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1. A Kingdom in the Himalayas
A long time ago, there was a kingdom in the north of India surrounded by the biggest mountains in the world, the Himalayas, and in this kingdom lived a beautiful princess. Fate had been kind to her in giving her great beauty, but for many years she had been unable to sleep properly. The princess did not sleep, and neither did evil enemies of her empire, who waited and watched for signs of weakness there. Princess Ramya was afflicted with such an inability to sleep that she became known in her kingdom and far beyond as the Sleepless Beauty.
* * *
‘Have you ever seen anyone as beautiful as our princess?’ a young girl in the kingdom asked her mother.
‘I don’t think so,’ said her mother thoughtfully.
‘I know how our princess could be yet more beautiful,’ said the girl’s brother, standing nearby.
‘Impossible!’ said his sister. ‘I can’t imagine the princess being even more beautiful than she already is.’
‘What did you have in mind?’ the mother asked her son.
‘If only she could get her beauty sleep,’ said the boy, ‘she would be yet lovelier.’
And to that observation his mother and sister had no reply.
* * *
Surrounded by steep mountains, with snow spread over the slopes, the Kingdom of Bangra was rather cut off from the rest of the world. The fertile soil and thick forests provided juicy fruits and crops in abundance. Plenty of wood was available for cooking and warming houses. The air was pure, the water clean and the people for the most part healthy and happy. A ferocious epidemic had raged once, like a wild beast let loose. It claimed many lives, but it was such a long time ago that few people, except the very aged, even remembered it.
‘It happened in the time of my grandparents,’ an old man told a young neighbour who had stopped by. ‘People were dying like flies.’
‘Not really!’ said his wife. ‘We do not have so many flies in the Himalayas. It was much worse!’
‘Grandpa, Grandma – tell me how did so many people fall ill?’ asked their grandchild, who was listening to the talk.
‘No one really knows how it started,’ said his grandmother.
‘But once it had started,’ his grandfather continued, ‘it spread like a fire burning a forest. Sickness spread from husband to wife, from mother to children. It was terrible!’
Since that time there had been little sickness in the kingdom. By and large the people were a well fed, rosy-cheeked and fairly contented lot under the reign of Raja Bhoj, or King Bhoj (for ‘raja’ means ‘king’ in Sanskrit).
The royal family of Bangra lived in a huge castle, built on a mountain that towered above the valley with a beautiful view of the entire country. To say the castle was huge is perhaps an understatement, for there were no fewer than two hundred rooms.
* * *
The princess had not always been sleepless. She had had untroubled sleep for many years, but one fine day, like the morning dew, her sleep mysteriously vanished.
Let us start from the beginning. The princess’s father, Raja Bhoj, had just started to build the ‘Snow Palace’.
2. The Snow Palace
The ‘Snow Palace’ was the most beautiful palace ever built in the Himalayas. It had been given this name because the marble used, the most expensive available, was as white as snow. The foundations were firm but it had a delicate swan like beauty to it, as if a poet’s dream had come to life.
The palace had been built by King Bhoj, not to appear rich and powerful, but with a higher purpose in mind. The king believed travel expanded the mind, and so every now and again he would leave the kingdom in the able hands of his younger brother, and go off on horseback to visit new lands. As befitted the prestige of the king, a large number of soldiers accompanied him. The soldiers were there for their king’s protection, but they also carried presents for the rulers of whatever land the king planned to visit. When he returned after a month or so, the same soldiers carried rare works of art and craft with them presented to the king by his hosts.
‘My son so loves the wooden rocking horse you brought us,’ said the queen of one of the lands he visited. ‘Allow me to present you with a royal red robe made from our finest cotton.’
The cape made of cotton known as muslin was so fine it could pass through a wedding ring, and this was demonstrated to Raja Bhoj.
‘Incredible!’ His dark eyes widened with astonishment and pleasure.
The building of the great castle was completed while the king was still young, unmarried and adventurous. At first the rooms remained mostly empty. As he continued to go on his great travels, they slowly but surely started to fill up. The king set aside one hundred rooms in the castle to house priceless works of art, craft and other marvels. His people now realised the hidden purpose behind the building of the magnificent palace.
After some years, the collection reached staggering proportions. It would be a shame if the public were not allowed to view the various artefacts and treasures he had collected. So he announced the rooms would be a museum anyone could visit free of charge. The Royal Bhoj Museum thus became a popular place frequently visited by students, artists and common people.
The king lived on the second floor of the palace, where a large, wide balcony overlooked the royal gardens. The kingdom being vast, the king could not often visit all of the remote towns, but he wished to give his people the opportunity to at least see him, if they wished. So every day in the morning, at a pre-appointed hour, he would present himself on the balcony for his adoring subjects to have his darshan – that is to say, to have a glimpse of the man himself. This was often sufficient for people who travelled to the capital from remote parts of the kingdom. Sometimes, when an important event was due to take place, citizens gathered of their own accord. When the crowds became large the king would come and stand on the balcony and wave to the common folk for he loved his people.
3. Raja Bhoj Finds a Bride
King Bhoj came to the throne as a young man, for his father, King Rama, sadly passed away at an early age. Despite enormous pressure from his mother, his relatives and the public at large for him to get married, he did not immediately look for a life partner. Instead, he chose to take periodic trips away from the security and comfort of his home to visit places both near and distant.
On one such trip he met a tall and graceful princess from the Kingdom of Vijayanagar and fell madly in love with her. After a period of courtship, Princess Mohini, captivated by her royal suitor’s charisma and constancy, agreed to be his wife.
Some hearts ached while others were broken the day the king came back with Princess Mohini. Many young princesses, who lived in neighbouring pahari, or mountain kingdoms, admired the young king and had secretly longed to marry him. Like stones fallen from a great height, their hopes turned to dust when they beheld the new queen.
The king wedded her first at the place she hailed from, and then once again in Bangra with all due pomp and glitter. Hundreds of clay and brass lamps, known as diyas, brightened the ceremony, their soft light lending it grace.
Queen Mohini brought many customs from her own land into the strange new society in which she found herself. The king was open to outside influences and culture, but while he let her introduce new tasty dishes and fashions in clothing, at the same time he urged her to be cautious.
‘My dear,’ he said, ‘I love you and respect your culture and customs, but please do understand it may not be easy for my people to accept many things you have in mind. So do take care.’
The queen accepted that her husband was right in his understanding that people were often fixed in their habits and customs, and resistant to change. She was therefore considerate and selective about introducing new practices, as he had willed.
4. A Great Beauty is Born
For many years after their marriage, the king and queen were unable to have a child, but just as their hopes were fading, they were blessed with a daughter. The birth of Princess Ramya was celebrated near and far. The royal couple’s happiness upon their child’s birth stretched as wide as the Himalayas. The king was especially pleased to have someone to take his place when the time came. Unlike certain other kingdoms where only kings could govern, in Bangra it was perfectly acceptable for queens to rule.
At the royal celebrations that followed the birth of Princess Ramya, a great sage came down from the mountains to bless the royal couple and their new-born daughter. This white-bearded rishi, with his thin arms and mesmerising eyes, was rumoured to be more than a hundred years old. It was whispered among the old-timers that he had the power to tell the future; others claimed he had been able do so in the past, but had now lost that ability.
The royal couple could not resist asking the sage whether he could tell them something about what the future held in store for their daughter.
‘I can tell you a few things,’ said the guru.
The king and queen listened attentively.
‘First,’ the rishi began, ‘she will grow up to be a great beauty.’
The king and queen nodded, eager to hear more.
‘You may think this can be said simply by looking at her even as she is now,’ laughed the sage, ‘so perhaps it is not so much of a prediction.’ His grey eyes twinkled. ‘You have chosen her name wisely, for “Ramya” in the Sanskrit language means “the beautiful one”.’
The king and queen were pleased to hear this.
‘However, external beauty is only one thing,’ said the guru. ‘We rishis do not set much store by it. What is really of value is inner beauty – and I believe your child will be beautiful from within as well. She will have many accomplishments.’
The king and queen both nodded. There could be no dispute about the rishi’s observation that the true worth or beauty of a person lay beneath the skin, in his or her innermost qualities.
‘What else can you tell us, O learned rishi?’ asked the queen.
‘At first she will sleep …’ said the rishi, looking past the royal couple towards the snow-capped mountains, as if seeing a vision in the distance.
The royal couple nodded, wondering what the old man meant. Of course she would sleep. All babies sleep, sometimes for up to sixteen hours a day.
‘And then,’ continued the seer, after a pause, ‘she will be sleepless.’
‘Ohh,’ said the queen, her brow furrowed in anxiety.
‘Vasudev kutumbakam,’ muttered the sage, which in Sanskrit means ‘the world is one family’.
The king and queen looked curiously at the sage, wondering whether his thoughts were straying, or perhaps some hidden meaning lay behind his words.
‘Our futures are not certain,’ continued the guru, ‘but should the princess understand this piece of wisdom, she will be cured forever of her problem with sleep.’
‘And if, by chance, she should not?’ asked the queen in some distress.
‘Keep faith,’ said the sage, and he patted the queen on her shoulder by way of reassurance. ‘I believe true beauty will penetrate the skin of your child to reach her heart and soul, and she will see the world as one. Her sleeplessness will vanish as if it had been a dream.’
‘And then?’ said the queen and king with one voice.
‘And then, my dears,’ said the rishi, gently stroking his long, white beard, ‘she will awaken.’
The king and queen were both mystified at the rishi’s last remark, for what else could conceivably happen? After a good sleep a person wakes up.
‘I cannot tell you anything more about the little princess,’ said the sage, ‘but there is one more thing I would like to tell you, O king.’
‘Yes, please,’ said the king, listening carefully.
‘Yours is the most powerful kingdom in the Himalayas,’ said the sage, ‘and neighbouring kingdoms depend upon you for their safety….’
‘That is true,’ said the king.
‘You have powerful enemies to the north beyond the mountains,’ said the guru, ‘and they watch you carefully. Be mindful of this. A fearsome foe is waiting for an opportunity and must never sense any weakness on your part.’
‘What must I do to keep my kingdom secure and prevent an attack?’ said the worried king.
‘There is no need to worry at this stage,’ said the sage with a smile. ‘Just be aware of this situation and try and keep your body and mind healthy – as must your daughter when she grows up.’ He paused. ‘This is very important.’
The guru would say no more despite being pressed.
* * *
The princess had a golden childhood, for she was loved by her parents and the people of Bangra. Although she loved her father deeply, she was especially attached to her mother, the queen, for the king was often away on affairs of state, and it was Queen Mohini who stayed at home.
As a child, Princess Ramya loved to visit her father’s museum and spent hours lost in contemplation of the marvellous paintings, sculptures and other objects of art. She agreed with her father that to become truly refined and educated you had to learn a lot about the world people lived in, and in those days long past, when people could not travel easily, a museum was probably one of the best ways to discover the world.
The queen spent a lot of time with her daughter, telling her stories from Vijayanagar, the kingdom of her birth, as well as tales from other lands, for she, like the king, had travelled far and wide. This was their nightly ritual, before Queen Mohini kissed little Ramya, tucked her into bed and watched her fall asleep.
Queen Mohini was proud of her daughter. Besides her beauty, already apparent to one and all, she showed great prowess in learning. Apart from the occasional disturbed night every child experiences, the princess in general fell asleep early and slept well. The queen could not, however, help wondering about the words of the sage, and she prayed her daughter’s sleep would never be troubled.
5. The Queen is No More
All went well for the princess until she reached the age of twelve, when a great sadness entered her life. The queen had been poorly for some months, and all manner of treatments had been tried, but no medicine seemed to work on the mysterious malady from which she suffered.
One day, the king awoke in the middle of the night and could no longer hear the sound of his wife’s gentle breathing. He at once summoned all his physicians, and they made every effort to revive the queen, but to no avail. Queen Mohini had passed away in her sleep.
The entire nation was in mourning for weeks, for the queen had been greatly loved by the people.
The king, now a widower, showered all his love and affection on Ramya. But of course she still missed her mother, for nothing in the world can ever replace a mother’s love
‘I know you are heartbroken, my little princess,’ said the king, as he rubbed his nose with hers in affection. ‘I too miss your mother dearly, but we must be strong, you and I. Remember your papa is always here for you, whenever you feel troubled or sad.’
6. The Sleepless Princess
Ramya’s problem in getting to sleep started soon after her mother’s death. Her father tried to do everything Queen Mohini had done while putting Ramya to bed. He told her fairy tales, fables and other stories from far-flung lands, just as her mother had. He tucked Ramya into her bed, making sure she was snug and warm. He even tried to sing a lullaby in his gruff voice.
‘Soja rajkumari, soja,’ he crooned. ‘Sleep, dear princess, sleep.’
‘Oh, Papa!’ the princess cried, and she burst out laughing at her father’s attempt to imitate her mother, who had often sung songs to her in a soft, melodious voice as bedtime approached.
Princess Ramya loved her father dearly for all he did, and she wished him to succeed for both his and her own sake. But still, somehow, she could not get to sleep.
What possible reason could be there for the princess’s sleep to have vanished? The king wondered if his beloved daughter feared the dark. He issued instructions that more candles be lit in her room to burn through the night. A few days later, when she still could not get to sleep, he started thinking that perhaps there was too much light, and he asked the maids to progressively reduce the number of candles till only one solitary candle burned. This did not help either. The king decided to dispense with candles altogether.
‘Create a night sky for the princess,’ he instructed the royal architect. ‘Spare no expense!’
Under the king’s direction, the royal architect had the ceiling in the princess’s bedroom encrusted with precious jewels arranged to form the stars, the sun and the moon, which shone with a gentle light in the darkness. The princess loved to look at the ceiling at night and to pretend it was the sky, but this arrangement too did not help in getting her to sleep.
‘Thank you, Papa Bhoj,’ she said. ‘I love to see the rubies, diamonds and emeralds shine in the dark. I remain awake, but at least I have such beautiful reds, blues and greens to look at.’
‘That may be so, my dear,’ said the king, ‘but it is not enough. We have to find a way for you to sleep!’
Sometimes the king himself would fall asleep with the effort of trying to make his little princess sleep. He realised there was something missing. Perhaps a crucial element to the night-time rituals his late wife practised with Ramya was absent. What could it be? He thought, and he thought, and he thought. In the end, he came to the conclusion that there was something so special about a mother’s love that nothing in the world could really make up for it.
As well as her difficulty in getting to sleep, the princess struggled with the sadness that had swept into her life. But time, as they say, heals everything, and as the days, months and years passed, the pain from the loss of her dear departed mother lessened. The princess had always been a bright and bubbly sort of child, and eventually her spirits revived. Her father, too, was a jolly man by nature, and he too gradually regained his good cheer.
Spies in the kingdom reported this news to their impatient masters across the mountains. The enemy had celebrated the death of the queen and was frustrated to hear that the king and princess were coping well with the tragedy that had beset them.
Unlike other kings in his position, Raja Bhoj decided not to remarry. He had loved his wife deeply and could never bring himself to think of another woman taking her place. Besides, in stories he read out to the princess at night while trying to get her to sleep, the step-mother was often unkind to her step-children. Although the good king realised this was not necessarily true, it influenced his decision.
* * *
King Bhoj had many tasks every day, for his kingdom was vast, but he made sure always to have his dinner with his daughter. During these meals, he often told her stories of the many places he had visited. The princess listened agog, for she was of a curious nature. She loved this time she spent with her father.
The king did spice up his stories somewhat, for he loved to see his little princess’s astonishment and delight. The princess screamed in disbelief when the king told her of a place where there was sunshine the whole day for eleven months of the year. She gasped in amazement at Raja Bhoj’s descriptions of the monsoon in the plains towards the east, where it rained so hard that the streets were flooded and children had to swim home to their houses after school.
‘But don’t they get soaking wet if they are swimming in the streets?’ said Princess Ramya.
‘Oh, but the climate here is such’ her father explained, as he lovingly spooned carrot pudding into her mouth, even though she was old enough to feed herself, ‘that the water evaporates in next to no time.’
Little Ramya shook her head in horror at the descriptions of the loo, the hot wind that blew across deserts and could roast a person’s skin from white to brown within a matter of hours. She salivated at the description of bananas – fruit not found in Bangra.
‘And you say this fruit is yellow?’ she asked her father.
Raja Bhoj nodded. In his travels he had sampled the banana on many occasions.
‘Bright yellow from the outside, and pale yellow from the inside,’ he said, ‘and the banana is curved, not round like most of our fruits here.’ For in Bangra there were plenty of apples and oranges but, alas, no bananas, those exotic yellow wonders.
He also told little Ramya about mangoes, considered in many places to be the ‘king’ of all fruits, and the princess wondered what it would be like to taste fruits that did not grow in their own cold country.
‘I never knew even fruits have a king,’ thought the princess. ‘And this … this mango must be so … so delicious!’
7. The King and His Daughter
‘Do you feel afraid at night, my dear?’ said the king to his daughter one evening while they were having dinner together. Perhaps, he told himself, some unaccountable fear had crept into her head since the death of her mother, and was the reason she could not sleep.
‘Perhaps,’ answered Ramya. After a moment’s thought she added firmly, ‘but I really don’t think so.’
Although her father knew Ramya to be brave, he was not fully convinced by her response. Even the most courageous among us may carry secret fears within them they may not be fully aware of. And so Raja Bhoj imagined that some little fear had crept into his little princess’s heart that didn’t allow her to sleep. He ordered armed guards to be posted outside the royal family quarters: perhaps this would make her feel more secure and bring her sound sleep.
None of the enhanced security measures could make the princess sleep, however. No assurances worked. No matter the door had been secured, that a thousand guards watched the palace at night and five of the strongest soldiers from the King’s Guard stood outside the royal residence, or even that on occasion her father, the king, desperate to comfort his only child, ordered Ramya’s bed to be placed beside his own.
The princess did sleep in short stretches, for no one can live completely without sleep, but for the most part she lay awake in bed, watching the sapphire moon glow and the starry diamonds glitter on the ceiling. This deprivation of sleep meant, of course, that in the daytime she was never fully awake and alert. She would sometimes start daydreaming, but never got lost in her thoughts to actually doze off. Despite her lack of sleep, the young princess remained as energetic as young people often are, but she lacked a full measure of concentration and focus.
8. The Sleepless Beauty
The years passed. True to the meaning of her name, and the predictions of the rishi, Princess Ramya grew up to be a great beauty. She had a wide forehead, full lips, and long, curly black hair that fell almost down to her knees. Her perfectly shaped nose had been likened by the royal poet to the curve of a sword. Although the princess was of an extremely gentle disposition, there was some ‘steel’ within her, so perhaps that comparison was apt.
Despite her lack of sleep, and maybe on account of her youth, there were no dark circles under her eyes. They were large eyes, with a moist quality to them that stemmed, perhaps, from her kindness. Kohl, an ancient eye cosmetic, outlined and darkened her eyes, as was common in those times. There was also a faint tinge of red to her eyes, the only tell-tale sign that the princess had not had enough sleep.
She assisted her father in many of his tasks, although she was careful not to take up tasks demanding high levels of concentration.
* * *
Raja Bhoj, having married late, was now growing old, and he felt that his daughter, despite her relative youth, should soon get married. She, together with her husband, could manage the affairs of the kingdom while he retired from active public life. The king raised the issue of her marriage with his daughter, but Princess Ramya would not agree to consider it.
‘I cannot marry,’ she told the king, ‘because my present state of sleeplessness could affect my married life. It might also affect my ability to take good care of any children I am blessed with. Far would it be from me to rule the kingdom properly.’
‘Oh, but you do already help me so much,’ said the king, ‘and I think you are quite ready to take on additional responsibilities, in terms of both marriage and running the kingdom. I find you very active.’
‘I may appear to be energetic,’ Princess Ramya acknowledged, ‘but in truth I am not sufficiently alert, because I am never fully rested.’
When the king protested that he would soon be too old to manage the affairs of the kingdom, she replied: ‘Old you may be in body, but your mind is as sharp as the royal barber’s scissors. I do not trust myself to make decisions that are as wise as yours, for as long as I am sleepless I cannot bring my mind to focus fully on problems that arise.’
She put her hand on the king’s to comfort him. ‘Papa, I do understand your wish to lead a more relaxed life.’
‘If you do understand,’ said the king hopefully, ‘then in that case….’
’But consider,’ the princess pressed on, ‘how I may pass a royal resolution rashly, only because I could not concentrate fully. She paused. ’This might someday inadvertently be the cause of great misery for our people. No, Papa Bhoj, do not ask me to run the kingdom until such time as I am rid of this malady of sleeplessness.’
The king worried that his daughter might die a spinster, and he longed to have the company of grandchildren. He was a wise man, and so he thought of a possible way out of the impasse.
‘In that case,’ he proposed cleverly, ‘why don’t we host a competition to find a young prince who could discover a way to get you to sleep normally?’
The princess smiled at the suggestion and did not say anything, which the king correctly interpreted to mean she had no objection to this undertaking.
9. A Deadly Foe Waiting in the Wings
Although the king told Ramya that he wished to lead a more leisurely life, in fact there was another reason why he wished for her to take charge.
For many months now he would suffer agonising pain in his knees whenever he walked more than a few hundred metres. At first he thought the pain would go away, but it only increased as the days went by. Not wishing to alarm his daughter, he had consulted the royal physician in secret, who had prescribed herbal medicine. Thus far there had been no improvement in his condition.
He worried for the people of his kingdom. Unless he was able to walk about normally and meet and speak with ordinary people how would he come to know of their problems and serve them properly? The words of the sage also came to his mind about there being an enemy kingdom beyond the Himalayas who watched the situation at Bangra carefully, looking for any sign of weakness, and biding its time to attack.
* * *
On her part the princess too had an important reason for not wishing to take charge of of many of the important matters the king dealt with. Although she had managed to remain healthy for all these years even while sleepless, of late she often felt dizzy, and on a couple of occasions she had even blanked out. She regained consciousness after a few seconds, but it was a problem that could worsen over time. She kept this matter a secret from her father, not wishing to add to his worries, or alarm him.
She knew it in her bones that her sleeplessness was the cause of her recent fainting spells, for she passed out most often when trying to concentrate on a problem. Princess Ramya loved the people and this was an additional reason why she swore her maids to secrecy about this issue.
There was another thing. She knew of the violent ruler of a kingdom to the north preparing to attack the Himalayan kingdoms upon sensing weakness there. If word ever got out that the sole heiress to the throne in Bangra was not well, this would certainly embolden their enemies. What if they were to attack? This ferocious foe was known for its ruthlessness and cruelty. Many would die.
‘I will fight,’ she told herself, tilting her face to the blue skies above, ‘till the last drop of my blood!’
The princess had great courage and could be fierce when needed. She would defend her people valiantly, if required, but she needed to be in good health in order to be able to do that.
It was now of vital importance her problems with sleep vanish. The lives of many people depended on her.
10. A Royal Competition
Although in principle Princess Ramya had no objection to a competition, and wished to explore all avenues to get her sleep, she did have a question.
‘What will happen,’ asked the princess, ‘if none of the princes succeeds in putting me to sleep?’
‘No matter,’ replied the king. ‘We will simply declare that no candidate was found successful this time, and the competition will be repeated next year.’
‘That sounds like a good plan,’ agreed the princess, pleased to have her anxiety lessened on that score.
‘And what will happen,’ her father cross-questioned, with a merry glint in his eyes, ‘if my sweetness should find someone whom she really likes – even if he cannot put her to sleep?’
‘I doubt that will happen, Papa,’ said Princess Ramya, ‘but even if it does, be assured your daughter is strong enough to control her feelings.’ She pushed away a truant curl of her hair. ‘Our people’s welfare is more important, isn’t it?
And to that clever and sensitive response the king made no further comeback.
So on the day the princess turned nineteen, after seven long years of sleeplessness, the king announced a competition. Upon the princess’s insistence that the entire world was one, the rules of the competition allowed princes from anywhere to participate.
The Himalayas stretched for thousands of miles. Dozens of small pahari (mountain) kingdoms lay just beyond Bangra, and many of these had an unmarried prince or two. At least fifty princes put in a request to be considered. Each filled in his entry form for the competition and sent a sketch of himself, drawn by the royal artist in his kingdom.
The king and princess carefully considered the background and merits of each princely candidate. The princess, who had the final say-so in the matter, since the matter concerned her life and future, chose four candidates.
In those good old days, princes and princesses did not simply loll about lazily but all tried to follow a passion or interest. For instance, Princess Ramya, had developed a great interest in the arts, and in learning about other cultures because of the time she spent in the royal museum.
All four candidates in the shortlist had a special interest or passion. The first prince had two advanced degrees in medicine, and for this reason everyone addressed him as Dr Doctor Prince. The second prince had spent years trying to master the science of Yoga and was therefore known all over the Himalayas as the Yoga Prince. The third prince was brilliant in business. For this reason he was known to everyone as the Merchant Prince. The fourth prince was an outsider, and his interest lay in the arts. Prince Milan, which in Sanskrit means the ‘unifier’ came from Hastinapur, a kingdom close to the kingdom from where the late queen hailed. Perhaps, Princess Ramya thought to herself, this prince would possess some of the habits and qualities her dear departed mother had possessed.
It was decided that Princess Ramya would meet the princes one by one, and during this time the two of them could also get to know each other. The prince who found a way to get her to sleep would win her hand.
A committee would decide which prince would be first and who would be last, based on the chances of success. After deliberation for a few days it came to the conclusion that since Dr Doctor Prince possessed a medical background, he was most likely to succeed in getting the princess to fall asleep. So he was first in the queue.
11. Dr Doctor Prince
With competing interests in medicine and gastronomy, Dr Doctor Prince was a man of many parts – but equally it could be said that he was a man of many circles. A tall, large man, his body shape was round. He had a round potbelly (this possibly related to his interest in cooking and eating), and his nose and eyes were round too, as if the Creator had sought to give him a certain symmetry. Although the princess believed inner beauty to be more important than external appearance, she couldn’t help but think that the artist who had made a sketch of the prince had not done full justice to his large and circular frame.
Dr Doctor Prince’s royal uniform was white, and a large gold chain studded with precious stones with the shape of a stethoscope hung around his thick neck.
Every morning when the good doctor prince woke, before he brushed his teeth, he would poke out his tongue and carefully examine it in the mirror, for he understood that a bright red tongue was a sign of good health. During the course of the day, when he shook hands with his ministers and subjects, he would continue to hold their hands, feel their pulses and make his observations.
‘Hmmn,’ he told the cook. ‘Your pulse is too slow. Eat fish for the next few days.’
‘Thank you, Dr Doctor Prince,’ the cook replied. ‘I will do as you say.’
‘Hmmn,’ he told the gardener one day, while feeling his wrist. ‘Your pulse is too fast.’
‘What shall I do, Your Highness?’ asked the worried plantsman.
‘Drink lots of water,’ said the prince, rubbing his belly absently, ‘and try to remain calm.’
Was this a habit formed during the prince’s training at medical school, or was the pulse-reading out of concern for the health of his subjects? No one knew. In addition, the prince, a heavy breather, had terrible handwriting – a not uncommon attribute of the learned medical professionals whom we cannot do without in our lives.
Dr Doctor Prince had two degrees, but it was said among his subjects that, qualifications apart, he had the brains of two people. The prince accepted the compliment but believed twenty-two heads were better than two. So, before he came to Bangra to take part in the competition he consulted various other doctors, physicians and medical pundits. He also went through all the important medical textbooks of the day, and created a mixture of the most potent sleeping substances that grew in the forests. As a result, he felt confident of winning the contest.
* * *
‘My dear Princess Ramya,’ he said, after the formal introductions had been made. ‘I have spent the past weeks preparing the most fantastic potion known to man that will induce sleep in anyone who takes it. There is simply no possibility that you will remain awake after consuming just one single dose, taken with warm milk and honey one hour after sunset.’
‘Oh, dear prince,’ the princess replied, ‘don’t you know that I am allergic to all sleeping draughts? I did once, a few weeks after becoming unable to sleep, take a mixture, a fairly potent powder, but …’
‘Ah, but you don’t understand,’ said Dr Doctor Prince, a proud note creeping into his voice. ‘This preparation is far superior to anything you may have tried previously.’
‘Please let me finish, dear prince,’ said the princess, trying her best to be polite to the guest despite her annoyance at having been interrupted. ‘After I tried that medicine I suffered a terrible headache and other adverse reactions too numerous and terrible to mention. I vowed never to try any such concoction ever again.’ A steely determination entered her reddened eyes. ‘And – I am not about to break that vow.’
‘Ohhh,’ said Dr Doctor Prince, dismayed that his scheme had come to naught because of the princess’s firm stance. ‘Surely you could try it just the one time.’ He looked at Princess Ramya pleadingly. ‘I have oils and balms for a headache, and powders to counter any reaction this particular medicine may cause.’
‘And what, dear prince,’ responded the princess, her expression kind but firm, ‘of the side-effects of those medicines?’
‘Ah, well,’ said the rotund royal, fumbling for words. It was indeed true that the medicines to cure the after-effects of the medicine he sought to administer had side-effects themselves in turn!
‘I’m sorry,’ said Princess Ramya. ‘As a princess, I cannot break my vows easily, even if I must turn down something that could possibly have benefited me. I don’t doubt your expertise in this matter, dear prince, but I’m afraid I cannot sample any strange substances.’
Besides, she thought, even if the cure were to work, was there not a possibility that she would once more become sleepless when she woke up? She would then have to take the medicine all over again, and there might be a real danger that she could become addicted to the brew. What would her people think if they found out? Would not the enemy be pleased and prepare to attack? No, this would simply not do at all. It was out of the question.
Seeing the right-minded resolution on her royal face, Dr Doctor Prince had no option but to accept the arguments of the princess. He had, however, a backup plan. With the flourish of a magician doing abracadabra, he brought out a small glass vial from one of the pockets in his white tunic.
‘It may be the case, dear princess,’ he admitted, ‘that you are allergic to some of the herbs used in the preparation of sleep-inducing substances, but I have something inside this jar that is not a herb but will make you go to sleep instantly.’
‘And what, pray, is that?’ asked the princess, her hopes rising that perhaps after all a cure was at hand. Although she so wished to be cured, a part of her secretly hoped that the prince of medicine would not find the remedy for she did not otherwise find him attractive.
‘There is an insect inside this jar that is commonly known as makshika, which is Sanskrit for “fly”,’ began Dr Doctor Prince, in the lecturing tone used by one of his favourite professors at medical school.
The princess peered into the jar and saw a green insect with long wings sitting at the base of it. It seemed to her that the insect was also looking at her.
THE STORY CONTINUES, BUT HAVE REACHED THE WORD LIMIT...