When King Hardik rescued his love from the clutches of a brutal warlord and brought her home on the back of a red elephant, he had been strong and sure. Doubt had not yet crawled into the creases of his mouth. All he could see were Utpalini’s eyes, as full of diamonds as they’d been the day he’d lost her.
“You were not harmed?” he asked her many times, as though she’d open up like a river and tell him all her woes.
“I was not touched by any man,” she replied with a soft smile.
“And you never gave him your heart?”
She twisted in the saddle and pressed her palm against his chest. “It’s been with you.”
He reached down and kissed the top of her head. He had her now, safe in his arms, and he’d never let anything happen to her again.
The city cheered when they rode through the gates. Women tossed colored mukhwas that sprinkled in Utpalini’s hair and dotted the king’s shoulders in candied confetti. Children ran along beside the elephant, singing about Utpalini’s great beauty. She smiled down at them, glad to be back with her people. But amongst all the jubilation and fanfare, a single ball of spit slapped Utpalini on her cheek. She wiped it quickly away, but not before Hardik noticed and furrowed his brows. The songs, the fragrant petals, and the cries of happiness faded like chalk pictures in the rain. At last, they reached the palace, and Hardik ordered the elephant down.
While the palace prepared for a celebration, Hardik would not let go of Utpalini’s hand. They hid in the recesses of the garden, twisted together like vines until the banquet began.
“Queen Utpalini, we welcome you home,” the King’s mother, Geeta, said with a bow. She had not been in the streets, and Hardik was grateful she had not seen the spit on his wife’s cheek. Uptalini smiled in return and settled before the banquet table, silent and wide-eyed. “I have been told,” Geeta continued with narrowed eyes, “That you were held separate from the warlord’s court, alone but for the warlord himself?”
Uptalini frowned. “I was never alone.”
Geeta tapped her fingers against her lips and nodded. “I see.”
Hardik was about to say something to defend Utpalini, but the musicians began thumping on their drums just then, and the long line of dancers entered the hall. The women wore saris of gold and red, and the men leaped in the air, chests bare and glistening as they swung around the throng of women.
Hardik eyed Uptalini. She watched with a wide smile, but her chin dimpled as it did when she was trying not to cry. At last, the dancers left, the music faded away, and the people were allowed to eat.
Uptalini did not eat. She stirred her rice and pushed the bowl of paneer away. Geeta clicked her tongue in distaste, and began once more to ask too many questions.
“Mother, she is home and that is all I care about,” Hardik said.
“Is it? Do you not worry what the people in this city will think? Do you not wonder what happened in that fortress? How did she manage to survive a whole year unscathed? If not her body, then what did she offer the warlord in exchange for keeping her beauty and health?”
Uptalini set her hands on her lap before turning to Geeta. “I have returned with a clear conscience. I have done nothing that would cause me to be harshly judged in the eyes of the gods.”
One of the men to Hardik’s right leaned forward with pursed lips. “Forgive me, King Hardik, but there is much talk about this amongst the people. They wonder, naturally, how you could swallow such a pill as this, taking back a wife who has been living with another man.”
Hardik felt his body ignite. His wife had been home less than a day, and already they were judging her. “She was not living with another man. She was imprisoned in a madman’s fortress. Forty-three of my soldiers died in battle today while we fought off her captors. My wife stayed true.”
“So she says,” the man continued. “But how are we to believe the word of a woman gone from us one full year?”
The mutterings continued until they were as thick as the summer air. Hardik fumed and stared at those who dared to question his trust until he took one glance at Uptalini and saw she’d sunken into herself.
“It should be enough that I am here, that I am alive, and that I love you,” Uptalini said to him. Then she stood and faced the assembly. “If you do not believe me, then believe your king. He knows my true heart, and he believes in me.”
Then Geeta, who had been quietly watching the discussion, set down her tea with a heavy clink of enameled brass. She stood up to join Uptalini. “I am afraid, my daughter, that the people need more than the trust of a besotted king. They demand proof of your innocence.”
Uptalini opened her mouth and shut it once more.
“How could she possibly prove any such thing?” Hardik asked.
The man beside him cleared his throat and waited for silence. “There is a way that will both prove her chastity as well as purify her soul should be not be innocent.”
When he explained what it was Uptalini must do, Hardik’s stomach swirled in nausea. He believed her, so she would come to no harm. But they were asking much of her.
The sun had set when the crowd gathered, their faces lit by the reddish glow of charcoal and ember. The burning coals reflected the blood-lust in the eyes of all but Hardik and Uptalini.
The servants removed her slippers and guided her to the start of the flaming path, where Hardik stood with a vice around his heart.
“I wish you did not have to do this,” he said. He knew he sounded weak, but the people had forced his hand. There was nothing he could do. The people had demanded that Uptalini walk barefoot on the path of burning coals. If she was indeed chaste, the gods would save her. If she was not, then she’d erupt in flames. All she had to do was walk with a pure mind, and everything would be perfect again. Hardik reached out and squeezed her arm for reassurance.
Uptalini wiped a tear, forced a smile, and lifted her chin. “Then tell them you will not force me to walk across these coals.”
Hardik’s breath caught in his throat. Why was she not willing to walk? Was she trying to prevent herself from catching fire?
No, of course not. She would never have lied to him. Nevertheless, he had to prove to the unbelievers that she was loyal.
“I don’t think there’s anything I can do to make them believe you,” he said.
She nodded and took a step. Her bare toes reached forward and came to rest on a bright orange clump of coals. When there was no scream, no backward jump, no flash of fire, Hardik began to breath again. She had been telling him the truth.
Uptalini took another step, and she was out on the burning path. Quickly but surely, she walked ten more steps until she came to rest on the soft, green grass.
The crowd was frozen in silent awe, but Uptalini did not give them a moment to cry out in relief and support. She turned on her heels and faced her husband.
“I walked across those coals not to prove my words, but to show that I could not longer trust you.”
Hardik blinked. What did she mean? Of course she could trust him. He loved her.
Uptalini walked back to the edge of the coals. “It does not matter any more that I was chaste, or that I returned home with my self intact. It does not matter because you have pulled me apart with this one small strip of fire.”
Then she dove into the coals, and this time, she was not saved by the gods.
Hardik jumped into the fire and pulled her out, then dragged her to the lotus pond. Quickly, he crawled into the water with her in his arms and stayed there until he fell asleep on his feet.
The pond’s surface was elastic, so he could not push through it. As soft as it was, it stung his skin and the shock of it swept up his nerves to the place where she stayed in his memory, always defiant, always broken.
He had doused her with water, but he had been too late.
(This story was based on the tale of Sita.)