Nobody was more surprised than Henna Day, when the beautiful Queen Karisma of Asokastan, hand-picked her among all the girls in her village, as a bride for Crown Prince Vijay.
Henna was, after all, thirteen, plain and a tomboy who carried her pet mouse around in her dress pocket.
Shortly after her wedding, Henna realizes that fifteen-year-old Prince Vijay is not only gay, but has the mentality of a child.
To do or say anything, would tantamount to treason, so Henna and her impoverished family have to accept what the Queen has dealt them.
Years later, the manipulative and vain Queen Karisma, gives Henna an ultimatum – produce an heir or she will have the marriage annulled.
Prince Vijay flatly refuses to consummate the marriage and doesn’t care how Henna produces an heir.
Returning home to her village is not an option as it will mean disgrace to her family.
Desperate, Henna has to find a way to produce an heir.
Aided by Rekha, a former prostitute Henna rescued from a stoning on the streets of Asokastan, Henna secretly undergoes a dramatic makeover, poses as a commoner called Anita, and seduces unsuspecting Rusty Carrington, fencing instructor to Prince Vijay.
New Yorker Rusty, who has become a personal friend of Queen Karisma is the perfect candidate for this deception, as he has no idea who Anita really is and he is only in Asokastan for a short time.
Henna seduces Rusty, falls pregnant and immediately severs all contact with him.
Confused by the sudden disappearance of Anita, Rusty investigates and discovers the deception. After a fruitless search for Anita, he takes his broken heart back to New York.
Henna’s dark secret is now safe.
When King Anant is killed in an ambush, Queen Karisma, sets her sights on Rusty. Her infatuation with him morphs into obsession. She is now determined to secure him as a lover and sets about wooing him into her bed.
Unable to get over Anita and wanting to find her and make her pay for what she has deception, Rusty takes Queen Karisma up on her offer and goes back to Asokastan. He enlists Queen Karisma’s help in finding the elusive and deceptive Anita.
Queen Karisma is furious that someone other than her, could steal Rusty’s heart and she orders an investigation into this mysterious Anita. She vows to find her, bring her to justice and appease Rusty. The results of her investigation is tragic.
End of Synopsis
My name is Henna and I’m twenty-four years old.
It’s 2 AM and I’m sitting at my desk, writing letters to my three children. Tomorrow morning, I will get up at around 6 AM, take a warm shower and dress myself in a white sari, which I have already laid out on a chair.
At around 7 AM, breakfast will be wheeled into my suite by my servants, which I will probably refuse, like I usually do. I will drink tea with a dash of milk and two sugars.
At about 7:30 AM, my five-year-old twins will awaken and fight for my attention, which I will lavish on them.
At around 8 AM, my adorable two-year-old toddler will awaken and demand his bottle of milk, which he will guzzle in two minutes flat.
I will then hug and cuddle my children and tell them how much I love them and how sorry I am to be leaving them. They probably won’t understand what I’m saying but I need to say it.
At 8:45 AM, I will be shackled and led to the gallows in the Town Square, where I will be hanged in public.
I know what to expect – I’ve witnessed a hanging before. The charge is treason. I’v taken a lover and both of us have been sentenced to death by the Queen of Asokastan.
I’m in a state of numbness right now – natures crude bubble wrap. It’s something I welcome.
As I sit shrouded in silence, I take stock of my twenty-four years on this earth.
I was born in poverty, but went on to marry a prince. A Crown Prince, actually. The stuff fairy tales are made of.
I’ve loved and I’ve been loved by a beautiful man, who sacrificed his life for me. A man who showed me the world – the US, the UK, Italy, France, Germany, Paris, the Caribbean. A man who stepped into my life of despair and bathe it in bliss.
Because of him, I was blessed with three beautiful children, whom I love dearly and it breaks my heart to have to say goodbye to them.
How did it all start?
It started eleven years ago. Since my story sounds like a fairy tale, and it has a beautiful, but Wicked Queen in it, I shall I start with, Once upon a time …
ASOKASTAN – A NORTH WEST STATE OF INDIA
It might have been my wedding day, but nobody looked at me. All eyes were on my mother-in-law, Queen Karisma of Asokastan. She was breathtaking in an amber and gold sari, which draped like molten lava around her slim body, yet managed to shows off her lengthy, bare midriff.
On her head was a huge diamond-encrusted crown, which, when it caught both the amber hue of the sari and the light, caused it to “flame,” adding to her goddess-like vision.
She upstaged every woman in the room, including the Bollywood movie stars in attendance.
Men couldn’t take their eyes off her. Neither could women.
My mother had said, according to a few magazines, that Queen Karisma was one of the most beautiful women in all of India.
I didn’t mind that Queen Karisma was getting all the attention on my wedding day – I just wanted to be done with the wedding, as I was struggling to stay awake at the bridal altar. Like all Indian weddings, my royal wedding at the palace was wedding was colourful, elaborate and long-drawn. It had been going on for four days, ceremony after ceremony, and although it was exciting, I was exhausted.
My groom, Prince Vijay and I sat around the small bridal fire and threw stuff into it as instructed by the priest. It was hot and the smoke from the fire burnt my already-tired eyes.
The priest conducting the ceremony sang his words, and at thirteen, I understood neither the lyrics, nor the tune.
Prince Vijay did not look my way. If he did, he wouldn’t have been able to see my face anyway, as it was covered with a red sari veil.
Strings of tiny white flowers formed a curtain over his face. Although I’d never seen his face before, I knew what he looks liked – I’d been given his photo by Queen Karisma.
When my sisters saw Prince Vijay’s photo, they gushed that he was the most handsome man they’d ever seen.
“He’s more handsome than that movie star in Saturday Night Fever,” they said. “The one with the white suit who points to the ceiling when he dances? That one.”
They asked me to swap – a lollipop for my Prince’s photo. The lollipop contained strawberry sherbet; I just couldn’t pass on it.
I remember wishing for that sherbet as I sat at the bridal altar – I desperately needed the energy to handle the bridal sari, which was heavy and itchy.
“Costs the same as a house,” my mother had said. Felt as heavy as one too. This is how a turtle must feel, I thought as it weighed my shoulders down.
Yards and yards of red silk with tons of gold embroidery, which made it stiff and restricted my movements.
“You look like a parcel all wrapped up in a hurry,” Rani had said.
But, I wasn’t wrapped in a hurry. It took forever to dress me and I had to be up at
Rani, was my eldest sister. She was eighteen and extremely pretty. Rani was also a bitch. A huge one. You’ll see.
All my jewellery was given to me by the palace, and they too were heavy and expensive. My parents had absolutely no money, let alone money for a dowry, so I got nothing from them. With five daughters to support, we had little of anything.
I was decked in jewellery – head-to-toe. Make that from crown-to-toe. I even had rings on my toes.
“Your toes are so bony, they look like tiny Chinese firecrackers with jewels,” Rani said.
She called everyone to look at my toes and when they did, they also laughed. But Rani laughed the hardest.
I inched up my veil just a little and turned my jewellery-laden neck in the direction of Manju, my lady-in-waiting. She immediately took a step towards me and bowed her head.
“Yes, Princess Henna?”
I was a little taken aback by the “Princess Henna” bit. “Eh, Manju, how much longer?”
“Soon, Princess,” she whispered.
I nodded and dropped my veil which, I suspected, weighed the same as I did, with its fancy hand-beading and yards of gold and red chiffon.
Bored, I peeped through my veil at the priest conducting the wedding ceremony. Fat, bald, with sweat dripping down the sides of his face, he paused with his blah! blah! blah! only to wipe his chubby face with a cream handkerchief, (which I suspected was white at the beginning of the ceremony) then continued his singing in a monotone.
I desperately wished he’d hurry up. It was so hard for me to keep my eyes opened.
Besides getting up before sunrise, the trip from my village to the Palace took eight hours by Limousine.
Brahman droned on and on and on an on and on …
Then, hands clutched at me.
“Princess Henna, you fell asleep!” Usha scolded, as she bundled me back into my chair.
“Oh. Sorry,” I said and rubbed my sleepy eyes.
“You almost fell into the wedding fire,” Manju complained.
“I’m so tired,” I muttered.
Minutes later, I turned my neck to look at Manju. She rushed over. “Yes, Princess Henna?”
“What?!” Her nervous, kohl-lined eyes darted over to Queen Karisma shimmering under the cloud of admiration.
“You …you can’t eat now, Princess. You have to wait for the ceremony to be over, then you can eat with Prince Vijay and the rest of the Royal Family.”
“But I’m hungry now,” I whined as I reluctantly dropped my veil. Mfff. Then, I quickly lifted my veil again. “Will there be ice-cream?”
Again, her eyes flitter nervously in the direction of the priest who pauses with his singing to frown at us. “Yes, Princess, there will be lots of ice-cream.”
A thrill runs through me. “Rainbow ones?”
“Rain …? Yes Princess. But Princess,” She pulled down my veil, “you can’t keep lifting up your veil. It is not respectful during your marriage ceremony.”
“The priest – he’s getting annoyed.”
I tapped my foot impatiently.
“Maharani will also get annoyed.”
I sat back, folded my bejewelled hands tightly over my bejewelled chest and tapped my foot.
“Your mother will get annoyed.”
Immediately, I stopped my tapping. I dared not make my mother angry. Nobody dared make my mother angry.
“Pugli!” I overheard Manju mutter to Usha.
Pugli, as in “retard.” I’d heard that word so many times in my life, it had lost all meaning.
Finally, it was time for the reveal – I get to see my future husband’s face.
With great excitement, I watched them part his veil of flowers.
When I saw his face, I gasped. I swivelled my head to look at Manju. As usual, she was beside me in an instant.
“What now, Princess?” she snapped.
I ignored the irritation in her voice. “Manju, it’s not the same man in the photo!”
She put her finger to her lip and motioned me to look ahead, so I did. Reluctantly.
I snuck a look at person I was marrying. He was around fifteen, a head taller than me and I didn’t see a neck on him. His tiny head appeared to be placed on his bony shoulders.
He was wiry and his face was littered with pus-filled pimples. His nose was the first thing you saw when you looked at him. His face was pale and his arms and legs were thin and gangly. He looked like he was ill. In fact, a few months prior to my wedding, a villager we called Uncle Balchand, had passed away from a mysterious illness. Days before he died, he looked like the boy who stood in front of me.
The long, off-white, brocade jacket he wore drowned him and his red and white turban looked more like a bandage around a serious head wound.
After a quick glance at me, he looked at the floor and that’s where his eyes remained.
I craned my neck to look at my mother, who was seated a few yards away from me. When I caught her eye, she quickly looked away.
I looked at my father seated next to my mother – his eyes were fixed to the ground.
I looked at my sisters – all stared at him with wide-eyes, except for Rani – she was laughing behind her hand. It was the first time I’d seen her laugh since I was picked by Queen Karisma to marry her son. Over her, that is.
My thirteen-year-old mind rationalized – maybe it’s how it’s was done here – marriage by proxy. Maybe later, the correct prince, the one in the photo, would come by and “take over” from the weird boy.
Anyway, after walking around the fire several times, to my delight, the ceremony was over.
Finally. I couldn’t wait to lose the mountain of fabric smothering me, the jewellery, especially the one hundred gold bangles I was instructed to wear all the time, and run off to play with my sisters, like we usually did at weddings.
Oh, and my ice-cream – I assumed that I would get a second helping with me being a princess and all.
Princess? That word and me in the same sentence — didn’t seem right.
As Rani had said, it was just ridiculous that I, the village idiot, was chosen to marry Crown Prince Vijay. She said that she was supposed to marry a prince and that I was supposed to marry a cow-herd and run around the fields barefoot, dirty and …I couldn’t quite remember the rest. Rani had said so many things and she really had a way with words. Especially when she was furious or when she lost at a game.
I would have called her a bitch, (when my mother wasn’t looking) but then, so many people had said similar things…I couldn’t really call everyone a bitch. Anyway, I was great with cows, even though we were too poor to even own one. I was like a cow-whisperer. I understood them and they liked me. I just loved animals.
Queen Karisma or Maharani, as she was called by all in her kingdom, glided up to us and as she did, all eyes followed her every move. She was first to wish the, well, “wrong prince” and me.
Her crown was so large and wobbly, I was worried that it would tip over and hit me in the head. Concuss me. Or, it maybe it would hit the wrong prince and slice off some of his nose.
Actually, slicing off some of his nose didn’t seem like such a bad idea, I remember thinking, considering that it made up half of his face!
Queen Karisma murmured good wishes, gave us some air-kisses, then drifted away like a billow of orange smoke.
King Anant followed and wished us too. He also wore a crown, but he didn’t look handsome. He was short and thin, with black, beady eyes and he was stooped. He shook both of our hands, then hurried behind Maharani and stood a step behind her. There was a striking resemblance between the wrong prince and him.
It was my mother and father’s turn to wish us.
“Ma,” I cried, “they gave us the wrong prince! Did you see? Did you see? It’s not the man in the pho…”
“Shh!” she whispered, her eyes darting nervously around. I could see she was just as intimidated as I was by the palace and the Royal Family.
“It doesn’t matter, Henna. Here, you will be well taken care of. Just don’t do anything silly and ruin all of this. Try not to act like a tomboy, okay? Act like a grown up or they will send you back and then you know how everybody will laugh at us. None of your sisters will ever get married then.”
“But, the photo…?”
“Forget the photo,” my mother said behind her hand. “Maharani is our queen. What she says goes, understand? Anything you got bad to say, Henna, better don’t say it. Otherwise,” she dropped her voice, “she will hang you. Just like she hanged her brother’s wife for talking bad about her.”
“Okay, okay, okay!” I didn’t want to be hanged just yet – I had my ice-cream to think about.
My father shuffled forward in the cream and blue checked suit he had borrowed from his brother, hugged me briefly and shook Prince Vijay’s hand. He looked uncomfortable and avoided eye-contact with everyone. Quietly, he follows my mother, just like King Anant did.
The wrong prince and I were left alone in a room for fifteen minutes to get to know each other before dinner.
He stared at the floor while I studied him.
“You’re not the man in the photo,” I murmured.
“They gave us the wrong prince.”
“They made a mist…”
“There is only one prince in Asokastan and that is me!” he said, his eyes fixed to the floor. His voice sounded like someone was dragging fingernails across a chalkboard. In fact, had I closed my eyes, I would have mistaken him for a girl, rather than my husband.
“Well,” I said, ‘there’s been some mistake and after I get my ice-cream, I’m going to try to sort things out.”
We spent the rest of the fifteen minutes in silence. My husband sat absolutely still, while I snooped around, hoping to find more sweets more than anything else. I found nothing.
When the door opened and my ladies in waiting appeared, I tottered up to them. “Where’s my ice-cream?”
“After dinner with Maharani and Maharaja,” Manju said in a firm voice and led us both to the Royal dinner table. “Now behave,” she whispered.
Prince Vijay’s family and mine sat at the bridal table. Never before had I seen so much food at once. Not even when that politician threw our village a lunch and promised that if we voted for him, he would get us running water and electricity.
(Every person who was of voting age rushed to vote for him. Three years on, our village still had neither indoor plumbing, nor electricity. But the villagers got back at him. They burned down his house. )
The tables literally sagged under the weight of the food. Unlike the weddings at the village, this wedding was quiet and everyone ate mainly in silence. Well, soft music played in the background and you could hear the clink of glasses, but there wasn’t any of that loud chatter and laughter that usually took place at weddings.
Maharani smiled and talked in a breathless voice to the men, while the women around her were ignored.
Prince Vijay moved food around in his plate, while I bent over my plate and shovelled food down into my mouth. I wasn’t sure when I was going to get food like this again, so I took no chances. As for the ice-cream, I ate, not as much as I could eat but as much as I could carry.
Sure, I felt a little sick after that, but I didn’t mind.
After dinner, I got a few minutes alone with my family. Now that the excitement of the wedding had died down and my stomach hurt, I was ready to end the day.
“Let’s go home, Ma,” I said, yawning, “I’m so tired.”
My mother was busy arranging flowers in Rani’s hair, while my other sisters poked their noses around, checking out the palace.
Ma threw me a cursory glance, then concentrated on Rani’s flowers. “This is home, Henna. Do you want one flower on your head or …?”
“No, it isn’t.”
“You’re married now, Henna,” my mother said, focusing on the bobby pin in her hand. “This is where you will now live now.”
“I want two,” Rani snapped. “How many times must I tell you?”
I looked around, took in the ornate ceilings, the marble floors, the heavy, antique furniture, and fear snaked through me. Surely, they didn’t expect me to live with the people I ate with?
“No, Ma, I’m not staying here,” I said. “I’m scared.”
“This place, this people… they speak English, Ma, and they…they eat with a fork and a knife. A knife! Did you see how many forks and knives each person had? Like …fifty!”
“More like eighty!’ my sister Suri called out.
“Yes, maybe eighty,” I said.
“Don’t worry about all that, Henna. Maharani will arrange for you to get lessons for stuff like that. Relax and en…”
“But, Ma, I want to go home!” I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose, as fear unfurled inside of me.
“You’re married, Henna. You’re a big girl now. You can’t go back ho… Rani! Sit still!” she scolded. “I can’t get these flowers to stay on your hair!”
I tottered up to my mother in my sari and jewels, desperate for her to understand just how anxious and scared I was. “Ma, I want you to tell Maharani that …that I’ve changed my mind and that I don’t want to be married to her son…”
“Henna, don’t be sill…”
“… and that I’ll give back the jewellery…”
My mother whirled around to glare at me, Rani’s flowers now airborne. “Give back the jewellery? Are you MAD?!”
I backed away, scared of my mother’s wrath. She could go from nought to furious in five seconds and then you’d better be a fast runner or you’d see tiny silver stars, regardless of what time of the day it was.
“Of course you aren’t marrying the man in the photo,” Rani jeered. “He’s too good looking for someone like you.”
“Shut up, Rani!” I growled as I massaged my aching stomach.
“Rani” meant queen. Because of my sister’s beauty my family expected big things for her in life. It came as a shock to everyone when she was overlooked in the search for a princess.
“He probably looked at your photo and said, ‘Uuuggh! She’s so ugly! She’s so thin. She’s flat – like an ironing board! So they gave you to the ugly boy with the crackly voice. Now you and the ugly boy can make ugly babies.” She threw back her head and laughed.
I wanted to lunge at her and yank at her hair till she cried out in pain.
She put both palms in front of her face and pretended to read from them. “Once upon a time, there was a very very ugly girl, who married a very very ugly prince. They kissed and both became very very ugly frogs.” She scoffed at the anger on my face.
I darted at her, but she hid behind my mother. I shook my fist at her while she made faces at me.
Just then the music started. “Dancing time!” my sisters shouted and started to run off to dance.
“Wait for me!” I cried, forgetting all my fears and ready to join in the fun.
But Usha and Manju blocked my path. “Princess Henna, you can’t mix with the commoners. You are a Rajkumari; you have to act like one.” They rudely ushered my mother and Rani out of my room.
“Commoners? But that’s my fam…”
“Mff!” Usha rolled her eyes and took my arm. “No dancing for you tonight, Princess. You have to prepare for your husband – do your wifely duties. Maharani is relying on you for an heir to the throne.”
Intimidated by my ladies-in-waiting, I hung back and nodded meekly. Maybe I’ll just quickly do my ‘wifely duties’ and then I can go dance with my sisters, I thought.
To my surprise, they led me back to my suite and instructed me to change into a flimsy, white, floor-length nightdress. It’s matching gown was trimmed in white fur and ended in a fur-lined train.
In it, I felt for the first time, like a princess. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever owned, and as I caressed it, I vowed never to take it off. Didn’t matter that it was two sizes too big.
I secretly wondered if I could dance in it later on, after I did my wifely duties. That’s how much I loved it. Back home, there was no such thing as night-wear—we slept in whatever we wore during the day, so this was a double treat for me.
Manju sat me in front of the mirror and brushed my long hair with a pretty tortoise-shell hairbrush.
“You are virgin, right, Princess?” Manju said.
She jumped back as if my hair had just caught alight, taking the tortoise-shell hairbrush and most of my hair with. “WHAAAT?!”
I looked at Manju’s horrified face, then at Usha’s ashen face and I realized the answer should have been ye.
“Yes!” I quickly said, going into damage-control. “Yes. Yes.”
As they exchanged smiles of relief, the tortoise-shell hairbrush and my hair returned.
“Rajkumari, do you know what foreplay is?”
This time I was ready for them. “Yes,” I answered with all the confidence I could muster. It’s got the word “play” in it – had to be a “yes”.
In spite of my answer, they exchanged confused looks. At least they didn’t jump back this time.
“So…” Manju scratched her head, “you’ve been prepared, then?”
“Yes!” I had no idea what they were talking about, but…
They nodded happily. “That’s good, Princess because you have to please your husband.”
“Okay.” Again, I had no idea what they were talking about.
“Of course, it will hurt the first time, but after that…?”
“Hurt?” I jerked my head to look at her. “Wha … what do you mean?” I couldn’t handle any kind of pain, whatsoever.
“Don’t worry,” Usha said, tapping my shoulders in what she probably believed was a reassuring manner, “just lie back and let him do all the work.”
“Okay,” I muttered and yawned.
They dimmed the light, positioned me in the bed, arranged for my hair to drape over the pillow and left the room. I lay on the bed, exhausted from the week’s events and waited to do my “wifely duties”.
The smell of fresh linen, the bright lights, the silence of the room, made me really nervous and uncomfortable. After a while, I slid out of bed, dug into my bag and pulled out one of my very own dress I had sneaked into the bag, when Usha and Manju weren’t looking.
I removed the princess nightdress and slipped on my favorite brown dress. It was faded, tattered and unwashed, but it was familiar – what I needed right now.
Carefully, I folded my precious white nightdress and gown, slipped them under my pillow and crawled back under the sheets.
I didn’t plan to, but I was so exhausted, and the bed was so soft, that I fell asleep .
I was awakened by the sound of the door opening. The room was now dark, so I got really scared and held my breath. In the dark, a figure slithered closer.
It was the wrong prince.
As quiet as a palace mouse, he got into the opposite end of the bed, fully clothed, pulled the covers up to his neck and within minutes, began snoring softly.
Too exhausted to keep my eyes open, or to even care that he was in my bed, I immediately drifted off to sleep.
I was awakened by the sunlight filtering in through the drapes. I opened my eyes and was startled by the unfamiliarity of the room and its furnishings. Then I reached under my pillow and took out my beautiful princess nightwear and slowly, the fog in my head shifted.
I’m in the palace. I got married last night. They gave me the wrong prince.
I looked at the dark head of the man asleep next to me and balked. There were two dark heads in my bed!
Am I dreaming, I wondered? I rubbed my eyes and blinked rapidly to shed the cobwebs of sleep. No, I was not dreaming – there were two boys asleep next to me.
Confused, I stared at their heads.
When one of them stirred, I quickly shut my eyes and pretended to be asleep.
I heard shuffling and whispering and when I opened my eyes again, the wrong prince was out of bed. The other dark head had left.
Quietly, I slid out of bed and slipped the white gown over my brown dress. I shared a bed at home with my sisters, so I guessed they did the same here. It was confusing, as this was a palace and there were so many beds around.
Prince Vijay silently handed me a bed sheet. I was just about to accept the sheet when I saw what looked like bloodstains. With a gasp, I jerked my hand away.
“They’re going to look for this,” he wheezed. “Put it on your side of the bed.”
My eyes flitted between him and the horrible sheet.
I shook my head.
With an impatient sigh, he yanked back the covers and placed the sheet over the ones we had slept on. “If you don’t have this, they will send you back home,” he whispered, as he drew back the covers.
His words snapped me out of my frozen state. I nodded. Going back home was not an option. My mother would kill me if I disgraced my family like that. After all, Maharani accepted me without a dowry which was a huge relief to my family.
The servants, about five of them, wheeled in a two trolleys bearing silver dome platters. After bowing, they opened up the lids. I gasped at the sight of breakfast – a spread so sumptuous, I got full just looking at it. But that didn’t stop me from gorging. I ate everything in front of me – just lowered my head and ate greedily.
Vijay drank tea. That was it. I couldn’t believe that he didn’t want to eat.
Manju and Usha knocked and entered. Usha tried to help me dress, while Manju made my bed. Through a mirror I saw her look at the blood-stained sheet, nod and sneak it out of the room.
Vijay was right, they did look for it.
I didn’t want to change into my clothes. I wanted to remain in the beautiful white satin nightwear.
Usha frowned, but reluctantly let me keep it on.
When Rani saw my gown, her jaw dropped. Slowly, like a Bengal Tiger, she circled me, her breath coming out in gasps. “I …want… it!”
“No, it’s mine! It’s mine!” I cried and moved the train out of her way. “Don’t step on it.”
Rani swivelled to look at my mother. “Ma, tell her to give it to me! She’s got so many nice things. I don’t have anything. Tell her, Ma, tell her.”
“No!” I said.
“Henna! Give it to her, Henna,” my mother scolded. “It’s too big for you anyway.”
“No!” Clutching my oversized gown with both hands, I moved away from them to my sisters who were ooohing! and aaahhhing! and in total awe of the palace.
“This place is like something out of the movies,” Rhona said. ‘I could live here forever, Henna.”
“Me too,” Suri said, twirling around.
“Yes, but Maharani only allowed us to stay last night, so we have to go,” my mother said.
I eyed the massive floral arrangements, the Persian rugs on the walls, and the huge portraits of the Royal Family who watched us no matter where we stood, and I wanted to bolt out of there.
“I’ll swap with you,” Rhona said. “I never want to go back to our house after seeing this and being here.”
“You will?” Excitement surged through me. That’s it – we swap, I go back home, she stays here and everyone’s happy. I was about to say something, when I noticed my mother’s warning look. I shut me up, even though my anxiety steadily escalated.
After spending a couple of hours sight-seeing at the palace, they started to pack. When I saw their suitcases, my anxiety skyrocketed.
“I want to go home, Ma! The prince they gave me – he put …” I lowered my voice, “stuff on my bed, Ma. Terrible, uuurrgghh! And the sheet, they took it and I’m not staying here and …”
My mother took both my hands in hers. “I was married when I was fourteen, Henna, and look at me, I’m okay.” Gently, and ensuring my ladies-in-waiting weren’t looking, she slipped three gold bangles out of one of each of my arms and snuck them into her bra.
“You’ll be okay too.” She leaned in and her voice dropped to whisper, “Don’t tell anyone I took them.”
“No! I’m going home with you guys!” I cried, not caring about the silly bangles. “I’m not staying, I’m going home! I’m not…”
My mother grabbed my shoulders and shook me. “You behave! Stop acting like a child. Do you duty, give them an heir and all will be okay. That is what you are here for; do your duty!”
I shrugged off her arms. ‘I hate this place. It’s different, it’s scary, Ma. Please don’t make me stay here! Please.’
But my mother turned away and continued packing. My sisters, seeing my distress became sombre and worried and pretty soon, all of them, with the exception of Rani, were crying with me. I seldom cried, so my tears affected them.
“Then you stay longer,” I begged. ‘Till I get used to the place. Please, Ma, please, please!”
“Henna, stop!” she hissed. “I can’t stay here. I have things to do and I have to help Auntie Bindiya with her wedding.”
“Please!” I threw my arms around her waist and held onto her. “Please! Please! Don’t leave me here. I am so scared, Ma.”
My tears and pleas attracted the attention of palace staff and even Vijay.
Embarrassed by my childish behaviour, my mother tried to explain. “She just needs a few days and she will forget all about us.” She even managed a short laugh as she peeled off my arms from around her waist.
“I beg you, Ma, I beg you! I’ll do anything. Just don’t leave me here. You can take all the bangles, just stay with me.”
“I’ll give Rani my white princess nightdress, Ma! Please stay, please!”
All my sobbing, begging and bartering didn’t help. She left – got into the palace limousines with the rest of my family and drove off.
“Ma, don’t leave me!” I screamed, as I ran after the limousine. “Take me with too, please! Papa! Papa, please don’t leave me here! Pleeeeease, Meena! Suri! Rhona! Don’t leave me here. Please!”
Manju and Usha ran after me and tried to restrain me, but I fought them off. They eventually managed to subdue me, and as the taillights of the limousines disappeared over the hill, I fell on my knees, put my forehead to the ground and sobbed.
Come back for me. Come back for me. Please, Ma. I need you more than Auntie Bindiya. Please, please, please …
“You have to go inside,” Manju snapped.
I shook my head. “T…they will come back for m…me. I need to s…tay here.”
“No, they’re not,’ she said. ‘They’re gone. They are never coming back.”
I wiped my tears with the edge of my white gown. “They will come b…back for me. I know that. They saw me c…cry. They will come b…back. They will come back.”
But they didn’t.
Hurt, confusion and despair washed over my thirteen-year-old self as the hours went by and the sun disappeared.
It was almost midnight when somebody carried my sleeping body and my dirty white gown back to the place I now had to call home – The Palace of Asokastan.
TWO WEEKS BEFORE MY WEDDING
GEET— A REMOTE VILLAGE IN THE OUTSKIRTS OF ASOKASTAN
The village was buzzing – Queen Karisma was arriving the following day to choose a bride for The Crown Prince of Asokastan.
“Rani, they’re definitely going to pick you,” my mother said.
“Rani, they’re definitely going to pick you,” my aunts said.
“Rani they’re definitely going to pick you,” our neighbours said.
Rani tossed her hair and smiled smugly. Loosely interpreted, “But of course!”
“Why bother bringing my daughters to the village square?” Aunt Priya, who was not really my aunt, said in a joking manner. “Maharani will take one look at Rani and send everybody else home.”
I didn’t think Aunt Priya’s daughters were unattractive. They were a little plain, but they were sweet and they shared their mangoes with me.
“You can’t be too sure,” Rani said, as she practised for the hundredth time, her curtsey in front of the only mirror we owned.
My sisters and I said nothing, because we assumed that everybody was right – Rani had been primed to be a royal bride or something equally grand since the day she was born. She was even named accordingly.
Because of her beauty, she believed that she was destined for big things. Huge things and everyone around her was just there to serve her.
She was truly pretty – long, dark hair, skin as pale and smooth as marble, full terracotta lips, almond-shaped, hazel eyes, curves in all the right places and she had style.
At any given time, she looked like she had stepped out of a fashion magazine.
Not only was she the prettiest girl in the village of Geet, but she was also the prettiest girl in the surrounding villages as well. Notice I called her pretty, not beautiful.
That’s because Rani was a mean bitch – she wanted everything, she wanted it first, and she wanted it now and, if she didn’t get her way, we paid. She’d cry and nag and nobody would get to sleep that night.
Even though she was so pretty and she got everything, she was jealous of everyone and always had to be the centre of attention.
My mother and father indulged her and let their favorite daughter get away with everything, simply because Rani was so pretty.
My father, well, he was always tired from his job as a clay potter and from his part-time job as a grave digger, so he said little and allowed my mother to run the household and raise his seven daughters, mainly with her fists.
As for me, I didn’t give care about some snooty Prince and I had no intention of attending the ‘cattle parade’ at the village square.
No way was I going to be chosen. I was skinny, brown-skinned, raggedy and I looked eleven.
“I’m not going,” I announced.
“Maharani ordered that all the girls between the ages of thirteen and eighteen must be present,” Uncle Khanna said in a voice that told me I’d better attend or else.
Still, I secretly didn’t plan to attend.
“They’ll be giving out free sweets as well.”
“Free sweets?” I moved closer to Uncle Khanna. “Do you know what kind of sweets they’re giving?”
The Queen and her entourage was already at the village square when I dashed in.
I was late because of Biju. He had escaped from his shoebox and I was afraid that Kala, Rani’s mean cat, would gobble him.
After searching for more than an hour, I found him alive and in one piece, so I slipped my pet mouse into my dress pocket and hurried to the village square to get my sweets.
Biju was used to being in my pocket and he liked it. But just to secure him, I put my slingshot in the same pocket.
Everyone at the “cattle parade” was dressed like they were going to a funeral, while I was dressed in my usual tattered dress. That confused me.
My mother Jaya, who was wearing her best pink and blue saree, was outside the hall and pacing. When she saw me, she smacked me on the head for being late, grabbed me by the ear and marched me into a line.
“Stand up straight and don’t wriggle like an earthworm!”
The commotion caused the Queen to notice us. I stood extra straight with my hands to my sides and stared ahead..
While I did this, Biju, for some reason got fidgety and started to move around. He somehow managed to push out my slingshot out of my pocket and it fell to the ground, making a noise and disturbing the Queen’s conversation with a village elder.
I was horrified. I didn’t have to look at my mother to know that she was equally horrified.
The Queen, who we idolized, looked at my slingshot on the ground, then at me. Now I was going to be thrown out and there goes my sweets, I thought with dismay.
With my heart beating really fast, I used my foot to drag the slingshot out of sight.
But, to my surprise, Queen Karisma smiled and I thought how beautiful her smile was. I was mesmerised by her. She was by far the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life. Her reddish-brown hair curled at her waist, her skin was pale and unmarked, her green eyes were lined with kohl, and her lips were red as field berries.
She wore an emerald-green saree, with a gold, cropped top. Her crown was studded with emeralds and diamonds to match her saree while her feet were shod in gold sandals. She looked prettier than any Bollywood star I had ever seen.
She smiled all the time, even when nothing was funny. She must be very friendly, I remember thinking.
When she glided over to me, I panicked. “Is that your slingshot?” she asked.
I heard my mother’s sharp intake of breath.
That’s it, I’m going to die today, I thought. Either by her hands or by my mother’s.
Quickly, I bent down, snatched up the slingshot and stuffed it in my pocket, telepathically warning Biju not to push it out again. “Yes,” I answered.
“Yes, Maharani!” my mother whispered loud enough for all to hear.
Quickly, I curtsied like Uncle Khanna taught us to. As I did this, my slingshot popped out of my pocket again.
Again, I heard my mother’s anguished gasp.
“Sorry, Maharani,” I muttered, as we both stared at the offending slingshot on the ground.
“That’s okay,” she said in a voice like cotton candy. “How old are you, my dear?”
“Eh, twelve, Maharani.”
“Eh, thirteen, Maharani.” I looked at my mother and frowned.
My mother nodded. “You turned thirteen already, Henna.”
This time Maharani’s smile reached her eyes.
Whew! I relaxed a little.
Then her eyes turned huge. “Why is your pocket moving?”
I stood transfixed. Biju don’t you dare!
“Oh …” I attempted a dismissive wave.
She stared at me for a while, then motioned to an official.
After a word with Queen Karisma, the official turned to me and said, “Please, come with us.”
I looked at my mother, unsure what to do.
My mother was gesturing wildly, like she was trying to land airplanes. “Go! Go! Go!”
I went and I became the Princess of Asokastan.
Rani cried for days. Sobbed. She dressed in all white, rounded up all the handkerchiefs in the house, and declared a state of mourning. “How could the pick such a pugli?” she wailed.
“Pugli” as I mentioned before, is “retard.”
“She’s so flat-chested, she’s so ugly, she doesn’t like to bath, she can’t remember how old she is, she sleeps with a rat, Ma, a rat!”
“Mouse,” I murmured, as I peeled potatoes for my mother.
She glared at me. “Whatever! Mouse, rat, same THING, you little idiot!”
“Henna! Why you upsetting your sister?” my mother demanded.
To make matters worse, Aunty Priya rushed into our house and bellowed, “Congratulations, Rani! Or shall I call you …’ she smiled coyly, ‘Maharani’ from now…?”
She stopped in mid-sentence and jerked back. “What? What?” Her eyes darted between my mother and Rani.
Nobody said a word. Nobody dared.
Humiliated, Rani burst into tears and threatened all sorts of things. “I will drink poison, I will slit my wrists, I will …”
“Henna,” my mother finally whispered. “They chose Henna.”
“… drown myself, I will …”
“Henna? Who’s Henna?” Aunt Priya whispered back, a million lines appearing on her forehead.
“… throw myself in front of a train, I will …”
“She’s my fourth,” my mother explained, and jerked her head towards me, her potato peeler who didn’t like to a bath.
Aunt Priya looked at me, then blinked rapidly several times. The whispering came to an abrupt halt – they started communicating in sign language.
Aunt Priya pointed at me, her eyebrows shooting up behind her oiled fringe.
My mother nodded, then shrugged, a don’t-ask-me-how, look on her solemn face.
Aunt Priya’s index finger darted at Rani, her eyebrows still behind her fringe.
Again, all my mother could manage was an exaggerated shrug and a look of utter sorrow.
Aunt Priya looked at Rani, at me, at Rani, then raised her hands and threw her eyes heavenward.
“… eh …I will…eh…” At this point, I believed that Rani had run out of ways to end her life.
“I will throw myself off a tall building, I will …”
I was wrong.
My mother let out a long sigh of despair as she waddled over to our portable stove to make Aunty Priya a cup of tea.
Yes, I was daughter number four. The almost-middle child. The forgotten child who nobody gave a second glance to, whose name nobody remembered.
“Children should be seen and not heard,” our village elders used to say. Well, I was neither seen nor heard, and nobody was more baffled than me when Maharani chose me of all the girls in the village to marry the Crown Prince of Asokastan.
After they got over their terrible shock of my being chosen, people were excited about Queen Karisma choosing a bride from Geet. It meant that our village could expect visits from the Royal family.
People brought fruit, chickens, sweets and other such gifts, and congregated around our house. To the delight of my mother, my family were treated like royalty. She absolute revelled in it.
Village women told of all the wonderful things that awaited me.
“They will teach you how to walk, how to talk, how to get out of a car and stuff like that.”
“You will be taught how to please your husband.”
“They will give your lots of gold and diamond jewellery.”
“You will have to start wearing shoes.”
“Your sisters will have to call you ‘Rajkumari’.”
“You will become Queen of Asokastan one day.”
“Your sisters will then have to call ‘Maharani’ and bow to you.”
Now that last statement – that was the one that sent Rani over the edge. I knew that for sure.
No longer did she threaten to kill herself, but now she wanted to kill me.
I believed her.
“I will strangle her skinny neck and I will strangle her stupid rat!” Rani screamed, loud enough for people in Africa to hear.
“Mouse,” I corrected. See now, that made my life difficult, because I had to take Biju everywhere from then on, in case Rani set her equally mean cat, Kala, on him.
Things didn’t go as expected, much to my mother’s disappointment.
I never got to meet my groom, I was given absolutely no training on how to be a princess and I would certainly not be pleasing my husband anytime soon. Everyone could count on that.
Also, Maharani declined to visit our house, but she sent both her royal aides to inspect and report back to her. It was a good thing, because where would she have sat? We had no living room and the one rickety chair we had, was reserved solely for Rani. The rest of us sat on the floor or on our beds.
Most baffling to my parents, was the fact that my wedding was to take place just two weeks after I was chosen.
Talk about a whirlwind romance – between Queen Karisma and me, that is.
Of course, The palace paid all expenses relating to the wedding, so my family had nothing to worry about. In fact, my mother had already received a fairly large sum of money from the palace towards wedding expenses and she was feverish with excitement.
My excitement stemmed from a different source – I had heard that the palace had television sets in all the rooms. We never owned a TV, so that was something I wanted so badly.
I also heard that they had indoor plumbing. Great – no more sharing our toilet with the other families in our village.
Apparently, I would get my own bed too. I shared my bed with my sisters and, well, let’s put it this way – a lot of times I woke up feeling wet – like I was in a warm bath. That was okay, until the “bath water” turned cold. They complained about the same thing.
Our house was constructed basically of wood and it had a tin roof. On rainy days the sound on the roof would be like an orchestra playing. Badly at that.
The roof leaked a lot and it was not unusual to see the floor littered with plastic buckets to catch the falling drops.
There was very little money, so food was scarce. We had dinner every night and all the other times we ate nothing. There was no such thing as breakfast, lunch or snacks.
These days when I see advertisements on television – “A dollar a day could feed a starving child”, I think of my upbringing – I was that starving child.
Being hungry was normal to us and on the rare occasion that my mother bought home a chicken, we’d eat every part of it, even the bones. We children scoured the fields for fruit and berries and that would sustain us till dinner time. My slingshot came in handy – I could steal into our landlord’s orchard and shoot down mangoes, avocados and lychees for us to eat. All I had to ensure was that I never got caught or I’d get a beating from the landlord.
I could even shoot birds, but I loved them too much to harm them, so, to the frustration of the other village children, I never brought down a bird for lunch.
There was little money for medicine too, so if any of us took ill, we had to rely on the local medicine man to help or just saw the illness through.
We were, in the true sense of the word, dirt-poor.
So when Henna, a thirteen year-old, scrawny tomboy from the village of Geet, was chosen as a bride for the Crown Prince of Asokastan, my mother had indeed had won the lottery.
The big question: Why Henna? Why me?
AT THE PALACE
Homesick for both my family and my village, for all that was familiar to me, I spent my days staring out the window and crying quietly.
I cried for the open fields of Geet with its goat tracks, for my goat-herd friend, Zaman who used to have mouse-races with me, for Suri and Meena and their tree-climbing competitions which I always won, for milk direct from a cow, for my mother even though she rarely spoke to me, for my father who didn’t know I existed.
Even though it had been days, I was still hopeful about my mother. Maybe she would take pity on me and come back, I thought. Maybe she’d stay till I got used to the place. Maybe she’d send Meena to keep me company. Maybe she’d tell Maharani that I was not coping and that she wanted to send Rani in my place instead.
I clung to hope that they would return, shower with kisses and whisk me away. That they’d say that they missed me enough to want to me back. That I was more important than all the prestige that came with being a royal bride.
None of that happened.
Biju was a concern of mine – was he okay? Was he being bullied by Kala? Did they remember to feed him? I had never owned a stuff toy or a doll in my life, so Biju was my furry friend who I slept with. I missed him so much.
I refused to eat or go to bed. I slept in a chair next to the window.
Manju and Usha got annoyed with me for asking the same questions over and over again. “Did my mother send a message?”
“Can you send her a message for me? Please?”
“Princess!” Usha snapped, “this is home, now. Your fate, your kismet. You can’t go back. Now stop crying and come – see all the nice things you have. Look at the beautiful suite you live in.”
‘Okay,’ I said in a meek voice and hung my head.
Our suite, which was on the border of the palace grounds, was private, secluded and huge – five times the size of my home back in Geet.
It had four spacious bedrooms, a massive lounge with a fireplace that looked like it had never been used, a dining-room (that looked like it had never been used) and three lovely bathrooms. There was a private patio and a study at the end of a long, dark corridor. It also has a guest suite, which had its own wrap-around, private balcony.
Since it housed the crown prince, it was secure with video cameras and alarms and all sorts of intimidating security devices. Why, I had no idea – nobody visited and nobody cared enough to want to harm Prince Vijay.
My bedroom had a king-sized bed with a red, love-seat at the end, which looked like it had never been used.
It was as palatial and stately as the main palace. Gold and cream walls and floors, expensive rugs, chandeliers all around…
The furniture was old-fashioned, ornate and elaborate, like the kind you saw in Indian movies about Kings and Queens.
Most impressive to me – the six television sets in the suite. All color too!
As the days turned into weeks, I left the chair at the window and found a new one in front of the television set.
I whiled away my days watching Disney Channel and eating. I went from not eating at all to eating all the time. Breakfast, then after breakfast, lunch, then after lunch, dinner, then after dinner – throughout the day.
I just crammed food into my mouth and ate without tasting. But it was my drug – it numbed me. When I was eating, I forgot all my troubles.
Vijay barely spoke to me or acknowledged me. He wasn’t rude or anything, he just didn’t see me. He walked around with his eyes to the ceiling and his fingers in a scratching motion on his chest.
He spent all his time with Barood, his “advisor”, the same man who slept in our bed on our wedding night.
I had never met a boy like Barood before and I was fascinated by him. He was around fifteen, my height, pudgy, with stubby arms and really short legs. His face was round as a ball and he used a ton of oil to tame the dark mess of curls on his hair. He had a baby face even though he was fifteen.
It was weird – his lips were red, then after he ate, it was light pink. He lined his eyes with kohl and wore colorful bangles.
He spent a lot of times in front of the mirror and I often caught him wearing my shawls and my satin bedroom slippers.
He was really bossy towards Vijay – do this, this that, don’t wear this, wear that …
Vijay meekly did everything Barood told him to.
I did admire his confidence – his over-confidence actually. Although it was intimidating and made me like I was intruding.
“You eat a lot,” he said with a look of disgust on his face. “You’re going to be a fat and ugly soon.”
I said nothing and continued eating. He was lucky that I was here, I remember thinking. If he had said that to me in the village of Geet, I would have floored him with a slingshot to the temple. I was a village girl – I could defend myself. I never looked for fights though; I just defended myself when attacked.
“Barood!” Vijay hissed, in a voice like a milky baby snake.
“What? What?” Barood plonked his hands on his hips and looked defiantly at Vijay. “I’m just saying.”
Barood always had something nasty to say to me or about me. I pretended like I didn’t notice, but I did and each time, tears pricked the back of my eyes.
But, if I thought Barood was bad – it was nothing compared with dinner with the royal family in the formal dining room.
Vijay had two sisters, Princess Chandini who was seventeen and Princess Madhuri who was my age.
Princess Chandini resembled her mother in looks and she also dressed like her too – designer gowns, lots of jewellery and heavy make-up. She was married to Hritik, a very handsome man of about thirty. Barood said that he used to be a Bollywood movie star. They had a cute baby girl called Sonia.
Princess Madhuri, was less attractive, but equally stylish. She was due to be married to a Prince from a neighbouring state. He was thirty-eight years old and according to Barood, a disgusting piece of shit.
At first, when I met the sisters, I was excited. They were around my age, so I had visions of us playing hide and seek in the palace and chasing each other though the grounds. But to my disappointment, neither Princess cared to befriend or to even talk to me.
I didn’t blame them – they were very different from me. Both princesses were educated abroad and they were sophisticated, classy and regal, everything I was not.
Both princesses lived in the palace, but Princess Chandini had her own private suite also on the border of the palace, but on the opposite side of us.
To my surprise they called their mother “Maharani”, not “Ma” or “Mother” like I expected them to. Around her, their smiles were nervous and they barely ate. I was most surprised that they ignored the rainbow ice-cream.
Nobody spoke to Vijay or King Anant.
Throughout dinner, I felt the sisters laughing at me, nudging each other, sharing private jokes between themselves. Could have been something to do with the fact that I ate with my fingers.
Back home, we never had cutlery so I really didn’t know how to use a fork and a knife like the rest of the Royals did.
They also spoke English. I didn’t – I spoke broken Hindi or “kitchen hindi” as some called it.
Anyway, I was their monkey, the entertainment for the otherwise dull evening and although I pretended that I didn’t care that they laughed at me, it hurt. The only way I coped, was to keep my eyes averted and try to blend in with the ornate furniture.
When dinner was over, I always rushed out of the dining room, eager to get back to my suite. To my lonely, forgotten, gilded cage.
As the days went by, my loneliness intensified. In my family, you had to shout to be heard, so I was used to noise. At the palace, everything was so quiet and everyone was so polite, that I was uncomfortable with the silence.
Alone, I sat in front of the television and continued watching Disney Channel (which I loved) and stuffed myself with cakes, biscuits, sweets, soft-drinks – everything and anything.
I learned a ton of western phrases from Disney Channel:
Are you kidding me?
Come on, be happy!
The bogeyman’s gonna getcha!
When I got bored of that, I switched to American adult movies and videos. Saturday Night Fever (again and again) and Grease. Handsome John Travolta never disappointed. I was free to watch anything I liked, regardless of my age, so I did – movies that were 18+ with the most foul language I had ever heard, graphic sex scenes, totally unsuitable for a thirteen-year-old, strong violence that made me shudder and horror movies that gave me nightmares and made me sleep with the light on.
There too, I learned a ton of colorful and amazing phrases.
“You talking to me, bitch?”
“Sit yo goddamn ass down.”
“Get the fuck out of here.”
“I’ gon bust a cap in yo ass.”
“You want a date?”
“Kiss my ass.”
“What the fuck?”
“Bring it on!”
“You fat fuck.”
Fascinated, I learned them off and used them in my head a lot. Mainly on Barood, Manju and Usha.
Of course, I answered them in a civil manner, but in my mind, it was a different story. Like, I would say, “What’s wrong?” But in my mind, what I’m really saying is, “What the fucks your problem, bitch? Laugh at me again and I’ll bust a cap in your fat ass.”
“Bitch” worked equally well on Manju, Usha and Barood. A very versatile word.
With all the eating, over the months I’ve gained a little weight. A lot of weight – twenty-five pounds. I could no longer fit into my clothes and my thighs rubbed against each other as I walked.
I had two chins and several rolls around my waist. Sometimes when I looked in the mirror, I couldn’t believe that I was the same skinny kid from Geet. I looked swollen and … ugly.
I’m so ashamed of myself and the way I looked, that I no longer ventured out of the palace or looked in the mirror.
My weight added to the evening’s entertainment. Princess Chandini and Princess Maduri continue their sniggering at the dining room table.
I loathed this time of day even more when I saw Maharani, my queen, the woman I worshipped, laughing at me. I had no choice but to show up. So I went and was the entertainment for the evening.
END OF SAMPLE CHAPTERS
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