Dashrath held the grape against the light filtering in through the playhouse curtains. It looked almost transparent. After making sure he had the undivided attention of baby Rama sitting on his left thigh, Dashrath moved it to the young prince’s mouth.
Rama opened his mouth wide. Dashrath quickly put the grape in his own mouth and chewed into it with an overdone show of relish. Rama gurgled with laughter.
The king took another grape and did the same, teasing Rama to the last moment and then throwing the grape into his own mouth. Rama laughed again and opened his mouth wide.
He was doing it a third time when Kaushalya walked in. “That is just cruel,” she said.
“You don’t get it,” said Dashrath. He turned a bit so Kaushalya could see the baby’s face better and did the whole thing again.
He turned to face her, “See?”
“I can’t believe you just did that again,” said Kaushalya.
Dashrath shook his head impatiently, “I tried this with Bharat some days past. After two times he hit me in the face with a toy or something.”
Dashrath rubbed his nose and continued, “This one does nothing. Why?”
“I don’t know,” said Kaushalya and put a finger to her cheek in mock thoughtfulness. “We have a retard in the royal family?”
Rama carefully climbed down his father’s lap and started crawling towards his three cousins, sitting in the middle of toys at the centre of the large room.
“Stop joking around,” said Dashrath. “There is something about Rama that I can’t quite put my finger on.”
He noticed the confusion on Kaushalya’s face and added, “It is something innate. He is immensely patient. He will make a good king, for his patience will bring him his people’s respect.”
Perhaps because Dashrath never really got around to spending time with the children, Kaushalya felt these were not the words of a doting father. She swelled with just a little pride.
She looked at the children — already the darlings of the entire kingdom — playing with toys a fond carpenter family had gifted only a week ago. She didn’t think the carpenters cared much for Rama’s patience with grapes.
“I have been thinking,” she said. “Ayodhya has been fortunate to have had kings that have been much loved. The people have always loved the royal family.”
“And?” Dashrath raised a brow.
“But would they have chosen us if they had a choice?”
Dashrath pondered this for a moment, then said, “Who else would they choose?”
Kaushalya sat down next to him and explained, “Imagine there were contenders for the throne. Maybe more than two. And the people got to choose who would be the king. If one of those contenders was a prince, would they choose him?”
Dashrath wasn’t entirely at home with the concept yet. “You are implying these other contenders would not be from the royal family?”
“But who?” Dashrath wanted to get this.
“I don’t know. Merchants maybe. Noblemen or warriors even. Maybe even a sage. Gods know they are popular.”
Dashrath nodded. They were quiet for a while. Some distance away, the princes conversed in uncomplicated monosyllables. Rama picked up a wooden elephant and shook it happily. Bharat stopped unhinging a wooden chariot’s wheels and wailed at the top of his voice. The elephant was his.
Rama’s face fell for an instant, then he smiled and extended the elephant towards Bharat, who took it. Shatrughan, scared silent by Bharat’s wailing, pushed all his toys towards him and crawled away. Rama crawled in the other direction. Lakshman stayed where he was for a moment, then reached a decision and followed Rama.
Dashrath said, “I don’t see how anything like that could come to pass. What if the people choose an undesirable, a criminal?
“Why would the people choose a criminal? The noonday sun seems to be affecting your head,” Kaushalya threw out her hands.
Dashrath shrugged and they were silent for a while again. Then he saw young Shatrughan sitting at the room’s far corner with a panic-stricken expression. The attentions of the daasi weren’t achieving much. Bharat was still crying and Rama and Lakshman were wrestling in the other corner.
Bharat crawled to Kaushalya and instantly calmed down when she picked him up. Dashrath went over to Shatrughan and dismissed the daasi. He waited a while to make sure the daasi was out of earshot before making an attempt at monosyllabic pep talk.
“Look Bharat,” Kaushalya whispered to the stubborn prince. “There is a retard in the royal family after all.”