leaps were acrobatic, resulting in amazing near-misses.

Suddenly the side door of the garage opened and Margie, dressed in a provocative sari, called out “Hist, Rajaraja, it is I, your sister Kundavai Pirattiyar. Come hide in my temple, called Kundavai Devi Jinalaya.” The pilgrims hurled themselves into sanctuary, and the door was slammed shut against the Flesh-Eater, who snarled horribly at the facing and scratched with deadly claws against the wood.

Princess Madevadigal had awakened with all the commotion and required a diaper change. While Myra did this, Kundavai made a Margo Batiz-like speech about her own travels. Eventually, panic subsided, and Rajaraja opened her tucker bag to find a jug of green tea, a package of coconut bars, and bamboo cups for everyone to partake of refreshment.

At the conclusion of their repast, Nisumbhasudani cast another magical rice drawing, which revealed a secret door on the other side of the garage where they could escape attention from the Flesh-Eater. Once outside and headed toward Carminati's, Frances appeared as Kundavai's lifelong servant, dressed in velvet capri pants, a Nehru jacket which Myra recognized as Margie's, and knee-high leather boots. Completely anachronistic for the era, but she looked damned good all the same. She introduced herself as Kama Sutra, and to Myra's astonishment, Margie's face went a deep red.

Around the corner of the hedge, they entered the alluvial plain (the small restaurant parking lot), and above them on the landing stood two men in Japanese robes. They introduced themselves as shogun who had been traveling by ship toward Africa and been washed up on the Cholan coast. Again, not authentic but Myra appreciated everyone's effort. Eric was even wearing a sword, which drew the children's envy and Ginny's glare.

Now it was time for Tirumahalah to dance the Shiva creation dance. This was long and increasingly complex, as David remembered to use some of the Indian dance maneuvers Ginny had been teaching them the past few weeks in anticipation of this adventure. Eventually the Japanese travelers had to join in, and there was a small crowd of onlookers at the end of the parking lot. Ginny stood next to Myra and murmured “Don't you wonder what the neighbors say about us?”

The shogun, naturally enough, decided to join the pilgrimage, and the band passed through another gate into the paddies around Thanjore. Here Nisumbhasudani's expertise was called upon to lead them through the watery landscape toward Raajarajeswaram, a temple on the banks of a mighty river. Leah cleverly snaked them to and fro instead of beating a direct path, and Myra turned over adventure narration to the aunts and uncles. She could see Gillam and Jane on the upper deck, watching with rapt enjoyment.

Finally Rajaraja had had enough and shouted “There it is!”, running toward the back deck. Everyone followed, and Leah was mollified by being asked to do a final rice drawing, followed by a wrap-up song and a background dance while Rajaraja declaimed from atop her Adirondack-chair throne.

When temple dignitaries came out to greet their children, Myra and Ginny went by elephant to their home and brought back dal, basmati rice, onion bhaji, spinach pakora, and a korma made from roasted walnuts. As the rest of the family arrived for singing potluck, Gillam announced this evening's meal was entirely vegetarian in honor of Rajaraja and the people of Cholan. Mimi beamed, and all the children wore their costumes until bedtime.

© 2009 Maggie Jochild.

1 comment:

Jesse Wendel said...

This is just my personal opinion, understand, but I think instead of facing the fearsome flesh-eater of Aaru Kaadu, I'd rather face the Kundavai's lifelong devoted servant, Kama Sutra.

I'm just saying...