He spotted her immediately. He could not tear his eyes away from her distant figure. Leaning against a roadside tree, she stood out in the thronging crowd on the streets of Mathura. Krishna stared at her for a long, thoughtful minute before he started to move towards her.
‘Where are you going?’ asked Balram, perplexed. He looked at his younger brother, a darker version of himself. ‘We will be late. King Kamsa is waiting to meet us at his palace.’
‘Just a moment…’ replied Krishna, his eyes still seeking the woman. She was still standing near the tree, watching the bustling crowd around her, as if enjoying the street scene. She ignored the young street urchins giggling at her. One attempted to throw a stone at her.
She looked distinctly surprised as she saw a young, dark, handsome boy approach her. He could not be more than seventeen, his face boyish, with a wide, warm smile but there was a quaint air of maturity about him. It was his eyes—smiling yet mocking in their solemnity. He looked eerily familiar but she could not place him. Not that she could have forgotten such a good-looking face, she reflected, feeling a strange emotion rise within her.
‘Do you live here?’ asked Krishna politely, smiling.
She was taken aback at the unabashed familiarity of his question.
‘Do I know you?’ she asked coldly instead, but not looking away. The boy had an immediate amiability about him: you could not help but like him.
‘No, I am a stranger here,’ he replied cheerfully. ‘I have just arrived from Gokul and am on my way to the king’s palace.’
She gave a start at the mention of King Kamsa. ‘You are to meet the king?’ she asked curiously.
‘Yes,’ he said briefly, almost cryptic. ‘I am Krishna,’ he flashed his deep smile again.
‘I am Trivakra,’ she said. ‘But I am known as Kubja, the hunchback,’ she added tonelessly.
‘So I noticed,’ smiled Krishna looking long at the young girl— bent almost double, her hands and feet gnarled, her face looked aged, stamped with a lifelong pain.
Kubja would have otherwise bristled. But she again felt a faint stirring of…what? Why did this young man make her feel like a woman and not an ugly hunchback which she was cursed to be? She turned her face away, as if to end their conversation. ‘You seem to have the most fragrant sandalwood in the city!’ he commented, looking at the array of sandalwood pastes around her.
Her eyes flared with animation. She nodded brightly. ‘Can I have some, please?’ he said.
‘How much do you want to buy?’
‘No, could you apply that paste on me. Please?’ he asked, his smile reaching his eyes, which softened them with a certain tenderness.
Kubja swallowed, staring at him blankly. ‘That paste out there in the bowl,’ he urged, pointing to the brass container. ‘Could you please apply some on my forehead? It’s really very hot. Some sandal paste would be cooling!’
He lowered his head so that she could follow his request. ‘It’s meant for the king!’ she snapped. ‘I have to take it to him now.’
‘Just a little?’ he begged, his winning smile not slackening. Kubja hesitated. ‘I am a maidservant,’ she said in a low tone.
‘A hunchback. A pariah.’
‘Never mind, but your sandalwood is heavenly!’ he dismissed airily, thrusting his face closer.
She quickly dipped her hand in the paste and raised it to his face, gazing straight into his twinkling eyes, smearing his forehead tentatively, her hands shaking.
She heard him sigh in satisfaction.
‘It is cool!’ he exclaimed, swiftly stretching out his well- muscled arms in front of him so that she could apply some of the paste there as well. She was surprised that she obliged him, not unwillingly. She felt a cold shiver of pleasure run through her as her calloused fingers touched his skin. She could not refuse him, and she was strangely drawn to this handsome stranger.
‘Gratitude!’ grinned the man. ‘I feel like a new man now!’ Kubja blushed. ‘Yes, my sandalwood is the best in town.’ ‘I’ll come back to you once I am done with the king,’ he
said. ‘Where do you stay?’
Overwhelmed, she pointed a shaking, twisted finger at the house across the road.
‘I’ll meet you soon. I promise!’ he smiled, waving at her.
She watched him walk down the street, away from her, not believing his words which were still floating back in her mind.
She sighed. She knew she would not see him ever again.
It was almost a fortnight later, the sky had dusked to a deep purple, when she heard a knock on the door. Kubja frowned. Who could it be? Certainly not some call from the palace. After all, King Kamsa is dead now. The city was rife with rumours and jubilation that he had been killed by his nephew, Krishna. The name sent a shiver through her again. Was he that young man she had met on the street some days back?
She heard the knock again. It was louder and more persistent.
Kubja hobbled to the door, opening it impatiently. She was greeted with an unexpected sight and a jovial voice.
‘I said I would come back!’ said the young, handsome man, standing with his arms akimbo.
Before she could recover her breath and senses, he had stepped inside her small room.
‘What do you want?’ she spluttered. ‘You.’
Kubja gasped, her face drained of colour. ‘I have heard you are a kind man, sir. Don’t make fun of me so cruelly!’ she said angrily, tears of hurt shining in her sullen eyes. ‘You are a prince, a hero. A handsome young man. What does he want with a poor, ugly hunchback like me? Why are you here?’
‘To make you happy. You have suffered enough, my dear,’ he said.
The gentleness in his voice hurt her. Kubja winced, her eyes filling with sudden tears, recalling each moment of her wretched life—the taunts, the stones pelted at her, the wicked sniggers, the contempt on peoples’ faces. Her very sight made them loathe her. ‘Even the name given to you is cruel—Trivakra, disjointed
at three places,’ he murmured touching her lightly under her chin and raising her tear-streaked face to his. She felt a tremor at his touch.
‘Please don’t mock me,’ she whispered.
‘How many saw the beauty behind this ugliness?’ he asked gently.
‘Beauty?’ she drew back, her face confused.
‘Yes, you are supposed to be kind and selfless, and that’s what I have heard,’ said Krishna.
‘None!’ she whimpered. ‘I have been living a life of hell. Even the dogs and kids bark at me whenever I pass them… What did I do to lead such a cursed life?’
‘No more,’ he assured her, pressing her chin and touching her feet with his toes. She felt a crackle of heat flash through her, from toe to head, the heaviness of the hump suddenly easing, the spine slowly straightening, pulling her up to make her stand tall and willowy. She stared at her arms, her skin was creamy and glowing. She caught her reflection in the mirror. She was lovely. She looked down at her body. It was not twisted, but buxom in its beauty with full, firm breasts, a slender waist and flaring hips over slim, long legs.
‘What did you do?’ she cried hoarsely.
‘You made me a new man with your sandal paste, remember?
I made you a new woman!’ he smiled.
‘You are laughing at me!’ she cried, her lips trembling. ‘Who are you?’
‘Don’t you remember?’ he asked softly. ‘I am the one who turned you down once. I am that same man. Ram then, now Krishna.’
Kubja shook her head frantically. ‘Ram?’
‘Yes. I come for you Kubja, for the grave misdeed I committed in my last life, where you were Surpanakha in your previous birth. And I was Ram.’
She stared at him transfixed, speechless. ‘You were born a beautiful princess Meenakshi, the sister of the asura king Ravan, but your wickedness turned you into a monster—Surpanakha, the woman as hard as nails…’ he explained. ‘Do you remember me? The man who rejected you and in your wrath you took a terrible revenge on me, my wife Sita and my brother Lakshman…?’ ‘What did I do so terrible then that I had to lead this life
in misery?’ cried Kubja, terrified.
Krishna smiled, taking her trembling hand in his. Kubja felt a strange sense of fulfilment.
‘Well, allow me to tell you your story…’
Excerpted from ‘Lanka’s Princess’ written by Kavita Kane, published by Rupa Publications.