by Dharshwana Muralidharan
The heat of the noon sun burns the soles of my feet, but it makes me faster. I tightly grip the wicker basket over my head, teeming with goods. My heart burns with determination but also fear. I turn to look at the rest of Udayal Padai. They’re adorned with colorful bead jewelry and sweet-smelling jasmine flowers on the tops of their braids, just like all the other women walking down this road. Except we all have a desire to take back what’s ours.
We march on, towards the Sivagangai Palace with its red turrets and white exterior. It’s teeming with British guards. Grim expressions are etched onto their foreign faces. Their green uniforms and lathis look outlandish in all the brightly colored saris and kurtas of those celebrating Vijayadashami. The line for entering the palace’s temple reaches till the eye’s end, and street vendors dot the line, selling goods.
I slip in through the sweaty bodies and reach a brown tented stall, I ask for a jar of ghee. The vendor gives me a toothy smile and says: “ What evil influences are you hoping to get rid of, eh?”
I give him a small smile and turn to once again sift through the mass of bodies to reach the rest of the women. Little does he know that the bottle of ghee will get rid of more
than he expects. I lower the basket from the tip of my head and tuck the bottle of ghee next to the flower garland.
Just as I am securing it onto my head again, Queen Velu Nachiyar’s carriage rumbles down the road. I signal the rest of Udayal Padai to follow me. The queen gets off the carriage, and we get behind her.
She turns towards me. “ Kuyili, the sacrifice you will make tonight will never be forgotten.” A kind smile fills her face, and she announces to the rest of Udayal Pdai with her clear and beautiful voice: “ Fight hard, for the sake of your freedom and for our brave soul Veera Managai Kuyili.” With that, she turns back towards the palace.
I see that the guards are tightening their grip on their latis. I force myself to plaster on an innocent smile. A guard with a cropped brown moustache waves his hand towards my basket. I swallow my fear.
I repeat the English words Queen Velu taught us. “Offering God,” I say. The words feel sour and misplaced in my mouth, but they seem to satisfy the guard as he lets us enter.
We reach the statue of Ramma, the Udayal Padai and I lay out the contents of all our offerings. All that’s left in the basket is a red blanket and the jar of ghee, or so it may seem.
The queen tells the British guard that she will leave, but the rest of Udayal Pdai will stay to pray more. He gives a curt nod and follows her out.
As soon as the queen’s emerald green sari is out of sight, we reach for our wicker baskets once again. But this time, we don’t take out flowers or bananas, but our blades. I shout to the rest of the Udayal Padai, “ Let us get back what was ours!” They all nod and run out, blades in hand. The perfect distraction.
I take out the ghee and a matchbox from the bottom of my basket. It’s time. I run through the stone temple, weaving past the pillars and hurrying down a dimly lit staircase. I push open the wooden doors, revealing the armoury.
Rows of blades and pistols fill the room on wooden shelves. The British guards will come soon to gather their weapons to take the lives of Udayal Padai. I am too weak to defeat them on my own, but I can get rid of it all. It will only come to me one thing. My life.
I open the jar of ghee and slather it all over my body. I open the crook of my left palm to see the matchbox. With one swift move, a fire comes alive. The fire that will take my life, but the fire that will give others one freedom. I drop it to the ground.
Slowly it will spread, getting rid of the weapons.
Queen Velu’s words come back to me, “ The sacrifice you will make tonight will never be forgotten.” Will they remember? The sacrifice and the fight that started it all.
Udayal Padai: An army consisting of only women assembled by Queen Velu.
Ghee: A condiment similar to butter, normally sold in temples as offerings to God that will get rid of evil influences.
Vijayadashami: A holiday in India commonly celebrated by women, to symbolize Ramma the Indian God’s triumph against Ravanna who is a devil.