by Sudha Balagopal

I’m thinking of Prithviraj the whole time: when my father, the King, places a garland laden with roses in my hands, when their nauseating fragrance wafts through my bridal veil, when I sneeze and let the garland drop to the marble floor, when Father roars and pushes the opulence into my hands, and when he wraps my diamond-ringed fingers, one at a time, around the flowery noose.

I’m thinking of Prithviraj when Father hurls censure at me calling me a spoiled, stubborn, ingrate, when he says he has invited the finest men in the country for my swayamvar, when he orders me to garland one of the hopefuls, indicating to the world I’ve chosen that man as my husband, and when he tells me I can forget about marrying his archenemy.

I’m thinking of Prithviraj when I stumble because I’m shoved and pushed toward the wedding hall, when I train my gaze on the pin-pricks of blood mixing with the henna on my palms, and when I’m uttering mantras, hoping, wishing, praying, for his steel-strong arms around me, his rich beard against my cheek, his muscular shoulders beneath my sensitive fingertips.

I’m thinking of Prithviraj when I walk into the durbar hall where the music from shehnais resounds, when I study the floor patterned with intersecting squares of pink, green and yellow, when I feel Father nudge a fist into my back, when I drop my chin to my chest because I don’t want to watch the suitors twirl their mustaches or fix their jewel-encrusted pagdis, and when I crush the roses in my hands because Father thinks love can be arranged like the squares on the floor.

I’m thinking of Prithviraj when, from the corner of my eye, I spy the still, tall, robust guard by the door, when I plot to slide past him, when I recognize, with a pummel to my heart, that the guard is a statue of Prithviraj, when I comprehend it has been placed by Father as an affront, an insult.

I’m not thinking when I run to the statue, when I fling the garland around the figure’s neck, when my declaration clangs as loud as a temple bell, when my Prithviraj pulls me toward him, when I don’t have the breath to wonder why or how he’s here.

I’m only thinking when he grabs me by the waist, when he pulls me onto his horse, and when we speed away, that love has power, love can transmit, love can make statues come alive.

Sudha Balagopal is honored to have her writing in many fine journals including Monkeybicycle, CRAFT, Split Lip, and Smokelong Quarterly. Her novella-in-flash, Things I Can’t Tell Amma, was published by Ad Hoc fiction in 2021. She has stories included in both Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions, 2022. Find her on Twitter @authorsudha.

Detail of illustration of Samyukta, as scanned from Indian Tales of the Great Ones Among Men, Women, and Bird-people (1916) written by Cornelia Sorabji, and illustrated by Warwick Goble, via Wikimedia Commons.