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She was the Princess Ajita. And the court poet of King Narayan had
never seen her. On the day he recited a new poem to the king he would
raise his voice just to that pitch which could be heard by unseen
hearers in the screened balcony high above the hall. He sent up his
song towards the star-land out of his reach, where, circled with light,
the planet who ruled his destiny shone unknown and out of ken.
He would espy some shadow moving behind the veil. A tinkling sound
would come to his car from afar, and would set him dreaming of the
ankles whose tiny golden bells sang at each step. Ah, the rosy red
tender feet that walked the dust of the earth like God's mercy on the
fallen! The poet had placed them on the altar of his heart, where he
wove his songs to the tune of those golden bells. Doubt never arose in
his mind as to whose shadow it was that moved behind the screen, and
whose anklets they were that sang to the time of his beating heart.
Manjari, the maid of the princess, passed by the poet's house on her way
to the river, and she never missed a day to have a few words with him on
the sly. When she found the road deserted, and the shadow of dusk on
the land, she would boldly enter his room, and sit at the corner of his
carpet. There was a suspicion of an added care in the choice of the
colour of her veil, in the setting of the flower in her hair.
People smiled and whispered at this, and they were not to blame. For
Shekhar the poet never took the trouble to hide the fact that these
meetings were a pure joy to him.
The meaning of her name was the spray of flowers. One must confess that
for an ordinary mortal it was sufficient in its sweetness. But Shekhar
made his own addition to this name, and called her the Spray of Spring
Flowers. And ordinary mortals shook their heads and said, Ah, me!
In the spring songs that the poet sang the praise of the spray of
spring flowers was conspicuously reiterated; and the king winked and
smiled at him when he heard it, and the poet smiled in answer.
The king would put him the question; "Is it the business of the bee
merely to hum in the court of the spring?"
The poet would answer; "No, but also to sip the honey of the spray of
And they all laughed in the king's hall. And it was rumoured that the
Princess Akita also laughed at her maid's accepting the poet's name for
her, and Manjari felt glad in her heart.
Thus truth and falsehood mingle in life--and to what God builds man adds
his own decoration.
Only those were pure truths which were sung by the poet. The theme was
Krishna, the lover god, and Radha, the beloved, the Eternal Man and the
Eternal Woman, the sorrow that comes from the beginning of time, and the
joy without end. The truth of these songs was tested in his inmost
heart by everybody from the beggar to the king himself. The poet's
songs were on the lips of all. At the merest glimmer of the moon and
the faintest whisper of the summer breeze his songs would break forth in
the land from windows and courtyards, from sailing-boats, from shadows
of the wayside trees, in numberless voices.
Thus passed the days happily. The poet recited, the king listened, the
hearers applauded, Manjari passed and repassed by the poet's room on her
way to the river--the shadow flitted behind the screened balcony, and
the tiny golden bells tinkled from afar.
Just then set forth from his home in the south a poet on his path of
conquest. He came to King Narayan, in the kingdom of Amarapur. He
stood before the throne, and uttered a verse in praise of the king. He
had challenged all the court poets on his way, and his career of victory
had been unbroken.
The king received him with honour, and said: "Poet, I offer you
Pundarik, the poet, proudly replied : "Sire, I ask for war."
Shekhar, the court poet of the king did not know how the battle of the
muse was to be waged. He had no sleep at night. The mighty figure of
the famous Pundarik, his sharp nose curved like a scimitar, and his
proud head tilted on one side, haunted the poet's vision in the dark.
With a trembling heart Shekhar entered the arena in the morning. The
theatre was filled with the crowd.
The poet greeted his rival with a smile and a bow. Pundarik returned it
with a slight toss of his head, and turned his face towards his circle
of adoring followers with a meaning smile. Shekhar cast his glance
towards the screened balcony high above, and saluted his lady in his
mind, saying! "If I am the winner at the combat to-day, my lady, thy
victorious name shall be glorified."
The trumpet sounded. The great crowd stood up, shouting victory to the
king. The king, dressed in an ample robe of white, slowly came into the
hall like a floating cloud of autumn, and sat on his throne.
Pundarik stood up, and the vast hall became still. With his head raised
high and chest expanded, he began in his thundering voice to recite the
praise of King Narayan. His words burst upon the walls of the hall like
breakers of the sea, and seemed to rattle against the ribs of the
listening crowd. The skill with which he gave varied meanings to the
name Narayan, and wove each letter of it through the web of his verses
in all mariner of combinations, took away the breath of his amazed
For some minutes after he took his seat his voice continued to vibrate
among the numberless pillars of the king's court and in thousands of
speechless hearts. The learned professors who had come from distant
lands raised their right hands, and cried, Bravo !
The king threw a glance on Shekhar's face, and Shekhar in answer raised
for a moment his eyes full of pain towards his master, and then stood up
like a stricken deer at bay. His face was pale, his bashfulness was
almost that of a woman, his slight youthful figure, delicate in its
outline, seemed like a tensely strung vina ready to break out in music
at the least touch.
His head was bent, his voice was low, when he began. The first few
verses were almost inaudible. Then he slowly raised his head, and his
clear sweet voice rose into the sky like a quivering flame of fire. He
began with the ancient legend of the kingly line lost in the haze of
the past, and brought it down through its long course of heroism and
matchless generosity to the present age. He fixed his gaze on the
king's face, and all the vast and unexpressed love of the people for the
royal house rose like incense in his song, and enwreathed the throne on
all sides. These were his last words when, trembling, he took his seat:
"My master, I may be beaten in play of words, but not in my love for
Tears filled the eyes of the hearers, and the stone walls shook with
cries of victory.
Mocking this popular outburst of feeling, with an august shake of his
head and a contemptuous sneer, Pundarik stood up, and flung this
question to the assembly; "What is there superior to words?" In a
moment the hall lapsed into silence again.
Then with a marvellous display of learning, he proved that the Word was
in the beginning, that the Word was God. He piled up quotations from
scriptures, and built a high altar for the Word to be seated above all
that there is in heaven and in earth. He repeated that question in his
mighty voice: "What is there superior to words?"
Proudly he looked around him. None dared to accept his challenge, and
he slowly took his seat like a lion who had just made a full meal of its
victim. The pandits shouted, Bravo ! The king remained silent with
wonder, and the poet Shekhar felt himself of no account by the side of
this stupendous learning. The assembly broke up for that day.
Next day Shekhar began his song. It was of that day when the pipings of
love's flute startled for the first time the hushed air of the Vrinda
forest. The shepherd women did not know who was the player or whence
came the music. Sometimes it seemed to come from the heart of the south
wind, and sometimes from the straying clouds of the hilltops. It came
with a message of tryst from the land of the sunrise, and it floated
from the verge of sunset with its sigh of sorrow. The stars seemed to
be the stops of the instrument that flooded the dreams of the night with
melody. The music seemed to burst all at once from all sides, from
fields and groves, from the shady lanes and lonely roads, from the
melting blue of the sky, from the shimmering green of the grass. They
neither knew its meaning nor could they find words to give utterance to
the desire of their hearts. Tears filled their eyes, and their life
seemed to long for a death that would be its consummation.
Shekhar forgot his audience, forgot the trial of his strength with a
rival. He stood alone amid his thoughts that rustled and quivered round
him like leaves in a summer breeze, and sang the Song of the Flute. He
had in his mind the vision of an image that had taken its shape from a
shadow, and the echo of a faint tinkling sound of a distant footstep.
He took his seat. His hearers trembled with the sadness of an
indefinable delight, immense and vague, and they forgot to
applaud him. As this feeling died away Pundarik stood up before the
throne and challenged his rival to define who was this Lover and who was
the Beloved. He arrogantly looked around him, he smiled at his
followers and then put the question again : "Who is Krishna, the lover,
and who is Radha, the beloved?"
Then he began to analyse the roots of those names,--and various
interpretations of their meanings. He brought before the bewildered
audience all the intricacies of the different schools of metaphysics
with consummate skill. Each letter of those names he divided from its
fellow, and then pursued them with a relentless logic till they fell to
the dust in confusion, to be caught up again and restored to a meaning
never before imagined by the subtlest of word-mongers.
The pandits were in ecstasy; they applauded vociferously ; and the crowd
followed them, deluded into the certainty that they had witnessed, that
day, the last shred of the curtains of Truth torn to pieces before their
eyes by a prodigy of intellect. The performance of his tremendous feat
so delighted them that they forgot to ask themselves if there was any
truth behind it after all.
The king's mind was overwhelmed with wonder. The atmosphere was
completely cleared of all illusion of music, and the vision of the world
around seemed to be changed from its freshness of tender green to the
solidity of a high road levelled and made hard with crushed stones.
To the people assembled their own poet appeared a mere boy in comparison
with this giant, who walked with such case, knocking down difficulties
at each step in the world of words and thoughts. It became evident to
them for the first time that the poems Shekhar wrote were absurdly
simple, and it must be a mere accident that they did not write them
themselves. They were neither new, nor difficult, nor instructive, nor
The king tried to goad his poet with keen glances, silently inciting him
to make a final effort. But Shekhar took no notice, and remained fixed
to his seat.
The king in anger came down from his throne--took off his pearl chain
and put it on Pundarik's head. Everybody in the hall cheered. From the
upper balcony came a slight sound of the movements of rustling robes and
waist-chains hung with golden bells. Shekhar rose from his seat and
left the hall.
It was a dark night of waning moon. The poet Shekhar took down his MSS.
from his shelves and heaped them on the floor. Some of them contained
his earliest writings, which he had almost forgotten. He turned over
the pages, reading passages here and there. They all seemed to him poor
and trivial--mere words and childish rhymes!
One by one he tore his books to fragments, and threw them into a vessel
containing fire, and said : "To thee, to thee, O my beauty, my fire!
Thou hast been burning in my heart all these futile years. If my life
were a piece of gold it would come out of its trial brighter, but it is
a trodden turf of grass, and nothing remains of it but this handful of
The night wore on. Shekhar opened wide his windows. He spread upon his
bed the white flowers that he loved, the jasmines, tuberoses and
chrysanthemums, and brought into his bedroom all the lamps he had in his
house and lighted them. Then mixing with honey the juice of some
poisonous root he drank it and lay down on his bed.
Golden anklets tinkled in the passage outside the door, and a subtle
perfume came into the room with the breeze.
The poet, with his eyes shut, said; "My lady, have you taken pity upon
your servant at last and come to see him ?"
The answer came in a sweet voice "My poet, I have come."
Shekhar opened his eyes--and saw before his bed the figure of a woman.
His sight was dim and blurred. And it seemed to him that the image made
of a shadow that he had ever kept throned in the secret shrine of his
heart had come into the outer world in his last moment to gaze upon his
The woman said; "I am the Princess Ajita."
The poet with a great effort sat up on his bed.
The princess whispered into his car : "The king has not done you
justice. It was you who won at the combat, my poet, and I have come to
crown you with the crown of victory."
She took the garland of flowers from her own neck, and put it on his
hair, and the poet fell down upon his bed stricken by death.
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