IT IS said that somewhere in Maharashtra, not so long ago, and in a land not so far away from the famous city of Mumbai, there lived a King who no longer ruled his kingdom. As is so often the case with old-world power surviving in a democracy, his kingdom had long ago been lost to corrupt government officers and more recently to young businessmen in fancy suits who were buying the land off desperate farmers who could no longer live off their farming because of extensive droughts and inflated prices. With little wealth and no kingdom left, the King had only his castle to reign over, which itself was old and crumbling from 30 years of monsoons and negligence. A few servants remained, Shali ma and her limping husband Jeetu, along with their strong but brainless son who knew only how to start fights and not how to end them. They had remained in the castle simply because they had food and shelter, a luxury which most could no longer guarantee in a country overpopulated and ridden with poverty. These servants considered themselves lucky to be under the mercy of a demanding and senile King simply because he provided them with the security of four walls and three meals a day. Of course, the servants made fun of him and never took him seriously, so his madness was bearable.
The King, however, was not completely powerless and had one asset under his rule. One on whom he had placed all his bets and who simultaneously drove him to the madness from which he now suffered. It was his only daughter. At the moment of her birth, his beloved wife and Queen took her last breath and it is said that the King was left in a state of melancholy ever since. So devastated was he at his loss that he refused to see the newborn baby, locking himself into a room with a new bottle of whiskey every night. He had been negligent to the point that one day Shali ma had to remind him that the girl had not been named. On that day, he happened to be listening to a music CD gifted to him by a French traveller, and the song playing was called Laeticia, so he dribbled out the name dismissively and thus the baby had been given the uncommon name Laeticia.
The child learnt to be very quiet in order not to anger her ever-unnerved father and soon she had stopped speaking altogether. But what she lacked in speech she made up for in beauty until the King was forced to take notice of the little gem he had in his ownership. As she transformed from a little girl to a woman, for some mystifying reason, and to the King’s exasperation, the more beautiful she grew with every passing year, the less she seemed to smile, animate or react at all until finally, Laeticia, was quite simply… dead. By dead, it was not that she had no breath or blood running through her body, but simply that her heart was a block of ice. Her eyes were so hard that if you looked at them for more than a few seconds you would leave feeling utterly depressed and hopeless. The girl had such an effect that young, hot-blooded men who would approach her with lust in their hearts, ran away shivering when they came close enough to look into her eyes. The servant boy who had enough strength in his body to break Laeticia into two, became limp and weak in her presence and he soon learnt to chase the ordinary village girls whose giggles and shy glances made him feel manly and strong again. The women of the area would say that Laeticia was a witch who tried to trap their young husbands with her beauty only to consume them and leave them dry of their fertility, for it was true that men who came too close to Laeticia were unable to go back to their wives for many months after. Even Shali ma, who had brought Laeticia up like her own daughter, could not bear to stay in the same room as the girl for more than a few minutes, saying it made her want to hang herself from the high ceiling fan in the sitting room.
THE KING now for several years had been driving himself and everyone around him mad because he had hoped to marry Laeticia off to a rich young prince or at least a Bollywood star, in order to secure his rapidly dwindling finances. However, Laeticia’s reputation for being a cold-hearted witch preceded her infamously, and the country was a superstitious one, so many suitors did not bother making the journey to the castle to meet her and the few who did, ran away with their heads down and their souls disheartened, cursing the King for making them travel so far for such a block of ice. When the King summoned his daughter for an explanation, Laeticia herself gave no defence, remaining silent and unresponsive. The King, in his increasing desperation and madness, had finally come up with a strange but intriguing solution. He hired one of the famous local businessmen to build him a giant glass tower. The people of the area were now quite certain that this King had gone completely mad, for he had placed most of his remaining wealth into the seemingly meaningless construction. The tower was shaped like a giant bell and stood on top of a platform that was tall enough to stand above the castle walls and over his former kingdom. Just as the bizarre construction had begun losing its novelty, the King did something that brought the whole state to attention. He placed Laeticia on the platform and had the giant glass bell lowered on top of it and sealed so that she was trapped inside it. There was only a small groove at the bottom of the platform and everyday Shali ma would slip Laeticia meals through this groove.
The tower could be seen from far and wide, and Laeticia’s beauty was such that it did not take long for the tower to become a popular attraction and many visitors paid for the expensive tickets to see Laeticia from within the castle grounds, ‘up close and personal’ as the signboard at the entrance of the castle advertised. The King sourly but greedily collected his money and tried to console himself by buying Laeticia the royal luxuries that she never had while growing up. Through the groove, he had Shali ma squeeze exquisite handmade saris, ornaments, jewels and dresses from around the world that only made Laeticia more beautiful and attractive for her onlookers. Of course, the King also allowed himself some of the simple pleasures of modern life such as the satellite dish he got put up above his roof connected to a TV that distracted his heavy conscience with its flashing pictures and loud noises.