The little girl had run out of the palace gardens again. The maid sighed as she stepped out of the cool shade, muttering to herself about having to run after her ward in the blazing sun. Her back wasn’t getting any better, and she felt her bones creak with every step, but thankfully her mind stayed quick and nimble. She knew where she would find her little princess.
Sita smiled as the sweat trickled down her brow while she out-ran her mates. Some of the boys were taller than her, but she had picked up this trick of changing track suddenly and hence could dart out of their reach while they struggled to catch her. She could sense that the boys chasing her were tiring, and she turned around and started running backwards, to tease them. “Faster, you idiot. Are you lame like your father?” she mocked, feeling a strange thrill at mouthing such uncouth language which she had learnt from her best friend, a daughter of one of the palace’s maids.
“Lame he might be, but at least I have a real father. They say the king just picked you up from some place, and that you are not his daughter” the boy sneered.
Sita charged at him, her fists bunched up tight, and punched him hard on his face. As he fell back in shock, she turned and darted back towards the garden, passing the old maid in a blur.
The maid sighed again, this time partly in relief since she was headed back to the shade of the garden, and slowly started back. She was surprised that her princess was done with her play session so early, since Sita usually spent all waking hours outside in the filth in spite of her repeated threats that the sun and the dust would burn her fair skin.
“Come here, little princess, you should stop running like that. Soon, you will be married and become a queen, it’s time you learnt to walk gracefully.”
“I don’t want to be queen. I want to be like these boys, to wrestle in the mud, to shoot arrows, to dive in the river...”
“Those violent games are for those street urchins. A high-born princess like you should be learning to sing, to converse with poise and to walk with dignity. ”
“Who said only boys can have fun with violent games? Besides, they say I am an orphan, not some high born princess.”
The maid took but an instant to recover from her shocked silence before asking who had dared call the princess of Mithila an orphan, and how she would get the king to cut their tongues for such blasphemy. Sita noticed that initial hesitant silence, and knew that her words had struck a nerve. She hadn’t believed her playmates, had thought they were just teasing her since she was better than them at their stupid games. But her maid’s confused silence, followed by the loud denial had just confirmed the bitter truth. At the court, I am the princess of Mithila, daughter of mighty King Janaka, but in reality, I am but an orphan.
She clenched her fists and bit her lower lip, the way she always did when she was angry. Her nails dug into her palm, the physical pain somehow diverting her mind from the emotional wound. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she turned and ran, as if in a trance. Her maid started after Sita, took two steps before her aged knees buckled and gave up all thoughts of following her. Again, the maid knew where she could find Sita.
And as usual, she found Sita sitting in the trench with her back against one of its mud-walls, knees bent up to her chin, her face hidden against her hands trying to muffle her sobs. The maid backed away, knowing the child would calm down, as she always did when she sat in her favourite place. “A princess who has golden thrones embedded with rubies and emeralds, and she still chooses this hole in the ground” mused the maid, “Maybe because this was where she was found.”