My grandmother grew up in a family that struggled to make ends meet. She often speaks with great gratitude of a woman called Rajamma, who was very generous with her family and helped them with various odds and ends. Rajamma was rich; she sent my grandmother to school and bought her clothes for festivals. There was little by means of entertainment in those days, except perhaps temple concerts and storytelling. On festive occasions, the people of a household would themselves contrive to perform a play, drawing on all their resources and rehearsing for days. It gave them something to look forward to, besides making them exert every ounce of creativity they could summon up. Wealthy families like Rajamma’s would go the entire length, hiring props to make the play as realistic as possible.
My grandmother told me the story of one such play. She played the role of Purandaran, the young son of the queen of Madurai, enacted by Rajamma, who dressed up in her finest silks and jewellery and looked “like a real queen”. The details might be a little sketchy at times, blame it on my lack of comprehension of good Tamil, and also on the number of decades that have passed since my grandmother even thought of this story.
Purandaran, son of the queen of Madurai, was playing with his toy chariot one morning, when a bigger boy came along. Being a bit of a bully, he stomped on Purandaran’s chariot. The young boy protested vehemently, but the bully just laughed at him and said derisively, “Why do you complain so? It was only an ordinary chariot after all, not a coral one!”
The mention of a coral chariot caught Purandaran’s fancy. He went running to the queen and demanded one for himself. She was surprised, for nobody had ever heard of a coral chariot, or even coral itself. She tried to pacify the boy, but he adamantly insisted on having his wish fulfilled.
Stupefied, the queen prayed to Lord Krishna for help. Krishna, of course, had the answers to all questions. He knew that coral could be found at a certain spot in the sea. He offered to fetch it, and asked Arjuna to go with him. Arjuna agreed, and for reasons known only to himself, Krishna converted him into a bird and they set off together.
They came to the sea, crossed the waves and reached the spot where the coral was to be found: it was personified by a beautiful princess, who was delighted to see Krishna and welcomed him warmly. Now the Coral Princess was in love with Arjuna, a fact that Krishna was somehow aware of.
Shyly, she asked Krishna if her lover had accompanied him.
“Of course, he has come along.”
The Coral Princess looked around eagerly. “But I don’t see anyone.”
The maiden scanned the sea eagerly again, but didn’t see any sign of Arjuna. Her smile vanished and she was upset.
“Surely you are making fun of me, Krishna?”
Krishna smiled and pointed at the bird. Immediately, Arjuna regained his human form and asked the ecstatic princess to marry him. She assented; soon, Krishna, Arjuna and his new bride returned to Madurai. The princess brought the precious coral along with her, and much to Purandaran’s delight, he had his coral chariot.
This is a simple story, but it touches me to think of the amount of preparation that must have gone into enacting it, and how much it must have been anticipated. Entertainment is all around us today, and yet we are so easily bored. Some of us might even scoff at the idea of dressing up for a home-made play, dismiss it as amateur stuff, but for a group of easily pleased, unselfish young children growing up during the difficult pre-independence years, it was probably the height of excitement.