Talk of art and for me, pictures of Raja Ravi Varma instantly spring to mind. For the uninitiated, paintings of this Kerala born master are renowned for their marvelous sense of detail. Back home as a child, this big poster of Lakshmi painted by Varma was the main deity at our small family temple. To this day, this image provokes a strong childhood memory.
But the painting that made a similar impact on me as an adult was the one, often mistaken as attributed to Raja Ravi Varma. However, it is not done by the master but by a gentleman called S.L. Haldankar. Apparently, this painting titled “Lady with a Lamp” graces a famous gallery in Southern India. I came across this painting or rather a print poster at a South Indian restaurant in Leicester, UK.
I have visited this restaurant many times and each time I could not tear my eyes off the picture. My imaginative mind conjured up many stories about this lady with the lamp. I hope to translate this flight of fancy into an entertaining narrative for the purposes of this contest:
The Lady With the Lamp
It was time now and she dreaded yet welcomed it.
As soon as the dusk fell and the servants retired to bed, Malati, the daughter-in-law of the mansion stepped out of her room into the hallway. With a lamp in her hand, she moved quietly in the house, as though silence colluded in her covert activity. She knew what she was doing was not only disgraceful but punitive. However, determination overrode protocol.
Slowly but resolutely, she moved towards the end of the corridor. Guided by a sense of direction and the solitary light, she started down the steps her heart palpitating with the fear of discovery.
She paused by the window. Outside, she could see a drizzle was slowly turning into a thunderstorm, the trees swaying crazily, defiant in the face of the storm. Indoors, she turned a corner to a flight of stairs leading to the basement. Malati looked back. What if her father-in-law caught her here? How would she explain her presence?
Her father-in-law, the patriarch: the lord of the land – the Zamindaar. His word was the law, his decision final. For generations, his family had enjoyed power. He exploited it by denying the poor their rights and filling his coffers with blood money.
But it was his cruel discriminatory practice that was the worst: denying the people access to the village’s only temple. Instead of abolishing this age old tradition, the vicious landlord manipulated it to demonstrate his superiority and might over the villagers. The peasants were prohibited from even climb the stairs or stand in the premises lest they rendered the place impure.
On a full moon evening, the royal family offered exclusive prayers to Lord Rama. The entire village would be standing at the foot of temple stairs, waiting longingly till the family finished their prayers and came down to distribute the offerings to them. Often, the elderly villagers would state that their dying wish was to see the God in his finery. The little children were eager to see what Lord Rama looked like, their parents thirsted for a glance, but the cold hearted leader made no exceptions.
Letting them in meant desecrating the temple, he said.
Once a young child, in its childhood defiance, went up the stairs and made it to the sanctum. The boy was beaten black and blue, as an example, ensuring it was a one off. When the boy’s parents protested, they were banished from the village, their fields and house annexed by the landlord. Tons of milk were splashed across the temple stairs to purify it for the family again.
That incident left the village rattled, and the Zamindaar stroking his moustache.
Malati shuddered as she recalled the incident. She felt helpless. What could she do? As the daughter-in-law of the family, her boundaries were clearly marked: produce heirs, stay out of sight. She recalled how the Zamindaar had begged her father to get her married to his son. Later she realised it was her powerful Maratha family connections that was the draw. Once he secured it through the marriage alliance, he moved on. Her personal attributes were of no interest to him.
And then things started to happen.
There were stray incidents: a random robbery at a top aide’s house, the zamindaar’s statue defaced at the village square. But then, the royal warehouse was broken into and well stocked grocery supplies were distributed among the poor. This was a big blow to the Zamindaar: he immediately sent his men out. They reported that a gang of bandits was at work. Each time such an incident occurred, the Zamindaar’s men found a small wooden block engraved with the words Ram Dhoot – messenger of Rama.
Hanuman? It flummoxed everyone. They knew of only one such person carrying the name: the village grocer. For a long time he was under suspicion, his movements carefully monitored. But soon it was obvious, it was not him.
The incidents continued. The bandits were getting bolder: they had broken into the mansion made off with the family crest on the wall.
An infuriated Zamindaar announced a reward for their whereabouts. It didn’t help. The group had won the hearts of the poor and had become their allies. It was said they hid in the woods at the village outskirts after each escapade. A thorough search was conducted but to no avail.
And then there was the incident at the Navaratri gala. Every year, the village organised a big party with huge fanfare. It was a prestigious event with invitations going out to neighbouring village heads. The women performed a special prayer of Goddess Durga and the men thereafter went on to celebrate the occasion well into the night.
This time, when the women went up to the statue to offer their prayers, they found the crown of the Goddess missing. An engraved wooden block next to the foot of the idol identified the culprit.
The landlord ordered an immediate search and found a note:
Open the doors of the temple to the public. If you don’t, we are coming for you this Dussehra.
The Zamindaar was furious at this humiliation in front of the other guests. He immediately called his trusted men and family members. He had a master plan. He was going to trap the bandits and make them pay. Taking out a special drawing of the temple, he showed them the secret pathway that lead from the mansion to the temple. He alone would be coming through it to the temple’s inner chambers, he said, whereas a decoy carriage would arrive at the temple gate. The bandits would mistake it for the landlord and his men could catch them out by surprise.
Armed men would be positioned at all crucial points to make sure the group could not escape. This was the final showdown, said the Zamindaar. The plans were highly secret known only to the immediate family and trusted aides.
For every Ravana there is a Rama, thought Malati as she reached the end of stairs at the door. She turned the knob and pushed it through. Her brother’s words rang in her ears.
You are a Maratha warrior, serving justice is in your blood he had said during their tutorials on martial warfare.
She sat down at the table, unfolding the piece of paper she had been working on. It had drawings about the temple layout. Beside her on the table was a black outfit, a wooden block, engraved on it…..Ram Dhoot.