“She will be amongst the best French speakers of the land, my lord.”

The confidence in Jose de Pray’s voice was in stark contrast to his lean frame. The frailty of his body betrayed the sufferings he had endured during strenuous journeys through hostile territories, but his voice still maintained its gravitas. The arduous passage from Puducherry to Ramanathapuram had soiled his white robe. A man of limited monetary means, de Pray had no choice but to present himself in a rather shabby manner to his potential employer. Nonetheless, his reputation as a Jesuit priest held him in good stead and commanded the attention of Raghunatha Sethupathi, the ruler of Ramanathapuram.

The king of Ramanathapuram echoed de Pray’s comments and made his intentions clear. “I expect no less. The princess of Ramanathapuram, the scion of the Sethupathi clan, my daughter Velu Nachiyar will grow to become the best French speaker in the land. Under your tutelage, my Velu should have a firm command over the language. After all, she will have to someday negotiate with the French on trade and commerce.”

Jose de Pray’s eyes glistened in agreement. “And she will be, my lord. The princess, with her exceptional linguistic skills, will surprise even the French in Puducherry.”

Satisfied with de Pray’s conviction, Raghunatha Sethupathi declared, “Good! I hereby appoint you tutor to my daughter. You may begin teaching her on a day recommended by our astrologers. The treasury will pay your wages. You will also be given your own personal lodging in the palace until my daughter’s education is complete. You may leave now.”

Thanking the king, Jose de Pray walked out of the durbar of the Ramanathapuram palace. He was the last person to have been granted audience with the king that evening. As he stepped out onto the open courtyard, de Pray witnessed the native soldiers practise a drill of the ancient martial art known as silambam. As the soldiers swung long bamboo sticks in a coordinated manner, he watched them, fascinated, having set his eyes on the technique for the first time.

Soon, a courtier came by to escort the priest to his new quarters.

Meanwhile, in the durbar, Raghunatha Sethupathi had barely resumed his position on the throne when another courtier entered.

“My lord, the queen requests your presence. She is waiting for you in her quarters.”

Raghunatha Sethupathi was not a man to keep his beloved wife waiting.

Muthathal Nachiyar was finishing up her letters when a young female courtier ushered the king inside. Turning towards him, the queen of Ramanathapuram began, “I hear you have appointed a Frenchman to tutor Velu.”

“Yes, dear. One of the very best.”

Muthathal Nachiyar rose from her chair. Even though she was of average height, she looked slight compared to her tall husband. Her neck was bedecked with many necklaces that rested on her bosom, but it was her nose ring that would catch anyone’s attention. For her small, stubby nose, it was disproportionately large.

“I understand teaching her the arts of combat and warfare isnecessary, as she is the daughter of a warrior. I am also proud that she is learning to wield our traditional weapons – the valari and silambam sticks. I beam with pride when I see her riding horses. She is, after all, a daughter of the Sethupathi clan. I am all for this education being imparted to her by pundits far and wide. I fully concur with you that she must learn the language of the Muslims up north. But pray, why are you bringing in the English and the French to teach her those traders’ languages?”

Raghunatha Sethupathi replied with a smile, “The English and the French are more than traders, dear. They have powerful armies and the best weaponry. I haven’t seen anyone overcome their advanced battle tactics. Both have brokered power with the Mughals and the Marathas and seem to have limitless resources. They are now trying to forge an empire of their own and so will play a key role in the future of these lands. I don’t want our Velu to be caught unaware by the machinations of these people. By helping her learn their languages, we will be doing her a most important favour.”

Muthathal Nachiyar sighed. “But she is just five years old.”

“She is far more capable than any child her age. Velu will do just fine. Moreover, this is crucial, given our changing times. It is our responsibility to equip her for the uncertain future that lies ahead.”

Excerpted with permission from Warrior Queen of Sivaganga: The Legend of Rani Velu Nachiyar, Shubendra, PanMacmillan India.