Dusk painted the sky varying hues of blue and purple, under it, the princess wrung her hands nervously. She darted this way and that- searching for someone. A brahmin, her most trusted, to send a message. As the kingdom of Vidharva slipped rapidly into the night, Rukmini became near frantic in her search.
She had very little time left.
Perhaps, her love had begun on that summer day.
She had barely blossomed into a woman. The day was hot and the princess had chosen to spend it sitting under the shade of the tall Banyan trees.
She’d first heard of him in stories told by the giggling attendants accompanying her. The curious little princess asked them what was the reason for such smiles. Her handmaidens were eager to tell her about the dark-skinned, charming hero, winning wars and hearts across the land.
“I heard his smile could topple even the strongest of warriors!”, swooned one of the younger attendants,
“How I wish he would come here to steal me away.”, another handmaiden dramatically sighed, leaning on her friend.
The others smiled at her antics and Rukmini slowly found herself interested in this hero. Eagerly she asked for more and her attendants was ready to supply her with every tale they had heard.
Elderly Dhaima knew the most stories. Everyone gathered around her as she told story after story of him. He went by many names.
That night, tired from a day spent listening to stories, Rukmini had carefully mouthed the word. Krishna. She said it again, felt the shape of it, how it pressed down her tongue, the way it lilted up at the end.
She didn’t know how many times she’d said it. Stars glittered above as she fell asleep, the name etched into her heart as she dreamed of dark skin and bright smiles.
Rukmini raced through the palace with tightly controlled, but hurried footsteps. She couldn’t let anyone know what she planned to do. Rounding marble corners, she cursed the palace for being so large.
Night had blanketed her kingdom, time was slipping faster than sand through her fingers. Another turn into a candlelit corridor and she nearly crashed right into the very Brahmin she was searching for.
“O blessed brahmin, I beg you, please deliver this message with haste. Our time is short, morning approaches quickly, you are my only hope.”, the words tumbled out of her. She was breathless and her heart soared as the Brahmin nodded. With a hushed whisper, she relayed her message and watched as the Brahmin sped off.
Now, she had nothing to do but wait.
The sound of thumping drums and loud chants of hulahuli filled the palace as Rukmini awoke from a night of fitful sleep. Sunlight spilt into her room through the heavy curtains, morning had arrived. She had only a moment of peace before her handmaidens burst in, chattering excitedly.
“Princess, are you up? You must get ready!”
“The palace has been decorated with such beautiful flowers! The Goddess Durga must be pleased.”
“Today is such an auspicious day, we must hurry princess!”
Excitedly, the attendants began swathing Rukmini in various, richly dyed fabrics and glittering jewellery. She smiled and laughed with them while silently hoping that the day would go as planned.
Her father had truly outdone himself. The palace was decked with banana trees lining the pathways, leaves shining green under the sun. Big, green mango leaves were draped over the threshold of every door. Flowers were strewn artfully about- bright pinks, yellows and oranges accentuated the corridors.
Cheerful chatter floated down the halls as the people of Vidharva flocked into the palace. Cries for blessings resounded throughout Rukmini’s busy home:
“O Goddess Durga, bless our princess to have the best of men.”
Rukmini fiercely wished that their cry would come true, that she would have the best of men.
It was a sacred ritual for the bride to visit the temple of the Goddess Durga before marriage. Rukmini was no exception. Dread filled her as she made her way to the temple.
A crowd had gathered around the temple, happy faces cheered as Rukmini made her way up the stone steps. There were royals among the crowd, the princes Rukma had invited, they openly leered at her. Rukmini did her best to ignore them.
Anticipation and impatience burned a hole in her gut as she tried to focus. She didn’t know whether the Brahmin had been successful in his venture or not.
Breathing in, she knelt in front of the heavily decorated idol of the Goddess. As she reached forward to touch the idol’s feet and ask for blessings, she thought of the events that lead to this.
Ever since that first day spent listening to stories, Rukmini had been hooked. She would force Dhaima to sit and tell her at least two stories about him daily. Even if she’d known them all by heart, she had wanted to know more and more and more.
This need had continued till she was of marriageable age.
She wasn’t there to hear it all unravel- an attendant had come to her after it occurred to tell her everything. Her father had proposed to marry her off to Krishna at first.
Rukmini was elated, she only barely managed to hide her glee, maintaining the carefully neutral face required of a princess. The attendant paused, guilt clouded her eyes. Rukmini had frozen at the expression- she knew the news to come wasn’t good.
Her own brother had come in between demanding that she be married to... Prince Shishupal?!
Rukmini’s knuckles were white, gripping her dress tightly. She twisted the fabric between nervous fingers. Of course. Rukma had always favoured that prince. It was no wonder that he’d wanted her to marry him.
And there was nothing she could do about it.
A numbness settled over Rukmini. She barely realised that the attendant had stopped speaking and was looking inquiringly at her. With a wave, she dismissed the attendant and sat stone still. Alone in her chambers.
The princess was unaware of how much time passed, no one entered her room, they knew better than to disturb her. As the sun dipped below the horizon, her numbness subsided and gave way to hot, desperate anger.
It was not his name she would mouth to herself at nights. It was not his stories she would press Dhaima for. It was not his sunny smiles she dreamt of.
Rukmini would not marry him, she had to do something. She spent that evening darting through the palace in search of a particular Brahmin.
The moon was high, lighting up his way in milk-white splotches of light. He was tired but the urgency on the princess’ face as she whispered her message to him pushed him forward. The Brahmin must do his duty.
Her love and admiration for Kanha was no secret in the palace. The king, perhaps, would have been the only oblivious one.
Rukma had been disdainful of Krishna, however. The Brahmin mused if that fuelled his prince’s demand for a different husband for Rukmini. Nevertheless, he was loyal to the princess. He would fulfil her wishes.
Under midnight blue, Krishna’s palace looked inviting, golden light spilling out. It was warm on his skin as he stood there, trying to collect himself. The journey had been a long one. An attendant must have noticed him, however, and the gates burst open.
Inside, stood a few attendants and Krishna. The Brahmin was surprised that the King would come to greet him personally. It lasted only a moment as Krishna eagerly grasped his arm and brought him inside.
He led the Brahmin through the twisting palace. The King sat across him, “Tell me, O learned one! What brings you here? Allow me to press your feet, the journey must have tired you!”
There was a glint in his lotus eyes as he asked the question. The Brahmin could tell the king knew more than he let on. And yet, he was not distrustful of Krishna- he was gentle and there was certain mirth to his features that could disarm anyone.
As the King sat, patiently pressing his tired feet and waiting for an answer, the Brahmin felt ease unfurl in him. He knew that Krishna would be the best man for Rukmini. And so, he relayed Rukmini’s message:
‘O, my beloved! Please hear me! I have surrendered my body, my mind, my soul everything at thy lotus feet. If ever I have served unconditionally my elders and the Brahmins, if ever I served food to the poor if ever I worshipped Lord Shiva with bel leaf with my heart, then- then it is assured that you’ll be my ‘Swami’ O Madhava - give me salvation, accept me. Rescue me from these sinners- Shishupal, Damaghose, Rukma. Destroy the pride, arrogance, and stubbornness of all the kings, grant me shelter by thy’s feet. Or else I’ll sacrifice my life. O my love- I am yours forever! Please rescue me from this dreadful mistake!’
The Brahmin waited, anxiously folding his hands. The princess’ message had been delivered.
Rukmini looked up at the stone idol of Durga. The serenity of the Goddess calmed her. As she leaned forward and touched the cool stone feet of the idol, something flickered to life.
Rukmini couldn’t describe what it was. Joy crashed over her like waves on a shore, she felt tears roll down her cheek. Rukmini felt the core of her being crack open- happiness filling it.
He had come.
The princess hardly realised that she had walked out of the temple. The crowd, princes, the cool earth beneath her bare feet, everything had melted away.
The skies were blazing golden. Everywhere she looked she could see him. Dark skin, lotus eyes, smile shining brighter than the sun. Dhaima’s descriptions did him no justice. She didn’t speak of the cleverness that twinkled in his eyes, the mirth that lined his face, the light trapped under his skin.
Dazed, she reached for the sky, uncaring of the shouting crowd. As he lifted her she felt weightless. They rode away from the heavy rain of arrows as angry princes yelled and aimed. Rukmini barely noticed them, she was consumed by relief.
The heavy, greedy weight that had been pressing down on her ribs ever since the day at the meadow had finally eased.
Rukmini was at peace.