A Waif of the Desert ©
In Rajasthan anyone who can traverse the Thar desert with the sheer willpower to live is not an ordinary mortal like you and me. In the days of Raja Man Singh the desert was a killing field as it is today. One did the trek and lived to tell its tale.
Mallika began life with bad strike against her. She was a girl in the land of men. Where the Maharajas fixed their ferocity with moustachios waxed to a point, no doubt his courtiers had their own manliness in so many ways declared. Some used ghee (or clarified butter) to jet black glossiness while the lesser mortals used henna as Mallika’s father. He sported it in deference to his lowly profession in the palace. He was a water carrier.
Pratap Rana was indigent and he lived with his wife and many sons often outdoor under the shade of a champak. When his wife became pregnant he proudly sat on a charpoi smoking his hooka and all the villagers knew he was thrice blessed with sturdy lads and he shall be lucky once again. How he waited agog awaiting the arrival for his son!
Oh no! The goddess must have been displeased at him for something. His astrologer friend was certain. Mallika a girl was born to him and it was inauspicious. ‘ Contrary to all hopes you have a girl. Now try to please the goddess somehow.” He advised and left the father.
Pratap Rana could not help thinking how unfortunate it was. And for his family. It was most unfair! The careful financial plans to their future the girl had upset. He had much to worry about. He owed already to the village money-lender and his sons cost him money. His own lands were already pledged and the money he had raised so many times against them had vanished without a trace! How was he to marry off Mallika when time was due for her marriage? In those days the infants were married off in pomp and style though the bride and the groom didn’t see or cohabit decades later. “Where shall I raise the funds for the feast? And the priest!” he asked his wife and she had no answer to that. As a palace employee he also had a standing. He was certain he would not lose his honor before the villagers who didn’t dare to swear or sit in his presence.
So with the connivance of his wife he put the infant in an earthen pot and laid in a dry well.
He was sure that no one had noticed it.
He was wrong.
A bandit saw something suspicious in that midnight activity. “ Treasure!” thought the desperado and he quickly retrieved it. “ A girl!’ he exclaimed. He didn’t judge why a father did go to such lengths to bury a child in the secret of the night. All that he saw was a girl who was a goodly child and an investment. He thought she could be taught to a life in crime and when time came she could be sold to some noble man for a good deal of money.
The same night he spirited away his find across the desert. Something in her told she must live. So through the blazing heat of the day she learnt to stay alive. At nights when robbers sneaked in and out plundering caravans she learnt to stay close to her father. She had much to thank for the man. He was big and powerful; and as gentle as the pillow on which her head rested. At night while the camels trudged on their splayed foot over the burning sand she had nothing to fear.
The sights and sounds were her lullaby. Mallika heard tingling of bells. She heard her father slurp his tea over a saucer or talk proud things over camp- fire and smiled. Her father brought parrots carved in wood and it squeaked at the press of a button. She had jewellry to wear. Then she was surrounded by chatter of monkeys that accompanied her company fo hand-outs. She could hear grownup laugh and play as though they were still children.
When she grew up she knew crime was as any profession honourable. As honorable as her father. Because he couldnot be any other than a god who saved her when her life hung in a balance. More weighted to the point of death. She heard storied from the old women who tended her and kept from all harm while men-folk were away.
Her career begain on a crepuscular evening when the thoughts of the old often turn to some nameless dread.
On such an evening a man in princely clothes. He had come there to track Azli-Naqli the most dreaded bandit of the province. He had stopped to ask the way and had rode for most part of the day. A twelve year old girl who in such vivacity had chattered with other girls near the well ran ahead of others. She knew them turn off one fter the other. They dared not run beyond the gul mohur that gave such bazing fiery red in the month of May. It was sort of a warnig signal. Not for Mallika. She was breathless and yet the strangeness that wafted in the wake of the rider gave her some hilarity. She caught his stirrup gaily. She like any child of healthy curiosity wanted to know why a prince should come into their hovel that had the smell cowdung put out to dry. ‘Our only priced possession is that tree over there.’ She said. With a laugh he asked,
Remembering a refrain of a ballad she replied,” A starry sky/ A velvety sky/ diamonds fit for a prince/ I bring to you..’ The stranger had never heard anything like that. So he wanted to see her parents. He also explained why he was there for.
She looked around and saw that she was not seen by others. Neither was the arrival of the stranger. She asked the man to go home and not go about searching into matters he had no idea of. “ Asli-Naqli’s head is all I want to take.” She stood in front of the horse and said with her almond eyes blazing, “ Asli-Naqli is a saint.”
“ No A horrible criminal!”
“Dare to tell me to my face my father Uttam Malwari is a criminal?” she asked and before he could realize the connection, she had pulled him down. It did not take much time for her to snatch his dagger and thrust it home.
The villagers in a trice appeared and they were of Thuggis, a caste that lived by criminal profession. They took over and hurriedly sent her away to stay with his father in a fort where he had his hide-out. “ Just stay there till trouble is taken care of.” They advised her. She just did that.
Mallika had declared war on the good folks of Rajasthan.