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Read about Ancient Ways of Mythical Lands in Usha Alexander’s the Legend of Virinara

Many books talk about the days gone by, and a lot of Indian literature is focused on the ancient systems and stories. However, the tale of Virinara and its rulers is not based on historical facts, but rather on a story that resonates deeply with the present and the reality of humanity.

"I collected shells from the sandy shores, each one a flawless, miniature sculpture, and chased sideways little creatures across the beach, watching them vanish into bubbly, sodden little hideaways in the sand when I came near."

An extraordinary story of epic proportions, it combines vivid and cinematic period details with rich characters in a well-paced plot. Through an unlikely love story, a tragic conflict between two groups, and a riveting interplay of hope and despair, it reveals timeless truths about human beings.

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Read an excerpt from The Legend of Virinara by Usha Alexander here:

Resting near me, Chiruma-akrima now unfolded a wide leather cloth, laying it across her lap to reveal a short length of antler and a sharpened stone, which she proceeded to examine carefully. As we sat quietly, she concentrated upon her fine work, gently and strategically pressing the tip of the antler against the stone. Fine flakes of the stone broke into her hands with each push. Seeing my curious fascination, she explained, ‘This is for scraping leather.’ She held up the sharpened edge of the stone. ‘We Gonara make fine leathers. It’s in our blood.’

I nodded, remarking that the leather skirt she wore was as strong and supple as any I’d seen, its surface intricately incised with a fine pattern of flowing and geometric shapes. I watched her work for some time, the firm precision of her hands, working just so to create an ever-sharper edge along the scraper. As she examined her work, I asked, ‘How is it that Guruji—Keekar- guruji belongs to Malka House?’

‘He’s my brother—my mother’s sister’s son,’ she said, without looking up.

‘I don’t understand. I thought he grew up in Muridugu—a Virina village. I know of his brothers and sister there; I’ve been their benefactor on occasion.’

Chiruma-akrima laughed softly. ‘Yes, he had two brothers and a sister in that village where he was born.’ She whispered a chant and blew superstitiously along the edge of her blade before pausing to look at me. ‘You see, when Keekar was still inside his mother’s belly, she ran away from us. She took her daughter by the hand—eight years elder to Keekar—and she ran off to live among the Settlers and marry a Settler man. And so Keekar was born there in Muridugu.’ I was charmed by the way she pronounced Muridugu. ‘But his sister, Nrushi, she hated living there among the Settlers. Nrushi was a proud girl and she never forgave her mother for dragging her away from here into the filth and pestilence of Muridugu. Soon afterward, she ran away from her mother and returned to live with us here, in her true home.’

‘Keekar-guruji has a real sister here in Gunrumi?’ I exclaimed. Nalliti appeared bearing a wide, shallow basket laden with bananas, coconut flesh and a bladder of water.

‘He had. Nrushi passed away some years ago.’ Chiruma- akrima paused, perhaps remembering her sister. ‘She was proud and strong and defiant—like her mother, perhaps.’

‘Like her brother,’ I said, and we smiled together at this. I helped myself to the proffered refreshment.

Chiruma-akrima turned again to her work. But she continued with her tale, her voice lilting in a storytelling singsong, punctuated by the staccato crack of stone. ‘Nrushi missed her baby brother and despaired for him. Life among the Settlers was humiliation, she said, where every day they were made to swim in the poison of their servility to those who claimed a higher birth and privilege. Finally, Nrushi went back to her mother and took little Keekar away from Muridugu. And in that way, Keekar grew up with his head in both worlds— yours and ours—living here in Gunrumi but returning often to Muridugu to be with his mother and those siblings who were of her Settler husband.’

‘But why did his mother run away from here?’

Chiruma-akrima shrugged. ‘No one really knows. Keekar has never explained nor condemned nor excused her to us. But she ran away in anger and she was forbidden to return. Her voice is lost from this story.’ Chiruma-akrima sighed. She examined her blade again, chanting over it and blowing upon it. ‘You have to remember it was the time of the Great Drought. A very bad time. The forest game had all but vanished. The fish rivers ran low. We couldn’t grow our gardens. In every village, children’s bellies bloated. People died or lived as ghosts without eating. Many people left during those days; many went to join Settler villages to take up whatever work they could do in exchange for food. In that way, her story wasn’t so unusual.’

‘I know of the Great Drought,’ I said. ‘Our stories tell of that time too. But why would Gontu folk come to Virinara at that time? Even my people were suffering then.’

‘It seems that you didn’t suffer quite as we did—this is what we heard. We Gontu had nothing. Your people had at least something.’

‘I suppose that was true,’ I said, imagining how it must’ve been. ‘The raja at the time—my great-grandfather—is said to have done well by his people. He knew of hardship from his own childhood and so during his long reign, he dug many wells and rain tanks throughout the land and he kept many of them stocked with fish. He kept great stores of rice and pulses in case of war or floods or famine. And during the drought, near the end of his reign, the country depended upon these provisions. They rationed what they had, distributing it as needed. In this way, they managed to get by.’

A sharp look came into Chiruma-akrima’s eyes, as I said this, a mixture of surprise and suspicion—or was it envy? Nalliti, who had for some time been quietly crouched by a steaming cooking pot nearby the longhouse, looked up with keen interest at what I said.

‘I see,’ said Chiruma-akrima. ‘So this is how your people overcame the drought.’

‘And of course some crops still grew, wherever irrigation from the river could reach.’

‘So. But here we were hungry no matter what penance or offerings we made. Even our forest spirits were dying.’ She paused and studied me curiously. ‘Those who ran begging to your villages did eat—but the humiliations they suffered! The daily indignities. Not everyone was willing to pay that price.’

‘What do you mean, Chiruma-akrima?’

‘They were forced to kneel and grovel in your villages. Even Keekar’s own mother—a gifted artisan of leather—she wasn’t allowed to move freely through the village. She had to step off the walkway whenever certain people appeared. She was beaten for speaking up to one of these. Children threw pebbles at her when she came near to their houses.’ Chiruma-akrima stopped speaking as she noticed the appalled look upon my face. ‘What? Do you deny that this is the life of a leather worker in your villages?’

‘I—I don’t deny . . . Chiruma-akrima, in my life, I’ve never met nor seen a leather worker. I can hardly stand to think that Keekar-guruji suffered this treatment in his childhood.’

‘This is why Nrushi brought him to grow up here with us. He loved his mother and his mother’s husband was kind to him. But visiting his mother there in Muridugu filled Keekar with venom as a boy. That’s why even he finally ran away for forty years, travelling far and wide.’

These selected portions have been excerpted from The Legend of Virinara, published by Penguin Random House India.

Usha Alexander is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, Only the Eyes Are Mine (2005). An American of Indian parentage, she now resides in India, where she spends time travelling and learning the intricacies of its deep history. Her outlook is also influenced by her background in science and anthropology.

Her travel writings and other essays have appeared in various publications, including Even the Smallest Crab Has Teeth and The Best Travel Writing, 2007. Since 2013, she resides with her partner, writer and photographer Namit Arora, in the National Capital Region of India. Usha has lived in four different countries and has learned to carry her home within herself.

You can buy The Legend of Virinara here.

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