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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 01, Dated 07 Jan 2012
    ORIGINAL FICTIONS 4: ROMANCE  

    The Glass Princess

    By KALKI KOECHLIN

    Illustration: Samia Singh

    IT IS said that somewhere in Maharashtra, not so long ago, and in a land not so far away from the famous city of Mumbai, there lived a King who no longer ruled his kingdom. As is so often the case with old-world power surviving in a democracy, his kingdom had long ago been lost to corrupt government officers and more recently to young businessmen in fancy suits who were buying the land off desperate farmers who could no longer live off their farming because of extensive droughts and inflated prices. With little wealth and no kingdom left, the King had only his castle to reign over, which itself was old and crumbling from 30 years of monsoons and negligence. A few servants remained, Shali ma and her limping husband Jeetu, along with their strong but brainless son who knew only how to start fights and not how to end them. They had remained in the castle simply because they had food and shelter, a luxury which most could no longer guarantee in a country overpopulated and ridden with poverty. These servants considered themselves lucky to be under the mercy of a demanding and senile King simply because he provided them with the security of four walls and three meals a day. Of course, the servants made fun of him and never took him seriously, so his madness was bearable.

    The King, however, was not completely powerless and had one asset under his rule. One on whom he had placed all his bets and who simultaneously drove him to the madness from which he now suffered. It was his only daughter. At the moment of her birth, his beloved wife and Queen took her last breath and it is said that the King was left in a state of melancholy ever since. So devastated was he at his loss that he refused to see the newborn baby, locking himself into a room with a new bottle of whiskey every night. He had been negligent to the point that one day Shali ma had to remind him that the girl had not been named. On that day, he happened to be listening to a music CD gifted to him by a French traveller, and the song playing was called Laeticia, so he dribbled out the name dismissively and thus the baby had been given the uncommon name Laeticia.

    The child learnt to be very quiet in order not to anger her ever-unnerved father and soon she had stopped speaking altogether. But what she lacked in speech she made up for in beauty until the King was forced to take notice of the little gem he had in his ownership. As she transformed from a little girl to a woman, for some mystifying reason, and to the King’s exasperation, the more beautiful she grew with every passing year, the less she seemed to smile, animate or react at all until finally, Laeticia, was quite simply… dead. By dead, it was not that she had no breath or blood running through her body, but simply that her heart was a block of ice. Her eyes were so hard that if you looked at them for more than a few seconds you would leave feeling utterly depressed and hopeless. The girl had such an effect that young, hot-blooded men who would approach her with lust in their hearts, ran away shivering when they came close enough to look into her eyes. The servant boy who had enough strength in his body to break Laeticia into two, became limp and weak in her presence and he soon learnt to chase the ordinary village girls whose giggles and shy glances made him feel manly and strong again. The women of the area would say that Laeticia was a witch who tried to trap their young husbands with her beauty only to consume them and leave them dry of their fertility, for it was true that men who came too close to Laeticia were unable to go back to their wives for many months after. Even Shali ma, who had brought Laeticia up like her own daughter, could not bear to stay in the same room as the girl for more than a few minutes, saying it made her want to hang herself from the high ceiling fan in the sitting room.

    Illustration: Samia Singh

    THE KING now for several years had been driving himself and everyone around him mad because he had hoped to marry Laeticia off to a rich young prince or at least a Bollywood star, in order to secure his rapidly dwindling finances. However, Laeticia’s reputation for being a cold-hearted witch preceded her infamously, and the country was a superstitious one, so many suitors did not bother making the journey to the castle to meet her and the few who did, ran away with their heads down and their souls disheartened, cursing the King for making them travel so far for such a block of ice. When the King summoned his daughter for an explanation, Laeticia herself gave no defence, remaining silent and unresponsive. The King, in his increasing desperation and madness, had finally come up with a strange but intriguing solution. He hired one of the famous local businessmen to build him a giant glass tower. The people of the area were now quite certain that this King had gone completely mad, for he had placed most of his remaining wealth into the seemingly meaningless construction. The tower was shaped like a giant bell and stood on top of a platform that was tall enough to stand above the castle walls and over his former kingdom. Just as the bizarre construction had begun losing its novelty, the King did something that brought the whole state to attention. He placed Laeticia on the platform and had the giant glass bell lowered on top of it and sealed so that she was trapped inside it. There was only a small groove at the bottom of the platform and everyday Shali ma would slip Laeticia meals through this groove.

    The tower could be seen from far and wide, and Laeticia’s beauty was such that it did not take long for the tower to become a popular attraction and many visitors paid for the expensive tickets to see Laeticia from within the castle grounds, ‘up close and personal’ as the signboard at the entrance of the castle advertised. The King sourly but greedily collected his money and tried to console himself by buying Laeticia the royal luxuries that she never had while growing up. Through the groove, he had Shali ma squeeze exquisite handmade saris, ornaments, jewels and dresses from around the world that only made Laeticia more beautiful and attractive for her onlookers. Of course, the King also allowed himself some of the simple pleasures of modern life such as the satellite dish he got put up above his roof connected to a TV that distracted his heavy conscience with its flashing pictures and loud noises.

    Meanwhile, Laeticia was becoming such a famous attraction that soon the surrounding area rose up with all the commercial commodities of a touristic town. Luxury accommodations with names such as The Glass Bell Hotel and The Laeticia Inn sprang up around the castle. Shops were set up outside the castle gates that sold Laeticia fridge magnets and Laeticia fairytale books for children. There were even restaurants that served exotic dishes such as pizza and sushi to cater to the sudden influx of foreign tourists who could not stomach the spicy local food. Naturally, many men became infatuated with Laeticia’s beauty and went to the King’s castle with the intention of a proposal, but once they had bought their tickets, climbed up the platform stairs and peered through the glass to look into Laeticia’s eyes, they swiftly forgot their burning desires and hurriedly turned away, retracing their steps back to their hotels that had a perfectly pleasant view of the tower.

    ONE DAY, a lonely man passed through the state. He was a traveller, which was very unfashionable for the times, when people believed in possessions and stability. He had travelled very far and lived off his own travel stories that he would recount humorously or gravely depending on the mood of his audience. He would perform on any stage, platform or ground that allowed him to and he would be rewarded with people’s spare change, shelter and occasional friendship. Although nobody really knew who he was, he became known for his performances because he told ordinary stories so well that it made the ordinary person feel special. He had, of course, heard of Laeticia, The Glass Princess as she was now known all over the world, and although he resented touristic sights and commercial gimmicks, he told himself that since he was not far, he would take a small detour from his planned trip and put an end to any intrigue he might have had.

    Illustration: Samia Singh

    By the time he reached the town it was dark, and being a practical man, the traveller quickly got down to finding a place for the night. It was a cold night and he would need closed shelter, so he headed towards the large gateway of The Laeticia Inn where a guard shouted.

    ‘Stop.’

    The guard held out a hand and played with his big fake beard and outdated costume, in a way that pleases and caters only to the tourist. The traveller was about to walk away, when suddenly the guard let down his trained act and said with the wonder and warmth of the peasant that he was underneath.

    ‘Eh you, aren’t you that travelling storyteller?’

    The traveller smiled. Unlike most entertainers who spent their time performing for elite audiences in the main towns and cities, he largely travelled through small villages whose inhabitants had little claim to fame, and welcomed the eclectic traveller with warmth and gratitude. And in this way, the traveller had become a popular figure amongst the rural populations. He approached the guard and explained that he had no money and needed shelter for the night, but it was the familiar way in which he spoke that made the guard feel as though this man understood his hardships, his low wages and his undignified uniform. So much so that the guard felt a small revolt surge up within him to conspire against his hotel managers by helping this poor storyteller. Soon, the traveller was sleeping soundly in the cosy laundry room of the hotel without a care in the world or a penny in his pocket. When he awoke, the sun was high up and he stretched himself amongst the piles of clean white linen on which he had slept. He washed himself in the little room that had all the necessary equipment for his hygiene and hid his small bag of belongings behind a large washing machine. Presently, it dawned on him that he was famished as he had not eaten the previous night and headed out to find himself some breakfast. He did not get very far, however, for he had barely turned from the hotel gates when he happened to glance up at the tower and suddenly froze mid-step. His pressing hunger dissolved in an instant and was replaced by an overwhelming sense of awe he felt upon seeing The Glass Princess. He was utterly confused, for he had assumed that The Glass Princess was a trick of some sort, an automated statue, and most definitely not a real human being imprisoned and exhibited to the world in this way. Yet now, seeing her jet-black, flowing hair, her honey-coloured skin and the slight undulation of her breasts as she breathed in and out, he knew that The Glass Princess was all too detailed and too natural to be mechanised. He felt a tear drop quite unexpectedly and he did not know if it was out of pity for the girl or out of love for her unmatchable beauty.

    The child learnt to be very quiet in order not to anger her ever-unnerved father

    The traveller convinced himself that it was his duty to free the girl from this appalling trapping, but he knew deep inside that it was a burning desire to love her that made him head straight towards the castle. Upon reaching the gates of the castle, he was asked to present 10,000 rupees in order to enter and see The Glass Princess. Having no money on him, he explained that it was not the Princess he wanted to see, but her father, the King. The King was informed and he came down in his dressing gown and chappals, looking rather groggy. The traveller lowered his head, respectfully touched the King’s feet and explained how he was in love with the King’s daughter and wanted to propose to marry her. The King, who was bored with these relentless proposals, laughed bitterly.

    ‘Look at you, a tramp, without even 10,000 rupees to buy a ticket. What exactly will you provide her with once you marry her?’

    The traveller looked deep into the King’s eyes and towanswered him with all his honesty.

    ‘I can promise to love her all my life.’

    The King stopped laughing and stared straight back at him with hard eyes and a slight quiver in his voice. ‘No you cannot even do that.’

    And without any further explanation, the King walked back into his castle, leaving the traveller to be thrown out by the guards.

    OUR TRAVELLER had not been able to eat or sleep properly since he first set eyes on Laeticia, and he knew that the craving he now felt in his pumping heart and his restless mind had to be satisfied or he would be driven to madness. He simply had to produce the 10,000 rupees for the ticket. He began performing with the vigour and excitement of an ambitious man. Day and night he performed for the curious tourists, recounting various stories in innovative ways. He twisted his nose, fell headlong into the mud, painted his face like a clown and performed many other humbling tricks that would get his audience roaring with laughter. But when he walked around with his hat, the small change which had previously been enough for him to live on, now seemed like an insult in comparison to the debt he had to pay to open the doors to love. His collections were a mere 100 rupees on a good night and half of that went into his sustenance. The more his impatience grew the more his talent and his good humour dwarfed until the crowds became bored with the repetitive jokes and lack of life to his performances.

    He saw his audiences as greedy, soulless vampires who sucked his blood

    On a particularly quiet day of work the traveller was performing to a yawning audience when a storm broke out of nowhere and torrential off-season rain sent the whole town into a mad panic. Half an hour later, he was left in the middle of a marketplace all alone. He was making his way miserably and aimlessly through the rain, shivering, hungry and bitterly cursing his fickle audience. He had never depended on his audience before, and now that they seemed so necessary for his ambition, he stopped loving their support and saw them for all their flaws and ugliness. Their inability to give anything for free; even a smile had to be earned. Their dishonesty whenever they could get away with it, avoiding his eyes when he came by with his hat at the end of his performances. But what he hated above all else was their lack of humanity. For it seemed quite clear to him now that an isolated person could be human but a group of people could only be mindless monsters. He saw his audiences as greedy, soulless vampires who sucked his blood and left him with no choice but to become one of them. He too had started to suck the life out of others by mocking innocent bystanders. He would choose his victims very carefully, so that they would be too shy or have too many complexes and not be able to defend themselves or shout back a retort and spoil his show. Yes, he had become a vampire; stooping lower and lower for a pun, sucking people’s blood, as it were, to fuel his performances and he knew that his imagination was fast reaching a dead end. The traveller’s thoughts were interrupted by loud laughter. When he looked up, he saw a rich man and his wife drunkenly coming out of a restaurant and toppling into their taxi, flinging their leftovers at a street dog on their way. The traveller, who had lately begun rationing his food to save more money and was since perpetually hungry, was shocked by the frivolity of their act. A thought lashed out at him, dark and angry. Blindly, he followed that thought and, in turn, he followed the taxi.

    The drunken couple reached one of the most prestigious hotels in the area The Grand Belle, a hotel that was a replication of the original glass tower with an inflated doll rotating at the top. The traveller particularly hated this hotel for splurging on its vulgar imitation of Laeticia and told himself that the couple must be equally vulgar. He followed the couple in and helped carry their bags, the hotel staff assumed he was a servant and the couple themselves were too drunk to decipher anything unusual. On reaching the corridor, the traveller waited for the couple to enter their room and jammed his foot in the door. The drunken man angrily looked up at him. Our traveller punched him in the face and the man fell. He entered the room to a frightened lady and asked almost politely

    ‘May I have your cash?’

    The woman tried to shake her head but the traveller grabbed it and hit it against the wall. The drunken man pointed at a big leather bag. The traveller opened it. He counted 10,000 rupees and left the room without looking back at either of its occupants.

    ALMOST UNABLE to run fast enough, slipping in the mud and blindly bumping into trees, for it was very dark, he reached the closed gates of the castle and waited until dawn when the gates would open and the guards would be standing. As the sun rose, he rubbed his sleepy eyes, got up and presented the damp, soiled notes to the guards, who sniggered at him but gave him his ticket in exchange for the money and let him in. The traveller reached the top of the platform breathless, he could hardly contain his excitement at finally coming face to face with the love of his life. However, his wide smile faded and his eyes became dark and heavy when he looked at Laeticia’s gaze. He stopped breathing and felt himself becoming very small. Still, he did not turn away. The traveller knew the nature of people and had learnt to look deep into their eyes. Where others would shift their gaze away, he always stayed on them because he knew that only in an uncomfortable gaze could he see the truth of a person. Now, though it made him shiver, he looked deep into Laeticia’s eyes, and without being aware of it, his eyes wetted and overflowed.

    What he saw were the warmest eyes in the world smiling deep into his

    After a good few minutes, the traveller noticed that Laeticia’s eyes were changing from their cold deadly expression to one of curiosity. The Princess had never experienced such contact before, no human had ever withstood her gaze nor shed a tear for her before, and now here she was, as though suddenly awakened from a deep slumber. She was quite sure an invisible string was pulling her, drawing her towards the man in front of her. She spread her hands to reach out to him but as she did she only banged them against the glass.

    Confused, she hit her hands against the glass. The traveller, realising the danger, shouted for her to stop, but the more he shouted the more agitated she got and the harder she hit against the glass, as though she was only discovering for the first time that she was trapped in an illusionary prison. Her cheeks became hot, her eyes spilled liquid and her body grew tense in a way that frightened her and made her shake madly. She could not understand what was happening to her, nor could she stop herself, and in her frenzy the tower shook like an earthquake. The traveller saw the gigantic glass cracking slowly and sketching out lines across the smooth bell and he knew he only had a moment to save himself. He felt terribly frightened and cowardly, and wanted to run away, but just as he was about to turn, he happened to look at Laeticia. What he saw were the warmest eyes in the world smiling deep into his and touching his heart. In a moment, all his greed, his fears and his self-interest melted away and he knew what he had to do. He leapt towards Laeticia and just as the tips of their fingers touched, the whole glass tower came crashing down on top of them and everything went quiet.

    The King, who had heard the loud crash, came running down and collapsed upon seeing the bloody sight before him, then got up and walked away from his castle, barefooted, with only the clothes on his back. That was the last anyone heard of him. The town soon disappeared after the destruction of the tower and its beautiful prisoner. Today the place is an overgrown jungle. People claim that a peculiar sound can be heard from this jungle at night, a sound that neither belongs to an animal nor a human. Rumours and superstition keep the place untouched and unpolluted to this day.

    KALKI KOECHLIN

    KALKI KOECHLIN is an actor and writer. She and Prashant Prakash won the 2009 Hindu MetroPlus Playwright Award for their play The Skeleton Woman. She won a Filmfare Award for her debut in Dev D (2009), and acted in and co-wrote the film That Girl in Yellow Boots (2010).

    Original Fictions 1

    Original Fictions 2

    Original Fictions 3


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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 01, Dated 07 Jan 2012
 

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