Chapter 3 - An Audience with The King

The Prime Minister of Tawa: Chapter 3

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The bungalow in which they were to stay till the elections got over belonged to a Chinese businessman, one Mr. Cheung.  Fifty yards of wooded land separated it from the beach. Cheung had also placed a car – a BMW - and a driver at Mash’s disposal. It was a spacious bungalow with five bed rooms. Its high ceilings did away with the need for air-conditioning. The bungalow even had a detached servants’ quarters, which had been taken over by a group of policemen entailed to protect Mash. Horan had actually offered to vacate the Residency on Mash’s arrival. But Mash would not hear of it. ‘It will not look good if the Prime Minister vacates his official residence in favour of a man who is not even a Member of Parliament,’ Mash had told Horan firmly over the phone from the London.  In any event, there were too many memories associated with the Residency. Mash was not sure if he wanted to live there even after the elections were over.

His Majesty and Royal Highness Geero Moshee had granted an audience to Mash at five in the evening. Ideally Mash would have liked to ignore the King. But almost all Keendas held the royal family in great esteem and Mash could only ignore the King at his own peril. Thankfully, Judy was not expected to accompany Mash. She was quite exhausted with the journey, though they had all travelled first class. Mash changed into a white silk kiree and sarong and left the house at half past four. He wondered if the King had undergone any change at all. When he and his mother fled Tawa twenty seven years ago, the King had been a playboy prince who literally lived on wine, women and song. Now that he was King, was he any different?

The drive to the Palace took Mash past some of his old haunts. A security guard sat in front, next to the driver, a Sten gun in between his legs. Two motorcycle riders rode in front and another car carrying four security men rode behind Mash’s BMW.  He passed by his old school – the Royal Moshee High School - which looked exactly the same, except for an annexe that had been put up a few years ago. They drove along roads and streets whose existence he had forgotten, but were easy to remember now. There seemed to be a lot more men wearing shirts and trousers and fewer men wearing the traditional kirees and sarongs than when Mash was young. Even in the case of women, there seemed to be fewer dorees, thulis and sarongs and a lot more skirts and trousers. There were many other surprises as well. Mash had heard about the vast stretches of housing colonies built during General Naranin’s time. However, he had not imagined them to be in such a rundown state. Row upon row, street after street, of shabby houses built with shoddy materials stood as testimony to General Naranin’s misrule. They were meant to house the people who lived in Cornovee, but General Naranin’s planner had failed to acknowledge that Cornovee was not just a slum filled with people, but also a place crammed with thousands of small workshops and cottage industries that churned out buttons, belt buckles and bolts and employed thousands of slum dwellers. Most people in Cornovee had stayed put rather than move to the new housing colonies and risk losing their livelihood. Finally the housing colonies had been occupied by those capable of paying a bribe or forging documents to show them to be slum dwellers from Cornovee. At one point when the car slowed down, Mash realised that many of the houses had election posters struck on them. There he was in some of the posters, fifteen years old – young and vulnerable, a tear falling down his cheek, his father’s dead body in the background. The TFP’s election symbol, the Bicycle, figured prominently in a corner. A few of the posters had pictures of Kemon Padusee, the leader of the PDA, standing next to a bunch of people. Some of the people were smiling, some were children dressed in clean school uniforms and the rest were farmers and factory workers with the dust of their toil on them. A very young boy held a large Lantern, the PDA’s election symbol in his hand. There was one large poster which said:

5 years of TFP
Inflation at 15%
Unemployment at 45%

Seedas Running Amok in the Central Hill District
Will you vote for the TFP again?
Vote for the PDA. Vote for Change. Let the Lantern Light up Tawa.

Mash smiled to himself. He knew that things were grim, but he was seeing these statistics for the first time. He looked for posters with a hammer and sickle in them, but there were none. The CPT, as the Communist Party of Tawa was known, was really a spent force.

Once past the housing colonies the car picked up speed. Soon they were passing through the King’s Forest, a vast stretch of land on the north bank of the Quaree River which belonged to the King and into which, only the royal family, cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats had access.

The Palace was a sprawling single storied building with a tiled roof, bang in the middle of the King’s Forest. Which meant that the beach was almost a mile away from the main Palace building and the ocean was not visible, though the slapping sound of the waves could be heard at night. As his car drove into the Palace grounds, Mash’s memories were revived. How many times had his father taken him to the Palace to attend various functions? The then King, Geero Moshee’s father, might have been held in awe and reverence by ordinary Tawans, but his father Seleem Zoloda was the leader they loved. People used to wave at them as they drove past in the battered Buick which had been his father’s official car. When the King drove by, people merely stood still with their heads bowed as a matter of respect. Mash wished for the nth time that he could avoid the visit to the Palace. It would be better if he could abolish the monarchy altogether. But Tawa was not just ready for it.

The ceremony at the main reception hall in the Palace was brief. Mash walked towards the King who sat on his throne and stopped when he was ten paces away. He then bowed and said, ‘I’ve come to pay my respects to your Majesty.’

‘Alakom Maheshdas Zoloda. Welcome back to Tawa,’ the King told him in a sonorous voice. He was wearing a black kiree which was covered with various golden decorations. The King had put on weight, Mash noticed. He had lost most of his hair, but the thin wisps that remained on the sides of his head were dyed jet-black. The King ought to wear a crown, Mash thought. For a crazy second, he wanted to laugh aloud, but the moment passed.

‘I beg to be blessed by you, your Majesty since I hope to serve the people of Tawa,’ Mash said and knelt down, his head still bowed.

‘I bless you in the name of the people of Tawa.’ the King could not hide a smirk as he said that. The worst was yet to come. ‘Please sit down,’ Mash was told. Mash sat down on the floor, with his legs folded under him. His thigh started to hurt. The pain slowly crept down to his knees and up to his buttocks. Court etiquette demanded that he engage in polite conversation with the King, while he sat on the floor. Mash noticed that the official photographer had taken yet another snap of him sitting on the floor. The Tawa Freedom Party or TFP as it was popularly known, would arrange to have the photos published in the papers tomorrow. To be honest, this audience with the King was the start of his election campaign. 

Mash waited for the King to say something. But the King merely beamed at him, as if he knew that Mash had nothing much to say and was in acute discomfort.

‘I’m so glad to meet you again, your Majesty,’ Mash told the King.

Ever since the French arrived in Tawa in 1720, the Royal family had ceased to wield any real power. Had the King or his father or any of their royal ancestors ever refused an audience to anyone who had power, Mash wondered. A year after the coup, he had come across a copy of Time magazine in his school library with a picture of General Naranin seeking the King’s blessing after overthrowing his father. Did General Naranin seek the King’s blessing before having his father hanged? Most probably not. But if he had sought the King’s blessing, he would surely have received it. Why didn’t the King who was respected so much try to save his father’s life? No one in Tawa dared to openly go against the wishes of the King. Relax, Mash told himself. It was all a long time ago. Twenty seven years was really a long time. And it was the King’s father and not the King who had been on the throne when the coup took place.

‘Shall we have some tea?’ the King asked Mash after a decent interval of a couple of minutes. By that time Mash was in agony. He got up with difficulty and waited for the King to climb down the steps that led from the throne and walk to the adjacent hall. Mash followed him. The King’s limp was definitely noticeable. Tea and snacks were laid out for two people on a large table in the hall.

At close quarters, the King looked quite old, though he was only eleven years older than Mash. One of his mother’s favourite stories was how her water broke after she climbed down a flight of stairs while attending the Prince’s eleventh birthday party. And he was a lot heavier than Mash had realised. Masses of flesh hung in folds from his face. His chin and neck had merged to form a massive hill.

‘Do you still play chess?’ the King asked Mash as a liveried man served them tea. There were various plates full of cakes, and various Tawan sweets.

So he remembered something about Mash. His father had not been very restrained when it came to boasting about Mash. ‘No, not any more. I played a bit until I passed out of college, but I haven’t played in ages. And do you still play football your Majesty?’  As soon as Mash asked the question, he realised that it sounded really silly. There was no way a man who limped and weighed so much could be a football player.

Thankfully, the King did not take offence. He bit into a lepchee, gave a playful smile and said ‘not any more. I am sure you can see that. I would not have put on so much weight if I still played football. I haven’t played ever since my accident.’ Mash knew of the accident. The King had developed a passion for racing cars in his late thirties. One day he had been involved in a really bad accident which left him with a limp.

‘That’s such a pity, your Majesty. You were really good at the game.’ It was not an exaggeration. Mash could remember a time when the young Prince was one of the leading footballers of Tawa. He was the captain of Hepara Vassei, the then number one football club in Tawa as well as a member of the Tawan football team. The Tawan national team was not good enough to play in major international tournaments. But it did play against teams from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives. Mash particularly remembered a tournament played in Male where Geero Moshee had scored the lone goal that helped Tawa win the match. ‘God’s gift to Tawa in so many ways,’ a newspaper headline had trumpeted.

There was more silence. The King picked up a large piece of chocolate cake. His appetite was obviously as voracious as ever. A smile played on his lips. What was the man thinking? It didn’t matter. Mash had had enough. He wanted to go home, get some sleep, get over the jet lag and start campaigning from tomorrow. There was no point in being too friendly with the King. His father had made that mistake and he was darned if he was to repeat it. You are no different from your father, Mash wanted to tell the King. Mash was sure that if he there were to be another coup, Geero Moshee would behave in exactly the same way as the late King had done. Their fathers had known each other very well, met very often and still Geero Moshee’s father had stood by silently when his father’s democratically elected government was overthrown. Nothing had been done when his father was hanged on the basis of trumped up charges.

‘Is her highness well?’ Mash asked.  His tea cup was almost empty.  He would leave as soon as the King finished his tea. Why didn’t the King stop eating, drink his tea faster and let him leave? Mash though angrily.

‘Yes, she is fine. And both the princes are also fine.’ What about your illegitimate children? Mash was tempted to ask. Just like his father, the King had sowed his share of wild oats all over Tawa.

‘I hope your daughter adjusts to the life here. She has never been to Tawa before, has she?’

‘No your Majesty. Heather has never come to Tawa before.’

‘Even your wife, she grew up in England, didn’t she?’

‘Yes, you Majesty, she did.’ The King was nobody’s fool. It was obvious he read the newspapers and kept track of what was going on.

‘She is half English?’

‘Yes, your highness. Her mother is English.’

‘Hmmm.’ The King was silent for a while.

‘You haven’t eaten anything? Don’t you like our food anymore? If you don’t, you can have a piece of cake.’

Mash guiltily picked up a lepchee, which was a rice dumpling, filled with milk, sugar and coconut gratings. Why didn’t the King remind him to eat something a bit earlier? Mash thought angrily. Now he could not leave till he had finished his lepchee.

To be Continued


More by :  Vinod Joseph

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