May 17, 1842
Hanumandhoka Royal Palace
Ajima gazed at Laccho with furrowed brows, motherly love glowing soft through her cataract eyes.
How are you feeling this morning, Maicha?
My forehead still burns and my head feels like it will explode. But... Tell me what has happened in this Darbar since you last came, Ajima.
Where do I begin? The Prince’s atrocities are getting worse by the day. He had the other bride thrown into the Bagmati river again yesterday. And they say he ordered Sahebjyu Upendra to command the Rejident to leave the country. When Sahebjyu refused, the Prince beat him badly. Now Sahebjyu has locked himself up in his room and refuses to come out. Meanwhile, it looks like Taranath Khardar will survive, but all the bones in his legs are shattered... According to the Baidhya, the Khardar won't walk again. Despite all this, the King does nothing. All the Bhardars walk around like they have perpetually upset stomachs, the soldiers grumble, but in the end, this entire cursed Darbar forgives the Prince too easily. Everyone just repeats that old line about how unfortunate the poor little Prince is to have acquired the taint of insanity in his blood from Rana Bahadur. And oh, the Junior Queen is back in the Darbar. She returned yesterday from her latest round of fleeing the valley to avoid the Prince. There is talk that the Bhardars and soldiers might even align with the Junior Queen against the Prince. The Prince heard of this and has supposedly promised not to torment her any more.
Ajima... I think the Prince is just saying that... I ... I think his promise is no good.
Ajima teared up. It broke her heart that Laccho still retained her innocence despite two years of physical and mental torture at the hands of the Prince, the demented Heir Apparent of Nepal. She ran her withered fingers through Laccho’s hair and said softly:
Yes, Maicha... I think you are right. His promise is no good. But now it is time to serve the Prince his morning milk. They should have it ready in the kitchen. Go.
Laccho said respectfully despite the many times Ajima had tried to reminded her that Laccho was in fact the superior one in their strange relationship. Laccho covered her head with the aanchal of her saree, arranged her heavy gold necklace, straightened her numerous gold bracelets, and started for the kitchen.
As Laccho approached the corridor leading to Surendra's quarters, she heard those familiar sharp yelps of a mad dog coming from inside. The Prince was at it again! She put a palm to her throbbing forehead, and remembered Ajima’s old advice: breathe deeply, and hide your illness from the Prince at all costs. The gold tumbler full of milk started to rattle against the tray in her hands. Laccho closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and tried to steady both her mind and hands, entirely unaware that these torments were quite unusual for a normal nine-year old girl.
Feverish, still very much shaken, she knocked. When the guards opened the door to Surendra’s baithak, the creak of old wood on metal made the debauched, dangerously unstable Surendra turn around.
Oh, it's you! What is it?
Yuwaraj Dhiraj, I am arrive along with milk.
Arrive along with milk? That’s the best Parbatya you can manage? How many years have you been at this Darbar, you idiot?
In that moment, Laccho’s already fever-addled mind fogged over, the way it always did when the Prince went into a delirium. But she pushed through the confusion to process the Prince’s question. She freed one hand from the tray, hid it within the folds of her saree’s pleats the way children hide their fingers while “secretly” counting, and started marking off on the tender lines of her fingers the months she had been at the Nepal Darbar.
...Vaisakha... Jestha... Asaadh...Bhadra...
Due to the fever and strain, Laccho could not count off the months quite right... She started again...
...Vaisakha... Jestha... Asaadh...Shrawan...
So Laccho counted, hand hidden, eyebrows furrowed in effort, lips silently mouthing the months so that she would not get them wrong.
Surendra’s eyes, already wide and demented, now almost rolled off of their hollow lifeless sockets. He stared with bewildered animal rage at the group of officials and minders swarming about him as part of the morning chaakari, and screamed:
What is the meaning of this?
From amongst the group, a scrawny young man with a bad moustache and worse hair jumped forward and said rather breezily but yet with a low bow and a formal namaskar:
Pardon my speaking out of turn, Yuwaraj Dhiraj, but perhaps it's best to forgive her this insolence. She is still learning... And after all, she is just a child!
Surendra managed to note through his fog of rage that this was Jangey, who had started to walk with a slight swagger, paaji, ever since being appointed the manager of Kumari Chowk by his own useless father. Perhaps another jump into the Darbar well would cure Jangey’s arrogance...
Jung Bahadur meanwhile had walked up to Laccho, and managed to whisper discreetly into her ears:
Stop counting. Hold the tray with both hands... bow your head lower.
Quickly, obediently, Laccho did as she was told. She stayed frozen like so, the milk getting colder in her hands.
But Surendra was not done. He stared at Laccho with vacuous eyes. His breathing was heavy, but the only sound that escaped were small yelps as would from a rabid dog. He had decided to work himself into a particularly rare and virulent bout of frenzy that morning.
Just a child... Just a child ...
He saw the small form of Laccho, burdened with heavy Darbar clothing and jewelry. Saw, too, the tumblerful of milk so close to being spilled on the tray. And saw, finally, those goddamn eyes: large, black, moist. He knew he could never comprehend them, or possess them. This confused awareness of his own dementia and his inability to recognize Laccho’s latent, vulnerable beauty condensed his anger into a primal demonic force.
As if on cue, his nose started to twitch. His mouth contorted into grotesque angles, exposing brownstained teeth. The contortion, in turn, caused his pubescent, comically small moustache to twitch like the antennae of a frightened cockroach.
Alas, Laccho chose this fateful moment to look up meekly, wondering when the Prince would take the milk from her hands. She saw it all: the Prince’s hideous mouth, the ugly teeth, the moustache twitching awkwardly.
Under the combined strain of fever, the recollection of all the tortures this madman had put her through, and his maniacal stare now directed squarely at her, Laccho giggled.
Surendra exploded. His body shaking with uncontrollable spasms, he wailed in the high, quivering voice that accompanied the worst of his frenzied excesses:
And whirling around to the guards:
Throw her into the Naag Pokhari!
The guards were well versed in the execution of this order. They promptly marched towards Laccho, faces blank, and wrapped their callous hands around her arms.
Laccho looked at the guards, then at the Prince. Slowly, the implication of the proceedings hit her. With a look of tender desperation unique to children, and in a breaking voice that yet held hopes of everything becoming right if she just tried hard enough, she whimpered at Surendra, lapsing mostly into Hindustani:
No, Yuwaraj... not that pond. No... please, I beg you... I ... I am afraid of the serpent there! I beg forgiveness for us... I will be good... I will learn Parbatya... I promise... I am not even sick, actually... Yuwaraj... please... anything but the pond... the serpent... Throw me into the Bagmati instead!
Surendra’s psychotic mind, always incapable of processing tender human emotions, was decidedly immune to the poignancy of Laccho’s request, for he had already stormed out of the baithak into his bedroom antechamber.
Laccho turned to the man with the bad hair and moustache. She had seen him many times before with the Prince.
Please... Sir, I can't go there... The serpent will swallow me whole... Maybe you can put in a word...
But Jung Bahadur, who suddenly seemed much less confident, just frowned, twitched his shoulders sharply to adjust the newly tailored Hakim clothes against the contours of his body, and walked out.
Laccho’s only hope now was with the guards. She looked up at them, offered an earnest namaskar:
The serpent... I am sick... the cold water...
The guards kept their gaze down and started dragging Laccho towards the door.
Laccho wailed through a flood of tears:
But Ajima did not come. Laccho had not yet grasped all the protocols of the Darbar. She did not understand why Ajima could not come at a moment like this. And she could not know that Ajima in fact would be watching everything unfold, everything, from various edges and cracks of the Darbar, anguished like a mother, tears streaming down her smallpox-marked face, worn out from having seen too much for too long.
And so, bewildered, helpless, burning with fever, Laccho is dragged out gently by the guards who keep a stone face, but drag her still, her heels scraping floor, through the hallways, down the enormous spiral stairs that seemed so magical and promising two years ago, out through the courtyards, and finally towards the steep steps of the Basuki Naag Pokhari.
The trauma of the day has drained what little energy Laccho had in her already feverish little body. Her loud wails have quickly flickered down to small sobs which are yet tinged with desperate hope:
The guards advance slowly down the steps of the pond. The unseasonal chill and the completely overcast sky has made the water rather cold, and into this water Laccho submerges her self gradually:
But her eyes are somewhere else. Ever since the pond came into sight, Laccho’s gaze has been hypnotically fixed on the eyes of the towering serpent, the source of her countless nightmares, its lips frozen in a hideous smile, its enormous forked tongue dangling out, the long, erect body full of evil, evil scales.
At the center of the pond, directly under the large wooden pillar comprising the serpent’s scaled body and supporting its imposing bronze hood, with the pondwater now lapping at Laccho’s budding breasts, the guards halt: this shall be the place for today’s torment of Laccho.
The guards now realize that in the march between the Prince’s chamber and the pond, instead of them grabbing Laccho by the arms, she has somehow started holding onto their arms, so that by the time they are in the depths of the pond, they are volunteering their arms in support to Laccho, and are delicately trying to balance her in the water and the slippery algal floor.
But now the journey is over. The guards loosen Laccho’s frantic grip on their arms, and slowly walk away in stony silence, except for one guard who stands sentry at the edge of the pond, safely out of Laccho’s sight. The guards do not make eye contact with each other for the rest of the day.
Shivering lightly from the double shock of the fear and the water, Laccho continues to stare at HIM... The dreadful serpent who will pounce out of lifelessness and come slithering down towards her at any moment. Occasionally she whispers Ajima... But is now quite certain Ajima will not come.
Now Laccho turns towards the palace and scans its balconies and windows, trying to find someone she could appeal to, while very aware of the serpent looming directly behind her. Maybe the Prince will feel sorry for her soon. If he came, she would offer her best namaskar, and doubly beg forgiveness... he is human after all, although sometimes... There was also Bajai! Perhaps Bajai would help her. But Bajai was so very different from her dear Ajima. Bajai never spoke tenderly to her, always found fault with her clothes, and yelled at her for playing in the mud.
Laccho decides to try something different that had worked before in difficult situations. She would hold her breath to the count of sixty. If she succeeded, someone was bound to come. Her shivering makes the counting challenging, but Laccho makes it to sixty. But nobody comes to rescue her. Nobody comes, even when she repeats her childish but deadly game to the count of ninety.
Several ghadis pass. Laccho spends the time alternately checking on the serpent, and seeing if someone has appeared at the Darbar windows. She does not notice her growing pangs of hunger. For thirst, she occasionally cups her hands and drinks from the dirty green water of the pond.
She notices a figure walking along the corridors of the Mul Chowk. It is the Junior Queen! Surely she will take pity on her. Ajima had once whispered to Laccho that the Junior Queen herself was from Gorakhpur.
I will plead to her sense of homeland!
Thus reasoning, Laccho steadies herself on the slippery floor of the pond, offers a courteous namaskar, and looks intently at the Junior Queen. But the Junior Queen appears busy and hurries along the corridor, looking straight ahead.
In desperation, Laccho ignores court protocol.
She wails loudly. But the Queen does not turn. In fact, she seems to walk faster and soon disappears back into the many folds of the Darbar.
Laccho watches with quiet anguish as the gray light of the hidden sun fades slowly to be replaced by absolute darkness within the passing of a ghadi. A deep chill slithers along the bottom of the lake, winds up through her thighs and into her back, her hips, her shoulders. Laccho’s shivering is now violent and entirely uncontrollable. She also observes helplessly that her teeth are chattering. She has given up all hope. An animal instinct for survival takes over, automatically, remnant of the primordial nature of incessant, cyclical Creation itself. She wraps her hands around her torso in a hug. But the warmth she seeks does not exist.
Yuwaraj, Yuwaraj, mercy on the young Princess... I can’t bear it any more... Mercy Parwardigaar... Mercy...
Thus wailing, disheveled and distraught, Ajima comes surging towards the Prince. Her love for Laccho has made her dangerously bold.
Huh...who is this? Who allowed her in?
I am Chief Attendant of Sri 5 Maharani Punya Kumari Rajya Laxmi Devi Shah. You have seen me many times, Yuwaraj... and I fed you milk on my lap when you were... anyway, please rescue the Princess now Yuwaraj, have mercy. Otherwise The Cold will simply kill her tonight!
What impudence? How dare you come into my sight? Guards, set this old hag’s clothes on fire!
There is no moon tonight. There are no stars. All above Laccho, the deep black skydome descends right down to the pond and suffocates her. The only light comes from scattered rooms of the Darbar. Once Laccho dimly notices a strange commotion on a roof furthest from the pond: some people come up and start a fire that seems to move about wildly... there is also faint wailing... perhaps a religious celebration... Meanwhile, the serpent behind her... it now looks doubly sinister, the collective light of the Darbar making its eyes shine with a dull glow.
Laccho is tired. Tired of being cold. Of being hungry. Tired of being afraid of the serpent. Tired of the Prince. Tired of this entire Darbar. She closes her eyes. In that moment of lucidity which always comes after the most profound Dukkha, Laccho realizes that she can simply... let go.
She can still feel the biting cold and hunger, but she feels it from a distance. She looks up, wishes she could fly away like she has wished to many times before. But today, she feels herself beginning to rise up slowly from the depths of the pond. She rises above the water
escaping the bitter cold.
Soon she is completely out of the water and floating at the level of the serpent’s head. The serpent’s eyes glow strong, but now it is with a warm light, like that of the rising sun. Smiling, benevolent, the serpent offers a humble namaskar to Laccho, and she responds in kind, recognizing the smallness of her previous fear, and recognizing, of course, Basuki Naag for who he is, thanks to the effortless enlightenment that comes from contact with the Eternal Uncreate.
Photo courtesy: Alina Tamrakar
Laccho climbs higher, now towards the roofs and towers of this mad, sad palace. She sees the Junior Queen hiding inside the Basantapur tower, peeking down through lattice windows at the Laccho in the pond, the pallu of her saree in a bunch stuffed into her mouth, bitter tears of rage and helplessness streaming down her stillyoung face of twenty-eight years. Laccho understands all and forgives the Junior Queen in an instant.
Turning, Laccho notices the Agam goddess Taleju hiding on the highest floor of the circular Pancha Mukhi Hanuman tower. Taleju glowing feminine red in all her Tantric glory.
All around her, Laccho gets glimpses of foreign little girls and foreign goddesses brought into the valley and locked up within the confines of the Darbar to placate the shames and sins of two thousand years.
Upwards floats Laccho, upwards until she can see the Hlulacche Chowk, then Kumari Mandir where another Shakti sits disguised as another little girl, resplendent in red. Then the ever-welcoming wings of ancient Maru Sattal, followed by Asan, Tundikhel.
Near Baag Darbar, Laccho pauses to remember her old friend Bhimsen Thapa. Bhimsen Thapa immediately floats out of the rundown shack near the gate of Baag Darbar, the shack where he has lingered as mist since the time of his suicide.
Repentant, wiser in death, Bhimsen Thapa offers Laccho a deep namaskar and watches with fatherly love as she floats up towards the stars, the roars of the lion at the gate growing dimmer. Now leaving behind the tip of Bhimsen’s tower, a relic of his foolish, ambitious past. Now yonder the Rani Pokhari, the pond built by a former king as a symbol of undying love for his beloved queen.
Look Laccho, that Queen had much better luck with her pond!
Laccho says softly in pretend sarcasm to her former self, but the pain of the irony drags her down, she becomes sad and human again for a moment, jealous of a more fortunate queen than herself.
Then higher where she could see the entire city of Kathmandu, brighter in the center, dimmer along the edges where real people live their inconsequential lives... and higher yet the faraway glows of Patan and Bhaktapur, unfortunate cities spinning in their own private universes of misery, defeat and lost glory.
Climbing higher still, towards the heavens, until suddenly she breaks through the clouds and gets a sudden, breathtaking view of the northern vista, impossibly tall mountains shimmeringwhite in the glow of the full moon, far above the clouds and human pollution. Then towards Bhimphedi, Hetauda, Bichakhori... the same route she had taken northwards two years ago with so many dreams of becoming a Queen, and with a completely intact child’s heart. Then onwards to lesserknown towns, Sugauli, Bettiah, Kushinagar... flatter lands... the lazy winding expanses of the Gandak river shores... until she finally arrives.
It is already morning in Dharza Gurwa. The bel tree around which she used to play with Ramkali is still there, as if Laccho had never left but just stepped inside in the middle of play to get a drink of water... Tutar and Butar, the baby goats, not a day older... her house... full of ordinary but safe memories... and Paapu!
She offers Darshan at father’s feet hugs him lies down on mother’s lap closes her eyes and goes into deep deep sleep.
How many types of meat today?
Surendra asked sullenly as he sat down to eat.
Three Yuwaraj. There is fried partridge, roasted deer and stew of goat.
Bajai answered in her always loud, croaking voice, pointing out each bowl lined up along the edges of his enormous gold dinnerplate.
If the daal is too salty today, I swear I am going to shave four-corners into that Bahun’s head and throw him beyond the hills.
With that, Surendra busied himself with his usual gluttonous eating. But Bajai lingered on in the kitchen, judiciously suggesting helpings of partridge and deer, as Surendra seemed to linger more over those bowls.
When Surendra was almost done gorging, Bajai lazily broached the subject.
I heard that the Junior Rajkumari made a grave error again this morning. If I may, Yuwaraj, I would like to submit that I try to talk sense into her every chance I get... How to fold her saree... How to maintain mascara throughout the day... And ... Hareyyy, her fingernails, always dirty from her village habit of playing in the mud...
And after the right amount of silence,
I heard she is still in the Naag Pokhari? The weather has been funny lately... I have never known a Vaisakha this cold in all my years. I am just worried that The Cold will enter her. If she dies out there Yuwaraj, there will be all this headache. Rejident Sahib will ask questions... And Kishon Kishore Chand and the rest of the ungrateful maiti folks will descend into the Darbar in the hundreds asking for reparations... Perhaps it would be better to not give them the benefit... maybe we should... Bring her out?
As usual, Surendra had tuned out Bajai’s croaking while he was eating. But now, happy with the meal just completed, he managed to hear the last fragment of Bajai’s sentence, and wiping grease off the perimeter of his mouth, mumbled:
Oh, her... She’s still there? OK, have the guards bring her out.
May 27, 1842
The British Residency
Lain Khyeo, Kathmandu
Brian Houghton Hodgson sat pondering at his desk in the Residency study. He had just returned from a sojourn at the Residency bungalow at Kakani, a place he had grown to love not only for its natural beauty, but because it shielded him from the daily schemings of Rajendra, Surendra, and the newly emergent force in the Darbar, the Junior Queen. But now he was back, and as he had done most days of the past twenty-two years in this tiny British island within the sea of Nepal, he felt alone.
It had not been a good month. The Kashinath incidence and its fallout lay heavy in his heart. On the 23rd ultimo, and the days that followed, he had done what he knew worked in Nepal. But now Lord Ellenborough was going to ruin it all: all these years of patient statecraft, personal relationships, good faith earned with good deeds and words. Ellenborough’s diktat that he extricate himself from Darbar affairs was unsound, and frankly, childish. But Hodgson’s quiet confidence, his innate trust in his own academic way of solving affairs, had not deserted him entirely.
I shall persevere!
Hodgson told himself.
He proceeded to complete the letter to mother that lay half-written before him from yesterday. After the usual updates, he could not help but add a bit about how he hoped yet to mold Lord Ellenborough to his own ways of dealing with the Nepal Darbar, as he had molded the previous Governor-General.
Having completed most of the writing for the day, he disengaged the secret lock system, and pulled out the thick ledger which constituted the Residency Diary. While a lot was percolating, nothing specifically had advanced in the last few days in way of official government business. The Darbar and the Kala Pandeys had backed off from their belligerent stance, having independently confirmed the validity of Sale’s and Pollock’s successes in Afghanistan. Chautraria Futteh Jung remained weak but honest, as usual...
Hodgson’s mind wandered to the one story that he had anxiously gleaned in dribs and drabs through his Darbar informants for the past ten days. His face softened. His eyes might have misted over. After recording the date, he wrote tenderly, allowing as much feeling as was permitted in an official record of the Honorable East India Company:
The wife of the Heir-apparent, who had been subjected to so much misery, died this day.
Photos: Alina Tamrakar.
Final Section: Actual excerpt in italics from Resident Hodgson’s official Diary, quoted in “Diary of Events in Nepal 1841-46” J. Talsboys Wheeler/ B.R. Bajracharya.
Laccho's back-story can be sampled at dipeshrisal.com/tag/laccho/