This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
The Corridor of Queens
“. . . Do not call me Kirti!” Kitty shouted over her shoulder as she slammed the door and walked out into the sunlit concrete steps that led to the street.
This was a little unusual, even for a Sunday routine in the Mehta house. Kitty’s mother would begin the day with an insistence on the entire family’s attending her morning puja, the ritualistic worship she conducted before an array of framed pictures and little statues in a corner of the living room as it met the kitchen. Mr. Mehta had installed a few specially cut shelves for the gods’ repose and Mrs. Mehta had bought special red velvet cloths from Omkar Industries, the shop that sold all things religious. The gods sat contentedly in their corner, monitoring the sunrise as it entered the house, watching the goings-on of the Mehta household with an unchanging demeanor and their typical Sphinx-like half-smile.
The ritual itself felt strange and awkward to Kitty, no matter that she had been forced into it ever since she could remember, and probably even before. The family stood behind Mrs. Mehta and did their best to keep up with her stucco voice she reserved for chanting the shlokas. Finally, there was the aarti, and Mrs. Mehta’s puja plate with its flowers and little diya lamp sketched luminous circles before the gods and the attendees clapped their hands to keep time. Once the aarti was sung, the puja was concluded and everyone got a bite of jaggary and ghee. Kitty, the oldest of the Mehta children, was expected to set an example to follow for the younger children and it was to her mother’s unending grief that her oldest daughter refused point-blank to be a devout Hindu. The older Mrs. Mehta, Mr. Mehta’s mother, on her annual visits to their house, always clucked her tongue in sympathy and censure every time Kitty rolled her eyes at the puja or pretended deep sleep (and clear disinterest) during the night time stories from Hindu mythology.
Today was Dushera, one of the high holy days and the family was to spend the rest of the day at the local temple. The festivities were to start soon, with performances of parts from the Ramayana, especially the part where Rama destroys the demon, Ravan and rescues his wife, Sita. The children had been practicing for weeks and the word was that the volunteers had outdone themselves this year with the decorations and food. Mrs. Mehta, who could not suppress her excitement of the festival, hurried everyone along, so they would get decent seats for the performances that would end in burning of an effigy of Ravan, filled with fire-crackers, something that always delighted and alarmed the children. Kitty’s brother was to play Rama this year, and he had been practicing his skill with the bow and arrow so that the arrow would not miss Ravan tonight and fall limply at his own feet. Mrs. Mehta was very proud, of course and her bustling this year was shot with extra electricity.
Kitty did not want to go and therein lay her mother’s renewed grief. She wanted to attend a Halloween party that Shania, the coolest girl in 7th grade, was throwing tonight. She and her mother had consequently been shouting and grumbling since morning, when Kitty emerged from her room dressed in black shorts and her old Patriots T-shirt.
“What are you wearing!” Mrs. Mehta exclaimed, “Today is Dushera! How can you . . . Go fast and change into something decent. What about that salwar-suit your Nanima gave you for your birthday? That’s pretty!”
“Why would I wear Nanima’s suit to a Halloween party? I am not going to the temple! It is boring!” Kitty rejoined.
“What you say? Boring? Listening, Pappaji?” Mrs. Mehta moaned, soliciting Mr. Mehta’s support, “Listening to your daughter or what? No respect only! This is our religion, No?”
“Maybe I would respect you and your religion more if you would respect my choices, Ma!” Kitty shouted back. “Why do you want to push religion down my throat? I am an American; I want to exercise my choices! And I choose Halloween today!”
Mrs. Mehta collapsed into the sofa she had been standing next to and began weeping with sincerity now.
“Ah! I have lost my child! She won’t visit temple on Dushera! All American she is become now! Hey Rama! It is all up to You now!”
“Oh stop, Ma!” Kitty said, exasperated, “And Rama cannot choose for me! All these religion-things are just stories, Ma, stories! They are not real!”
“Beta, these very stories . . .” Mrs. Mehta began.
But Kitty interrupted her, “And what stories! Why couldn’t we have the normal princess-fairy-tale stories for our bedtime? Why these strange and weird stories with names and places no one can pronounce?”
She shook her head.
“No, Ma! I am tired of all this! I want a normal life! I cannot understand the goody-goody wife that this Sita is, or why Rama is worshipped when he treats his goody-goody wife so abysmally, or why it’s ok for Radha to have an affair with her crush but I am not allowed to have boyfriends, or what is the big deal about frying an iron berry? How can ANY normal person relate to such things? They have nothing to do with real life!”
“But Kirti . . .” Mrs. Mehta began, using Kitty’s given name. But Kitty hated the extra “R” in her name and had re-named herself in first grade. Mrs. Mehta’s insistence on using that strange name was the last straw.
“Do not call me Kirti, Ma,” She shouted and huffed out of the house.
It was a bright October day, a gift, it seemed, from the dreary season. Even here, in Florida, the supposedly Sunshine State, the sun was often not seen for days as most Fall and Winter days would be cloudy. But not today!
“After all, it IS Dushera!” Kitty murmured to herself.
It was hours before Shania’s party and Kitty was not going back into the house she had just left in a huff. She walked around a bit and found herself at the Museum next to the public library. This library was one of her favorite places and she started to enter it when she saw the Dragon Lady at the Front Desk that doubled as a Reference Center. Kitty owed the library fines and this Lady was likely to bellow about it.
And so she turned to the Museum.
It was deserted at this hour in the morning. The old caretaker was dusting the front lobby when Kitty tried to open the doors. But they were locked. The Museum was scheduled to open in an hour. But Kitty must have looked dejected, because the old man unlocked the door and ushered her in.
“Just getting ready, you see?” He said, in his old-man shaky voice, “New exhibit opens today, you see?”
“Oh?” Kitty said absently.
“Oh yes, you see, to honor the Hindoo New Year.” Then he peered at her and asked, “You are a Hindoo?”
“Oh I don’t know!” She replied.
“Well. Feel free, you see. Go on. Real beautiful things and paintings. Real pretty queens,” He said.
“Queens? What queens?” Asked Kitty.
“Go on. You’ll see. They got a section in there. Corridor of Queens. Real pretty pictures. Go on,” he said.
“Thanks!” Kitty said as she stepped into the cool interior with thoughtfully placed lighting. The first room was the main exhibit. There were puja things, very similar to the ones at home, placed on pedestals with special lighting to highlight their nature and purpose. In the next room, there were paintings and photographs of people celebrating various holidays. The third room held art relating to mythological characters and events. This room was called the Corridor of Queens, as a great deal of the art had mythological women as subjects.
The muted lighting and quiet of the Museum had begun to affect Kitty and she no longer felt angry and distressed. The recognition of the puja items in the first exhibit made her heart cringe a little, as she remembered Mrs. Mehta’s distress earlier that morning. It was a festival day and she, Kitty, had to choose this day to highlight and repeat her feelings about the faith that Mrs. Mehta was trying to convey to her children.
Kitty shook her head and walked on. She saw the uncomplicated joy on people’s faces as they celebrated Holi; the indescribable calm and light on the face of a woman lighting a diya for Diwali; the intense concentration on the face of the youth aiming for the 12-foot Ravan effigy’s neck. She thought to herself that even though faith (of any domination) may mean nothing to her, it was a real thing for these people in the photographs. She trusted Physics, Chemistry, Biology, while these people, like her mother, trusted something they could not see or even understand, like she understood the principles of Sciences and Mathematics.
“The things people choose to fool themselves with!” Kitty thought to herself. She was sure that at any time in her life that she’d have to make choices, she would not think of divinities. She would think empirically, logically, and then make her choice. She’d not be the one to waste her precious morning moments in puja rituals and the hollow chanting of shlokas! She’d not be the one to force her children into a religion they didn’t like and couldn’t feel kinship with!
Kitty was still shaking her head as she entered the third exhibit. Here the lighting was even lower than in the other two rooms. The walls on both sides seemed to stand up only to support the delicate miniature paintings. The light scones around each painting were calculated to cause the least damage to the work itself, yet highlight its features and colors to their utmost. The darkness around each painting helped the viewer focus on the work and its subject, to the exclusion of the world around.
Unconsciously, Kitty slowed down her steps and thoughts. She looked around, trying to adjust to the new darkness. She turned to the first painting, the first bit of light in the mistiness of the room.
The title simply said, “Sita.”
There was something dignified about the figure of the woman who sat under the tree, seemingly deep in thought. She had the dignity of long suffering, with the air of someone is determined to keep speaking in spite of being continually misunderstood. The tree she sat beneath was in flower, but the flowers strewn around her were lotus blossoms, not from the tree. The sight of the lotus seemed to calm the woman, yet the viewer was conscious of unshed tears and a hint of crease on the forehead. A couple of fingers that rested on her bent knee were raised, as though she had just begun to reach for the lotus. She had a simple ornament on her brow, but otherwise, her arms, neck, and ankles were bare. It was difficult to identify the exact part of the epic depicted in the picture; Sita could be sitting in a forest in her father’s kingdom of Mithila, or in Panchvati during her exile with Rama, in Ravan’s garden after her abduction from Rama, or in the forests of her final exile from Ayodhya.
Kitty found herself transfixed by the peace and grief on Sita’s face. As she looked at the portrait, Sita reached for the lotus, picked one up and brought it to her face to inhale its fragrance. Then she looked up at Kitty and smiled.
“Thank you for the flowers,” Sita said.
“But I didn’t . . .” Kitty started to say.
But Sita had begun speaking and would tell her story yet one more time.
An ocean of mercy, you may be worshipped as God
But Ram, you cannot measure up to Sitaji
(Translation of a Gujarati Bhajan)
Thank you for the flowers! Your thoughtfulness is much appreciated and I love the blossoms, but I am getting tired of all this whining and complaining, and against my husband’s better judgment, I am going to break my stony silence. I am no perfect wife, and I wouldn’t know one if I met her. I cannot always understand the adulation I receive for being the archetype of the perfect wife.
A perfect wife is made, not born, and I wish everyone would stop questioning my husband for the way I was treated. We were humans, and at every crossroad, made our choices as human beings, not as archetypes that we are now worshipped as! I am queen before I am wife, and my husband is king before he is husband; please desist in judging him for banishing his wife because a wife-beater of a launderer used his choices to justify his! My husband is no gossip; he is the most tolerant, the kindest man I know.
That smile you see sketched across the face on this idol is more a grimace born of tolerating what I usually don’t tolerate well: people judging others’ choices without understanding the circumstances. Every individual should have a chance of defending what they did; why not give my husband’s voice a chance? But I know my husband. He will not speak; he will bow his head and let you heap all your condemnations on his already heavy heart. Can’t you hear my teeth gnashing behind my marble lips? Is the brittle brilliance of my gem-gilded eyes completely lost on you? These royal saris, heavy gold weigh and scratch my stone body more than the flea-ridden deerskin and rude hemp ever did my human flesh; the constant scrutiny of the pedestal is harder than enduring wilderness. I am grateful for the idol of my husband beside me. It is company, of sorts.
I must confess a marked fondness for flowers and have never been happier than watching them grow in our garden in Chitrakut, the only place I really think of as my home, our cottage carved out of bewitching wilderness.
I remember one foggy dawn, waking up to the fragrance of parijatak that Rama had strewn around my sleeping head, as a joke, a love-play he has always been so good at.
What? It shocks you that a woman who personifies all that is docile and biddable in a Hindu wife dares let her husband’s name pass her lips? Rama, Rama, Rama! That’s all I’ve always called him; I know of no higher endearment.
And don’t listen to all the talk about our missing the courtly life, the comforts of being urbane royalty. That mantle sat unfittingly on us. As royal children, we grew up in gurukuls, in forests, serving our ascetic teachers and their families. We had to leave our palace homes for ashrams, until we were pronounced ready; forests are our learning grounds. So getting used to the forest life, tending to our own needs, these were not unfamiliar tasks to us.
I do not mean to say that our forest years were some kind of sylvan retreat; on the contrary! It is one thing not to wish for luxuries of urban courts and another to carve one’s way through darkness, without knowing if one is going to reach a welcome fire by the time the unimaginable darkness descends. The things I’d taken for granted in the court life I’d so claimed to abhor, stood out in stark relief in the forest. I had to take care to place my steps exactly where Rama had stepped. We would begin our trek in the morning, armed with little more than berries and rough breads from an ashram, and by the time noon was past, self would pour into my feet, and the rest of me would become an automaton, counting breath in, step, breath out, step, so that even my mind shut down. Often, evenings found us too far from an ashram, and the minute my feet gave way to drop me onto a rock in the clearing Laxman had made, then my mind would suddenly come awake, rushing, racing, trying to sort out a meal. The hardest lesson for me in the forest was that unless I gathered, mixed, boiled, kneaded and baked, I would not eat.
So even though I did not miss the delicacies of my royal plate, or the silks of my courtly wardrobe, I did miss the comforts of civilization. In fact, my very definition of civilization fell apart and has been reconstructed, thanks to the forest years. So when I returned to Ayodhya, the opulence of courtly life, the political games, the way dun colored people were treated, all of it isolated me more on my return from the forest than it had before.
I, the earth-born, had always been more comfortable in home-spun cloth than the finery the court life demanded of me. My skin tone, unlike that of my sisters’ and court ladies, is earthier, and all those colors, textures, and jewels only brought out the contrast between my darkness and the fairer skin for which they were designed. However, once married to the prince apparent, no matter what I’d prefer to be, no matter how I’d prefer to be clothed, I’d be expected to give up my preferences and be willing to don whatever would be needed to be an active participant in the daily intrigues and politics of courtly life, expected to maintain my own quarters in the palace, quarters to which my husband, after a decent period following the wedding, would be a visitor.
This was truer of Ayodhya, where the court was more urbane than in Mithila. My father, who adored me, had let me build tree houses, enjoy archery, chess, and poetry to my heart’s content, much to the clucking annoyance of the entire bevy of nurses and ladies-in-waiting who saw to proper deportment of princesses like my sisters and me.
And Rama knew of my aversion to finery, my disgust of complex niceties, my discomfort with court intrigue. Actually, the main problem I had with court life had little to do with clothes or politeness. The main problem was that urbanity of the courts included involvement with court ladies. All those intrigues used flirtations as a veneer for politics and power. Being married did not imply that the husband would retain interest in his wife; it was a sign of masculinity to have numerous dalliances. It was rare to meet a lord who had only one wife; in fact, Rama’s father, the king, had three wives! This practice ensured the king’s seed shared through the kingdom, and it was the expected behavior of princes that they would spread themselves quite generously. The wives these lords married maintained their own households, separate from each other, tolerated each other, and treated their husband with measured affection, eyed their husbands’ dalliances with indulgence and acceptance.
As heir apparent, Rama was often the vortex of alliances. Proposals of marriage to princesses of neighboring kingdoms and principalities were a weekly matter. However, Rama always maintained that marriages should not be confused with state policies, and countered those offers with a diplomatic conference instead, suggesting a list of issues that could benefit travel and trade relations without acquiring wives and as Laxman eloquently put it, “crowding the household.” Rama was careful of everyone’s dignity in these delicate matters and spent agonizing hours on proper phraseology.
Once a year of festivals had followed our wedding, Lady Padma, the acclaimed courtesan, invited Rama to a game of Astapada, a clear indication of her interest in the prince. Lady Padma also happened to wield substantial power in diplomacy, since she regularly hosted traveling dignitaries. She knew that Rama and his brothers sought to expand kingdom boundaries, unite all the land so that the lowest member of the farthest tribe may take peace and justice for granted. This ideal was well-known across the land and made the Ayodhya princes well-loved by the populace. So you see, it would not be politic to refuse Lady Padma’s invitation.
Rama accepted the Lady’s invitation and set to work. The four brothers spent most of their time learning intricacies of the game from their mothers’ palaces, and the precise way to wording conditions from their sage-teacher, the raj guru, Vishwamitra, all in preparation of the evening. The day before, Rama went over his strategy with me: he was going to suggest a set of four games, and a request for a conference with a diplomat if he won. If he lost this set of games, he would have to agreeably spend a month in Lady Padma’s quarters.
Later, when Rama returned triumphant from the game, we heard the whole story from Laxman: how the Lady had used distractions on Rama, beginning with a rhyming repartee, graduating to elaborate poetic meter complimenting the many qualities of her quarry (Rama, in this instance). But no matter what manipulation she employed, Rama would not be distracted from his game-strategy, Laxman excitedly exclaimed. Rama succeeded in sustaining conversation with the Lady, without letting his mind stray from the game.
“I was so tense! I thought that the Lady would be displeased with Rama’s concentration! Father would not like the Lady displeased. So we all were afraid!” Laxman told Urmila and me, as Rama sat quietly, smiling his slight tug of a smile. Urmila is my younger sister, the one I am closest to. By happy circumstance, she is married to Laxman.
I would not have faulted Rama had he lost the game. I am queen before I am anything else, and the well-being of my king’s ideal is of foremost importance to me; besides, I whole-heartedly believed in the ample benefits of colonization and boundary-expansion. Rama knew that. At the same time, the question of either of us being with another person was never a possibility, no matter the circumstances. I knew that, had he spent that month with Lady Padma, and he knows that, in spite of the long months I spent in Lankeshwar’s custody. In insisting on a monogamous Kshatriya marriage, Rama was a pioneer, a true forger of a new way of life!
What amazed me was that his brothers followed his example! Those four brothers always made an impressive unit, but in this matter, my respect for them bordered on envy: I wish I had grown up with sibling relationship like theirs. My sisters and I shared affection, but not the closeness these four shared. They were four parts of the same body, and my Rama was the head! I thank the goddess a thousand times for tying me to these wonderful brothers.
When he returned from Lady Padma’s, Rama sought out my eyes, to perhaps reassure, re-affirm some unspoken promise. Of course, I needed none, but decided to play along.
“That’s good,” I told Rama, as we waited for the moon to rise on the terrace. “I could be the jealous kind of wife, you know!” I laughingly warned him. Then I met his eyes and spoke what did not need saying, “You are my husband of soul! I cannot share you with anyone else, no matter who she is!”
“You will never have to unhook your jealous-wife talons off this husband!” Rama playfully assured me. Then he too met my eyes, “I cannot imagine anyone else but my Sita by my side!”
My heart still lunges in joy because Rama loves that I love him with such intensity, rather than the restrained fondness an ideal wife of the Ayodhya court should espouse for her royal husband. The miracle is that he feels the same way about me. He never actually said that he hated or resented the court rituals because it was part of the role written for him, but I learnt to read his impassive mien and knew that particular blink his face reserved for obligations. Rama loved being the prince apparent, but like it is with everything, there were some parts of that role he liked more than others. He, of course, worked very hard at practicing what he advocated: duty is more important than one’s enjoyment or inclination of doing it. No observer would catch the prince grimacing or chortling during court proceedings; all that Rama’s face ever wore was his signature slight tug of a smile.
But you should have heard him throw his head back and laugh when we played chess on the terrace, once the court had finished with us and before the family claimed the evening. I believed flowers rained down when he laughed like that, more so because he did it so rarely. He was happy, genuinely happy, even vociferous with me and his brothers, more himself than he was as the obedient, thoughtful, somber prince; Rama always maintained that he was equally content in court and family quarters. Both selves, opposing as they might seem, were necessary to him being Rama.
Of course, once the wedding festivities were done, I understood the wisdom, necessity, and diligence it took to keep that tug-smile intact on one’s face. The women who waited upon him, who were not necessarily part of court-intrigues, were not immune to Rama: I believe they thought him some kind of a puzzle they needed to resolve or unravel. And unlike the court ladies, these women had no sense of decorum. Their slithery garments, their fragrant hair would accidently come undone in their prince’s presence; they would bend extra low and gaze into his eyes when offering him a sweetmeat from the puja plate; they arranged themselves in alluring postures on the verandah when he emerged to admire a moonrise, something he tried never to miss. So I, too, constructed and maintained a tug-smile of my own, one that veiled my amusement at these blatant attempts: those poor women! They were trying to seduce him who cannot be seduced; they might have better luck setting their sights a little higher, on, say, the moon!
Did I hate these women? Of course not! We shared the object of love; I was the more fortunate since he returned my love and kept himself aloof from them. What reason would I have to resent them, when I completely understood the naked adoration in their eyes? Of course, I am not saying that I liked the situation. This adoration that constantly attended my husband often caused the vertical wrinkle on my forehead, even as I held up my slight smile.
The last time this wrinkle arose was in the forest, when that shapely woman wanted to wed Rama, on the day of the last new moon. Then, almost in a half-forgotten habit, my slight smile worked on my mouth so that I might retain my poise.
You should have seen her, though, undulating from that branch as though she’d been watching all morning long, sensuous, dusky, redolent of un-named, strange, wild fragrances, offering herself to my husband in whatever capacity he’d prefer! To show you what kind of a person she was, I’ll tell you one more shocking thing: once Rama refused her, she offered herself to Laxman, who went wide-eyed and pale at her words.
My smile must have wavered then, as the brothers’ hurried glance at me attested. What followed, however, has wiped that smile from me.
It is true that I actually hated that poor creature intensely, a response that surprised me. I’d have not accepted her as my sister-in-law, leave alone a co-wife! And this was in spite of my clear understanding that neither brother was even remotely considering taking her up on her offer. The only thing that had kept me from spitting and hissing at her was Rama’s cool, firm grasp of my index finger.
My hatred, however, emerged from my isolation of our condition, not from the seducer. The brothers must have been equally affected by some kind of passing insanity: they used weapons on her, defacing the poor thing, using violence rather than reason. The sudden crimson that spurted from her wounds shocked me into realizing just what it meant being the last frontier of civilization in this wilderness. It was not the woman I hated, it was the unrelenting wild. How could I have forgotten myself so much that I called that poor being a demon? Was I not the queen, still? Had the absence of the court eroded my queen-ship, indeed, my very humanity? Who were the real demons in this forest?
In that forest, I deliberately shed my resentment at whatever circumstances brought. I never want to lose myself that way again, and I shall never underestimate the way a forest can creep beneath one’s skin and claim its visitors as its own.
A result of Rama’s victory in the halls of Lady Padma was a conference with a chieftain of a tribe South of Narmada, the boundary that marked the farthest reach of civilization; uncharted forests lay beyond, all the way to the land of Lankeshwar, a fabled, golden isle that felt like a legend. Considering Rama’s initiative of expansion, you cannot imagine the excitement this meeting caused! An invitation was extended, for a visit.
We had, of course, met Lankeshwar, and he had talked in his thick accent of his many attempts at taming the wilderness across the narrow strait that separated his kingdom from the huge land mass. In fact, whenever he visited the Aryan lands, he claimed having to navigate the ocean tides to sail north, rather than braving the unimaginably deep forests. The rumors that ran rife in the courts of Mithila and Ayodhya claimed that Lankeshwar actually possessed a flying device that he used for travel; that is why he traveled with almost no attendant train! Be that as it may, one glance at his massive structure explained why he needed no attendants, irrespective of his mode of travel. In fact, Lankeshwar himself embodied all we had imagined of the forest-mission: immense, insistent on a purpose we could not immediately realize and so difficult to follow, operating from a frame of reference that we had yet to be aware of! I was told that despite being half-Aryan, he was resolute in his rejection of what he called Northern way of life. Why, in learning this new perspective, we might enrich our own culture and customs!
“Just imagine, Sitey!” Rama said, his eyes brilliant, “What if we could actually forge the way between Aryan lands and the golden Lanka! Imagine what it would mean if we were the ones to actually accomplish this!”
“Oh I must, then, without delay, begin brushing up on the tongues spoken in the jungles! Oh, and I must also remember to review the language spoken in Lankeshwar’s lands as well!” I responded with equal excitement. My aptitude for languages and my rather formidable recall skills could actually be used for a cause that furthered the boundaries of civilization! What could be more fortuitous?
Then, an alarming thought occurred to me and I turned to Rama, “You ARE planning to take me along? Please, Rama! I could be so helpful! Like your personal diplomat, a new kind of Statesman! You cannot leave me behind on this mission. I will train in whatever skill you deem necessary; archery, weapon-wielding, as many languages as I can lay my hands on to, State policies, whatever you say! Only don’t, please, don’t leave me out of this! This cause is as near to my heart as it is important for you! Please Rama!”
“I was not planning to leave you in Ayodhya, Sitey! I cannot imagine this mission without you beside me!” he exclaimed. “But like you say, we must train before we leave; we cannot just jump into the jungle this very evening. “
And it was decided. Laxman and I would accompany Rama as he forged a way through the darkness of the land mass south of us; we would be like lightning bolts in black skies!
The invitation of the tribe chieftain was extended to Rama, so it was only logical that he should be the one to accept it, rather than sending a court diplomat or one of his brothers. Also, since Rama’s initiative did not include conquering as much as it included establishing communiques and relations, he would not be accompanied by an army or any princely accoutrements. Rama always claimed that to understand the pulse of the common people, one had to mingle with them, a practice he sustained throughout his kingship. So on this mission, Rama would not be donning finery.
We needed a reason to give the adoring population of Ayodhya why their beloved prince was going into the jungle, an explanation that would not cause alarm. So it was decided that an old promise-turned-curse would be used as an excuse. What followed were months of preparation, shot in equal measure with exhilaration and furor. Rama promised his father and the rest of his family that he would return with “a friend of the heart” from the depths of those jungles. Like the rest of his promises, he has kept that one as well!
We were terribly young and had no reason to even consider an alternative to a sure and easy victory to notch up in our already enviable belt of conquests.
That cottage in Chitrakoot is the only place I really think of as being my home, even though we lived there only for a year or so. I felt I belonged there the way I never belonged even in Mithila or the sophisticated Ajodhya court. The ubiquitous dust, the never-ending chores, the trek for our daily water, nothing seemed too onerous there. If you want to visit the ideal of sylvan beauty, you should visit Chitrakoot.
I remember that cottage as the only place where food was not a big deal, where tending and healing hurt creatures was the nearest thing to politics; grass soup would suffice for the day’s meal; the sight of the shrubs we’d planted, dancing in the sun was enough to make us laugh in sheer delight; even as our bodies hardened, our glance sharpened, along with laugh lines bracketing our features.
We were content. I didn’t even mind the occasional solitude when the brothers visited and parlayed with the jungle folk, the ascetics, and tribal peoples, as there were many ashrams and settlements sprinkled around the forests. Chitrakoot was exactly the “wilderness” I had imagined us taming, back in Ayodhya. Now that I know better, I know that there was nothing to tame in Chitrakoot, sprinkled as it was with ashrams and human settlements, all within a couple of days’ travel of each other.
I could imagine the fourteen years pass by thus, without many ripples and I remember thinking that I could make this my permanent home, easily forget my queenly duties, the diplomacy and careful phrases, always premeditated. But as was inevitable, Ayodhyans found us and began regular visits to their prince, drowning the forest in their busy-ness. So we moved on, using ashrams as stepping stones, legendary temples as temporary destinations, always traveling onward, through the Dandaka forests, till we reached the clearing with the five banyan trees, Panchvati, which was to be the base-camp.
Panchvati taught me the real nature of the forest. Of course, to be fair, between Chitrakoot and Panchvati lay a long path of many battles with wild beings for which we had no names, beings that seemed more like demonic shape-shifters than any natural creature. We always sought to reach an ashram before sun-down (these creatures were largely nocturnal), but more often spent the better half of the afternoon scouting out caverns or carving out shelters for the night. The rishis who lived in these dark forests wanted desperately to be rid of the creatures; their night-noises terrified human ears just as much as their offal disgusted human sensibility. Rama and Laxman kept their quivers full of hastily made arrows, doing their best to protect the rishis in return for their hospitality.
The forest, even though I’d imagined it more restful than the court, changes people in strange ways, and we were not made of marble then, like we are now, and were not immune to mazes such wilderness weaves in people who try to own and tame. Violence had become a way of life for us. We had, of course, tried to initiate a dialogue with the creatures; they seemed intelligent enough and Rama insisted that communication is possible between two intelligent creatures. But these creatures would only cock their head on one side, let us finish speaking, and attack without responding. We decided parley attempts were vain and quickly began slashing, just to save time.
Panchvati brought us Soorpanakha, the seducer I told you about. Rama and Laxman, to be fair, tried refusing her advances politely. But seeing the madness cloud her eyes as she considered me, they stopped trying to reason and began the slashing. My head bows in apology to Soorpanakha, who told us her name and offered an alliance of sorts; our response betrays our failure to successfully conclude dealings with an alien people. We violated our prime directive, in spite of all. A price would have to be paid and it would be collected in ways we could not even begin to imagine.
We got a lot quieter after that incident, humbled at our glaring failure. Rama and Laxman took turns to foray into the wilderness, to look for her, to perhaps convince her to renew dialogue, most of all to apologize. They took turns because neither wanted me to be left alone, though I insisted I would not wander off if they were not around. I took to sharpening the little knife-like stone I always carried on me, in case the brothers needed my help in protecting our little cottage in the banyan grove.
Almost as a reaction to the Soorpanakha incident, we all three got more protective of each other. Our focus seemed to have shifted for a while: we needed to maintain our little cottage more than reaching out to tribes or forge alliances. As the only female in our little group, I gave into small indulgences, taking advantage of the brothers’ leniency for my gender. Rama tried to be extra kind to me, almost as though to reassure me that he would protect me and my house, that I need not worry about stray demons. As Rama, he only knew how to give; I was the one demanding, even things I knew I didn’t have to ask for.
So I asked and he gave: first the blue lotus blossom, then the night-smelling jasmine shrub, then that bird-house, until I asked too much and demanded he kill an animal so that I might have its skin.
I remember I was especially crabby that day. I’d complained about poor Laxman’s clothes and tools strewn about the cottage, about having to wade through undergrowth just for a bath, about not being able to buy a new comb I sorely needed, about concocting palatable meals with leaves and herbs, about the chokingly sultry air, about the rain my little garden longed for. All morning, I had been looking for a fight, and Rama had not obliged. His refusal to pick up the many types of bait I threw at him goaded my temper further. Laxman watched silently, his wary eyes jogging between his brother and me, waiting for a respite, itching to make an excuse to go down to the river.
“Why,” I querulously fretted at Rama, “the deer in the forests have better hide to cover them than I! Look at that one! Look at him prance in the sunlight! I wish I had his skin!”
Laxman sighed heavily at my thinly veiled demand for deerskin, and gathered his tools to go down to the river.
In the silence that followed as Laxman waited, I knew I’d gone too far and felt tear-pricking at the edge of my eyes. Somehow, my unthinking words had disturbed the very balance of the universe, and an unexplainable cloud suddenly crowded over the cottage. My words echoed and bounced around in the still air, shocking the very wilderness. A bridge had been crossed, a path turned. It would not be possible to trace the way back to the moment before I had spoken, before Laxman reached for his knife to slash at Soorpanakha, back to the idyllic intentions we knew in Chitrakoot.
I am grateful that I did not have a mirror on that day; if I did, I would have been horrified at the demon who would surely have stared back at me. How could those words, that wish for a skin not my own, a wish that mandated another being’s death, how could this bubble forth from my lips? I thought of myself as being civilized, essentially a merciful, fair queen. These words shifted me from who I was, from my very self-image. I could blame the forest, the necessity of survival, the illogic of the jungle, the effect such survival had on civilized people, any number of factors. It might even be argued that I did not really mean to actually own the deerskin, that it was my frustration speaking, not Sita-the-kind. This harridan was not the help I had visualized for my prince apparent husband on his mission. Whom, no, what had I turned into?
I felt like all my life had been leading to this metamorphosis inside me, a horrifying self that had burst out of my mouth that day. Rama looked at me as though I had mutated into a shape-shifting demon; when I caught my distorted reflection in his eyes, I saw the clear truth: I was a demon. I envisioned my inner Sita, desperately trying to swim back to a more recognizable image, away from this devouring, hardened actuality.
Of course, there was no going back, no matter the depth of vast regret. My words had I flown me to the city of demons and I must find my way back to my humanity. I looked up mutely at Rama: how could I make such a journey without his help? But why should he help me, the strange demon, who had gulped down his Sita?
In a very real sense, my exile began with that moment.
I didn’t know what to do, only that I must now pay for causing this pain. I concentrated on not crying, not wishing to add to the gathering clouds.
Then, at least, the temptation was clearly from outside, unlike the present unreasonable, selfish, petty complaints that were clearly rooted within my own breast.
“Don’t!” Rama shot curtly at Laxman, as he made to leave the cottage.
The poor boy looked up at his brother in surprise and hurt.
More gently, Rama added, “Sorry. Please don’t leave, Laxman. Your sister wants a deerskin and I must get it for her, as I am SWORN to keep her happy. Maybe eating venison and wearing the deerskin will fulfill her wishes.” He was angry enough to leave the cottage and hunt a stag in the hot afternoon, if it’d relieve him from my presence for a spell.
“I am putting Laxman in charge while I am gone. Do what he asks!” Rama directed me, not bothering to look at me full in the face.
It sounded like the first directive to me, the first step towards the self I had so pointlessly discarded.
I just nodded, my head bent from fear that my shameful tears would further upset my husband and scare our brother. What I had thought of as a spat had somehow escalated to cosmic proportions.
I’d have given my last piece of cloth then, to have Rama’s hand wrapped reassuringly around my index finger, a gesture he’d wedded me with, a gesture that would return my lost self to me. When we had wed, we had silently intoned oaths to each other in addition to chanting the words we were asked to repeat by the priests; Rama’s hand had held my finger and our connection felt like a cosmic bridge for our two souls, glowing with unspoken forever-promises as we followed each other’s footsteps around the solemn ancient witness, the ceremonial wedding fire.
But Rama was already gone and I could see nothing but the empty cottage threshold through my tears.
How was I to know that the forest outside our cottage had been waiting for just such an occasion to pounce on us? That it had never forgiven us for intruding its wilderness and blotching its splendor with our ideals, purposes, and will?
Too late, I sought to save the day and sent poor, relieved Laxman after Rama, seeking to stitch the torn fabric of our world.
Laxman and I waited in the cottage, awkward with each other for the first time. I tried to explain, but there was a stone in my throat and coherence refused to emerge from beneath it. After a long while of heavy silence, I wished to be alone. I could not think unless I could weep and I could not weep if I wanted poor Laxman to remain un-alarmed, in charge like his brother needed. I looked at Laxman and saw that he was no longer the idealistic prince who had left Ayodhya; he, too, had hardened in the forest, learned to wage and win unbalanced battles.
I decided then that no one could lead me back to my humanity; this was something I would have to undertake on my own. Not Rama, not Laxman, no one could help. If the forest needed me to pay the price, I would walk into it by myself and demand my punishment, not bring down harm on the princes of Ayodhya. I had to be the queen and if Rama felt he had to protect me, I felt that I had to protect Laxman. I could see that the poor boy wanted to go seek out Rama so they could both calm each other. So I pretended that I could hear Rama crying, “Laxman, help me! Please Laxman, bring your bow!”
They say that the forest is full of illusions, and I claimed to hear Rama’s voice loud and clear in the hollow, still afternoon, could Laxman not hear it? Why? How? It was more my questions that drove him away from the cottage, rather than the notion of Rama needing him. Laxman sighed again and began to draw a line in the dirt with the edge of his bow, all around the circumference of the cottage, to the banyan trees standing sentinel.
Laxman then stood directly in front of me and looked up:
“If you wish me to, I will go. But heed me well, sister. Do not cross over this line I draw in around the cottage with my bow.
Come here and tell me, can you see this line that I have sketched?
This is the Laxman-line, the Laxman-rekha.
Can you see it clearly? Yes. Good.
Rama has commanded that you do as I ask. Listen to me, sister. I am asking you.
Do not cross over this Laxman-rekha. Beyond this line, understand this that the forest awaits to devour. Remain within and preserve the sacrament of Ayodhya. This is what a queen must do, sister. You are queen to Ayodhya and you owe her and all that she is, to remain within the boundaries sketched for you by those sworn to protect your person.”
It was as though he knew of my intention of going out into the forest and his line, his Laxman-rekha, defined his sincere good will. Laxman knew, as I did, that no one had called out from the jungle, and certainly Rama would never, ever call his brother to him if he thought the situation fraught with mortal danger. The Laxman-rekha was his way of heeding the contradictory directives coming from both, me and his brother. He looked a long moment at me and bounded off into the undergrowth, doubtlessly down to his brother at the river edge to skip pebbles across the waves, as much in hopes of cheering up his silent brother as to comfort himself. I imagined they would both hunt game and return with their quarry in a few hours; in the meantime, I needed a respite.
I sank down on the threshold of the cottage, considering the dirt line of the Laxman-rekha. I was emotionally exhausted and had no wherewithal to actually repent my choices. I began clearing the cottage and readying the evening meal.
I had just reached the for water pot when I heard the voice call out from beyond the threshold. My irritation returned in a trice! It seemed like yet another drain on my energies when I had none left to be nice. My vision must have been affected, because for a second, I thought the poor hermit outside the cottage had ten heads! I blinked to clear my eyes, the cloud hovering over the cottage settled on the roof and the leaves rustled at the discomfort of having to accommodate the shadows.
I put on my most queenly smile as I stepped over the Laxman-rekha and crossed all that had bound me to my world, thinking to balance my bad behavior with this magnanimous gesture, imagining Rama’s relief at it, and Laxman’s smile on their return, when I thought I’d tell them of it while serving a specially cooked meal that evening.
In fact, I was blind as ever, and had failed to see the grabbing, greedy hands. Giant arms, thick as tree trunks closed in and I felt imprisoned, lifted, blown away by an impossible being. My cries of disbelief shattered the jungle calm and I felt all the rage and helplessness of being abducted. Even more impossibly, I was attaining altitude! As if in defiance of all that made sense, I realized that I was airborne, and I staggered, missing the firmness of land beneath my feet. At the time, I did not care who had abducted me, though I did absently wonder in the back of my mind if it was a bird of some kind and if so, marveling at its dimensions.
But more likely, I felt that the forest, disgusted at what I had become, had spat me out, discarded me, plucked me off its earth and thrown me away as though I were a pesky insect. I screamed at the earth to reclaim me as much as I screamed pleas to Rama and they tell me the birds heard.
Had I, without being aware, wandered in the jungle and was being punished for demanding the skin that belonged to another being?
For a moment, then, I thought it was Soorpanakha, somehow transformed into a larger male self, come to exact revenge for her despoiled face. When I blinked, the vision remained: it was a familiar person and I wrecked my muddled thoughts to dig out the proper name.
When it surfaced, all the world stopped making sense to me.
“Lankeshwar?” I whispered; he heard and nodded without looking at me, continued to slash away at branches, leaves, birds, whatever was in the way as the vehicle climbed higher, away from land. Soon, the craft stabled and I saw only clouds around us. I reached for the knife I always carried with me, but that seemed to have fallen away.
I began to think again.
It was no wonder that I had mistaken my abductor for Soorpanakha; she was his sister!
It seemed that I was going to see the golden Lanka after all.
It seemed that the flying apparatus was no rumor; it seemed I was aboard this vessel.
I could not see the lands the vessel flew over, but just as impossibly as its flight, suddenly, there was a mountain in the clouds. Lankapuri, it seemed, was built atop an unbelievably tall cliff and flight seemed the only way to reach it!
Then, Lankeshwar asked me to follow him into a palace. He said that the palace belonged to his primary queen, and hoped that I would find my place in it soon. This palace seemed carved out of the picturesque landscape, full of water falls and flowering trees.
I have seen Lankapuri only once from the ground, when I was marched through the streets, from the palace to the garden, which turned out to be my prison. However, I was impressed: they were not exaggerating when they called Lankapuri golden. It actually had massive golden gates! I had never seen anything like it. No refuse heaps on street corners, no hint of rotting flesh or vegetation marred the perfect symmetry of the perfectly planned residences, communities, work places, gardens, and palaces. It seemed that these people liked to build their structures vertically, and the citadels and edifices seemed to pierce the very skies.
The people were all confident and cultured, in speech and deportment. They are generally a tall people. But Lankapuri looked like it was home to a variety of peoples, not just the extraordinarily tall ones. I saw mainly towering Rakshasas, but also many Yakhsas and Nagas, even a few Aryas! I saw a few familiar temples too; it seemed that in Lankapuri, at least some of the gods worshipped were the same as those worshipped in Arya lands of the North. In the Queen’s palace, I saw some of Lankeshwar’s wives. They presented an impressive variety of statures, structures, hues, languages, and cultures. The one thing they all had in common was that they were all beautiful, and being in that palace was like watching an unending parade of female beauty from all branches and families of humanity.
Once it was clearly understood that I would not consent to be one of Lankeshwar’s wives, I was transported from the palace to the garden by chariot and I got to see some impressive parts of Lankapuri. As the wind blew my hair every which way, I looked at the well-groomed people and I’d never been more aware of my scanty garment, stained with mud, some blood (I’d torn off my flower ornaments as I was being carried off), my face and arms smudged with ground in dirt, feet caked with the forest floor, the detritus of my forest living that quick baths in the palace ponds failed to erase. Indeed, the citizens of Lankapuri must have a strange impression of the Aryan world!
It wasn’t that I wasn’t impressed and dazzled by the too-green, too-healthy topiary of garden, the Ashoka tree grove that was to be my prison. But it was difficult to believe in it and I can’t honestly say that I was comfortable, though I can’t really complain of ill-treatment, considering the circumstances. The more I tried, the less believable seemed the dustless leaves and perfect foliage, as though each bough and flower pre-meditated its shape before committing to being born.
Who could take it seriously? The one thing that kept things in perspective was the language. As I’ve previously said, I’ve always had a quick ear for tongues and I had brushed up on the Rakshasa languages back in Ayodhya, in preparation of the mission. As the chariot drove through the city, dulled and dazed with disbelief as I was, I had begun figuring out the phrases without being aware of doing so. Even though I half-recognized the syntax and some vocabulary, this was not how I had imagined this language would sound! It was a strange tongue, glottal and a bit harsh, but as though to compensate, it was often consciously modulated and seemed wordy, woven with formal, flowery phraseology. It took me a few weeks to get comfortable in it and I am afraid I shall always have an awkward accent. As befits a royal personage, I painfully sustained the hyperbolic diction, a difficult feat since I refused to change my grungy clothes and insisted I preferred to keep the gardener’s quarters.
You see, I wasn’t quite sure about what these people wanted, what their stance was, and how they figured my role in their world; Abducted Ambassador wasn’t a title or position there was a precedent for, and I would never ever join Lankeshwar’s menagerie of wives in the Queen’s palace. I knew that the way Lankeshwar’s Rakshasa people conducted legal marriages was by abducting, but I closed my mind to that. It was not to be borne. And one thing I could trust: Lankeshwar would never force me directly to join his harem; it was not his way. I do not mean to insult him with my refusal. I knew that he was a powerful monarch, accomplished, learned, and wise, as he was strong and warrior-like. Even back in Mithila, in my father’s court, there was excited talk swirling around him when he came for my Swayamvar; his prowess with the Veena was much acclaimed and it was said that he had pleased the great god Shiva with it! He, too, was on a kingdom-expanding mission. He had conquered nine kingdoms and had ten different crowns forged for each of the kingdoms he owned, earning him the reputation of being ten-headed. An intelligent, civilized being like that would not need to resort to force in his acquisition of wives. He had also respected my idiosyncratic request to house in the gardener’s cottage, my refusal to change clothes, my insistence on a vegetarian diet, and had arranged for three or four attendants for my needs, albeit these attendants were all dark Rakshasas, huge like thunderheads.
However impressive the king and his golden city might be, I was resolute in my refusal to be his wife. I insisted on behaving like a diplomat rather than a prisoner, and every time Lankeshwar’s proposal was presented, I took refuge in a phrase that seemed safe:
“I shall need to discuss all matters with Rama before I make any statements or commitments, and I eagerly await his imminent arrival.”
Strange as these people’s ways were, I was sure they’d have contacted Rama and initiated some kind of dialogue with the brothers.
Finally, the inevitable day arrived when I understood that Lankeshwar was as resolute in marrying me as I was in refusing.
I dismissed the possibility of my sudden possession of irresistible beauty, especially not after my time in the forest. And I had seen women far more beautiful than I lounging around on palace terraces, in arboreal arches, on fountain parapets. As I had already reasoned out, Lankeshwar would never stoop to force. In fact, discounting the actual abduction, he had not attempted to come near enough to touch me (a pity; I’d been fashioning make-shift daggers and arrows from bones and bark, and had used the sleepless hours to sharpen them).
I also firmly believe that the repetition of my eagerness of Rama’s arrival had very clearly conveyed my position to him: I was not interested in acquiring another husband, since I found all males, of all species and dimensions, quite, quite inferior to Rama.
Why, then, would he insist on marrying me?
Finally, after a great deal of thought, only one reason stood: it was to avenge Laxman and Rama’s treatment of Soorpanakha, his sister. There could be no other motive. Soorpanakha had seen me as an impediment in her wish to couple with Rama and Laxman, so, by marrying me, Lankeshwar would not only remove that impediment, but also acquire the lands I was queen to and dishonor Rama-Laxman, all in one smooth blow. After all, cutting off a princess’ nose and ears was a serious political gesture and needed to be addressed, and if in addressing this insult, lands could be assimilated, what could be better? After all, it was only a matter of wearing down my will.
To this end, I believe, polite, well-worded proposals ended and Lankeshwar’s methods of persuasion got more aggressive; that’s when my terror began. My attendant women got careless of keeping up appearances. My food was not always ready for me, and sometimes, I’d have to wait for days before it was presented. These Rakshasa escorts caught birds, rodents, arboreal creatures, and reptiles, casually bit off half of the prey’s the body and spat it out, squirming, at me. Their language got rougher and I suspect, obscene. They farted and burped noisily, stinking, and frequently, especially squatting near me and using the passing breeze to its full advantage.
The women often had friends over now, and they sat in mild sun, extolling the sexual prowess of their men, especially the king, in loud and graphic tones, thinking, no doubt, to encourage me to reconsider my obstinacy. They super praised the benevolence and magnanimity constantly showered on them by their husbands, lovers, and swains. They laughed often and raucously, rolling around sensuously on the ground, their painted, red mouths wide open, and I noticed that their teeth were rather large, long, and some were even curved, like little tusks.
Seeing my mind unchanged, they got even more careless, and shifted rather too easily from being attendants to sentries. They began handling me roughly, hauling me up every four hours for a forced visit to the privy, tripping over me, bumping into me, so I was always covered in bruises I stopped counting or caring about.
And yes, I did miss my friend, my husband, my Rama ever so much. I’d rest my forehead on the father-tree’s trunk and weep silent vows, vowing I’d never, ever, ever nag him at all, never complain, if only I could feel his hand twine warmly around my index finger. I prayed to the goddess, I prayed to the earth, and begged the clouds to carry my message and sincerest promise to him. I sought comfort in holding my own index fingers, switching hands to keep the circulation going.
It is evidence of our un-breakable, timeless, intense, spiritual bond that when this nightmare century of waiting was done, he greeted me first by clasping my index finger in his hand, anchoring my world again, thawing me with the warmth of his presence lashing like quicksilver through to my inner being.
Back in the Asoka grove, I promised I’d never take for granted the luxury of taking a bath, being able to indulge in self-grooming. In that golden city, I never felt safe enough to bathe, clear my mouth, groom my hair or nails, though I did use the nearby stream in the beginning, to keep up basic hygiene. Later, as my imprisonment extended, my visits to the stream got fewer. I did the best I could, surreptitiously, hoarding the secrets of my personal being, for I always felt the ten heads of Lankeshwar watching me. It was my nails and hair that I’d wanted to clean most; my nails were caked, stubbed, and wounded as I’d resorted to stripping bark to suck on for comfort and to fool my belly into believing in food. I’d taken to keeping my knees and elbows close to my torso and neglected the twigs and insects and sweat in my hair because that would entail raising my arms and moving elbows away from the safety zone. I wished that my nails would grow like talons, and my puny teeth would grow like large tusks. Even my face stopped feeling like my own, and for a while, I stopped cleaning it, letting the sweat, grime, tears, blood, and snot mask it.
But then, I took to visiting the stream more regularly, wiping my face repetitively.
At first, I’d only wipe it roughly with the edge of my soiled, ancient sari when the king came to visit, to ensure he wouldn’t misunderstand my expression. But as weeks passed, I realized the importance of keeping my face: I needed to clearly show my resolve at all times, and when I’d wasted away and my face would haunt this grove, my features should be distinct. What’s more, I’d abbreviated the sentence I’d rested on, to simply “Rama” repeated with my parched lips and glowing eyes, and I learned to say that word with my whole face.
My head is bowed now, in recognition of the fear that I was losing my sanity in that golden city, in that evergreen grove, beneath that kind tree.
I’d even stopped counting off days.
I forgot what it felt like to be alone.
In the beginning, I used to try to repeat shlokas, astras, the veds, the prayers, the incantations to myself.
When that took too much effort, I began chanting calculations, formulae, tables, numbers.
When the numbers got too complex, I recited recipes, first the complex and rich royal menus, then simply grass stew.
Finally, by the time I saw the divine messenger with folded arms before me ( a real ambassador, this one), I’d forgotten the recipes and could only repeat “Rama,” my husband’s arrival, his existence, his name, my own identity, my designation, my hopes, my lost self, all of it contained in that one drawn out syllable.
I must have looked fearsome and pitiful to the Messenger, though he continually assures me that I looked just the same as now, like my queenly self, just melancholy. I heap manifold blessings on him, not just for his many kindnesses and his loyalty to Rama, but also for his folded arms, for that miraculous, achingly familiar jewel from Rama’s brow he first showed me to assure me that he was for real, and for giving corporeal shape to the greatest jewel known to human existence: hope.
I have held on to that brow jewel and not even death will part it from me. When my husband the king thought it necessary to make me walk through fire, I held that jewel to my heart, and it made me comfortable enough to embrace death if that what was needed. When I went into the forests a second time, I took it with me. I clutched it as our sons were born.
The Pure Queen of Ayodhya
Finally, the improbable day arrived: I heard news of Rama’s arrival, of Lankeshwar’s forces defeated, of the golden city humbled. My eyes were clouded with tears and disbelief when Rama and all who called him king stood before me, so I could not see any faces clearly. Rama came before everyone else and without a word, clasped my finger in his hand; then, as if conscious of everyone behind him, he stepped back from me.
Then came the words from my husband, the king, for which posterity has not forgiven him. In loud tones, he demanded proof of my worthiness of his acceptance as wife. I looked up at him in confusion, and unable and unwilling to understand the absolute illogic of the world, demanded my pyre: if Rama, who had just owned me by grasping my finger, was demanding impossible proof, I wanted no part of this insane existence. I would be better served awaiting him in some alternate dimension, in some other avatar, in which we could be ourselves and nothing more. I could not trust water to cleanse me, to be rid of this mess that I had become; I needed the cosmic catharsis of a fire.
Of course, like a nightmare extended, the fire refused me and Rama used this as proof enough of my worthiness and finally said my name, stilling the insane spiraling of unreal events. I climbed the air-chariot once again, this time, finally, headed towards Ayodhya, this time, remembering to anchor my toes to brace for lack of the earth beneath.
The Last Ashram:
Nothing isolates a person like being so ceremoniously rescued. I have been queen of Ayodhya in a variety of places, in Chitrakoot, in the Dandaka wilderness, in the cottage in Panchavati, in a garden across the ocean, beneath a tree, and finally in Ayodhya. I have lost myself in speaking a cruel wish, and I have returned to civilization after losing all that I could call logical and sane. Even as I sat beside Rama on the Queen’s throne in Ayodhya, I felt as though I still crouched beneath a tree; I wanted to run away, escape, but I didn’t know how to get up without loosening my elbows and knees.
I knew then, as I’ve known since, that I have not been alone in knowing loss. The afternoon I had soiled the universe with my demand for deerskin had stilled something in my Rama, something that would never be fluid again. My Rama’s eyes have deepened and acquired something far away, and his gaze asks questions of the moon.
I have not been able to completely banish tears and have earned a reputation of being moody, broken, somehow, prone to weeping fits that are as unpredictable as they are unstoppable. I cannot be as I was, idealistic, unwavering in all I trusted and believed, clear gazed. When fabric of a person has torn and been stitched together, the seams never quite disappear. In fact, these seams become the face and people remember little else.
When the king my husband learned that my hastily stitched together seams were unacceptable in a queen, that even the humblest of his subjects found me reprehensible, he had no choice but to banish me. Despite my begging him for a poor, un-queenly corner near him, despite the frequent arguments and tears from Laxman and Urmila, despite all who would never forgive him, Rama mandated that I would not live in Ayodhya. The evening before I was to leave was our last moon-rise together: we stood voiceless, clasping hands and fingers, our physical connection a cosmic bridge of best intentions and strangely kept promises.
When I think of that evening, it was more painful and illogical than all my imprisonment in Lankapuri, than the long-as-eternity forest mission. I have spent introspective, quiet days in this ashram, tended by kindness of its inhabitants. The years I have spent after leaving Ayodhya have been almost as peaceful as those days in Chitrakoot.
I sit here at the end of this tale or at its beginning: they tell me our sons have been singing my story all over the known world, extolling my wifely and maternal perfections.
I don’t want to hear it; I wish someone would listen to me instead, the way our Wind Born Friend listened.
I could tell about my husband and his oh-so-human realities so you’d finally understand his unending banishment from all that belonged to him, a banishment that only intensified with his kingship, vast like the sky and the ocean, before which a man is smaller than a minute, shorter than an eye-blink. When he finally banished me from Ayodhya, he banished himself along, so I wouldn’t be lonely. He is husband to an oh-so-human wife who did not realize the cosmic import of her demands. Just because he honored his crown when he put me away in the forests, did not mean that he took another wife, even considered solace of casual lovers, that he denied being my husband in any way.
Tell me, who last saw him laugh out loud? I don’t need to see his face to know that the questions in his eyes have deepened. Look at his kingly plate: is it not graced by the same simple grass soup and coarse loaves you see on my leaf-plate? You lament at the hollows in my cheek that rough living has carved; do you not notice the gauntness of his jaw?
Have a care, then, that you complain of both of us when you complain of my Rama’s cold treatment of his Sita; we are one, he and I; Creation is not wide enough to separate us.
Our names, said together, encompass the entire world. Even when you speak only one name, the other’s shadow haunts it and stands right beside, where it belongs.
Listen to the questions in his patient glance: why should he be forced to test his queen, his wife, his beloved thus, over and over again? These tests promised restoration of harmonies, satisfy proprieties, if passed, but we never knew how the tests fared, how the circumstances were perceived, analyzed, what the results were. No matter how many fires I stepped in, only to be refused, no matter how many times I climbed the skies when my feet thirsted for the earth, no matter how many ways I accepted punishment, some wrong, some imbalance remained.
I have decided to put an end to the whole business! There is no telling when, how, and what form future tests and punishments will take, and I am not willing to add to our banishment. I fear that I have failed all tests, contrary to the songs and clichés, failed unforgivably as both, queen and wife. I don’t know how to even begin to redress such huge wrongs.
So I have chosen to relieve my husband of these pointless questions, a choice which only my earth-mother can completely understand and help me with. She has agreed to swathe me in her folds, a fitting end for a daughter found in furrow of tilled soil, as the king of Mithila ploughed the field in a ritual-harvest.
See how brightly this jewel glows? It reminds me of the moon my Rama is so drawn to. His destiny beckons him to rule the heavens, even as he strides the earth, leading humanity into a new, golden time. Since I may not match my stride with his, I wish to be gathered to the realm my beloved treads upon, so no matter where he goes, he feels me within his very shadow.
Where his feet end, I am right there, where his shadow begins.
Kitty came to herself with the awareness of something hot pricking the edge of her eyes. Without realizing, she found that she had begun weeping silently as Sita spoke. She knew that something, some lode-stone in the center of her being had shifted position, revealing an unexplored pathway. Sita had somehow become a real person for her, and Kitty wondered if and how differently she, Kitty would react if and when faced with similar circumstances. She wondered if her mother felt banishment, of sorts, when she’d migrated to Florida, of the battles she, Mrs. Mehta must have fought to carve a recognizable home out of what must have seemed like alien wilderness. If she, Kitty, were to move to a different land, say, Alaska, how would she react to that alien landscape, she, who had been born and bred in Florida?
“I never thought of it this way!” Kitty said to herself. Sita’s story would not be the same for her; in fact, the next time she saw Sita as a character, Kitty would not react to her the same way she used to before. In fact, Kitty’s world seemed to have halved into before Sita spoke and its aftermath.
Kitty shook her head at the notion, sought to return to the old, logical Kitty, and again considered the portrait before her. The dispossessed queen sat as before, a moment before reaching for the lotus at her feet, her brow defined by the single ornament on her person. Kitty was conscious of a toad at the bottom of her throat and wondered that the fanciful imaginings of an unseasonably bright festival day could cause a reasonable person to lose herself so.
Be that as it may; some undeniable bond had been forged between her inner self and this mythological character, and for better or worse, Sita was here to stay.
Not that she would, Kitty promised herself, ever, ever acknowledge this to her mom. or to anyone else for that matter! That would be so, so unspeakable, so unimaginable, so awkward! No. It was not to be borne.
Perhaps she had heard too many of those bedtime stories, once too often. In the dim light, she could see the outline of a padded bench. She half-walked, half-stumbled over to it and sank down.
“You see? Very pretty!” Said the silent darkness of the room.
Kitty started and looked up. It was the old man who had been dusting the front room, of course, and not the darkness speaking.
“Oh! Oh yes. Very pretty,” Kitty repeated.
“You know,” the janitor continued, “I think there are stories these here queens could tell, you see. They LOOK like they got some stories, don’t it look like that?”
“Yes. . .” Kitty responded, a bit uncertainly, wondering how this old man could know of her reverie. But this was her own fancy. Of course he did not know. How could he? Sita’s story had, after all, unfolded in her mind.
“Yes,” She said more resolutely, “I can imagine that they would tell many stories! In fact, my mother would . . .”
“Like this one here,” the janitor went on.
Kitty looked up and saw a portrait of Narada behind her. The character in the portrait seemed to bear a marked resemblance to the old man, whose mop and bucket apparatus seemed to have transformed into a Veena of sorts.
“Yes,” the apparition before her continued speaking, “Did your mother ever tell you of her? The significance of frying iron? Of how I had to travel the three worlds to find a hearth worthy of such a feat?”
Kitty saw no point in refusing what was so real. She accepted the Narada speaking to her and addressed him with an upward jaunty angle of her chin, like she would her grandmother, “So you too will tell me an improbable story? A story that begins with Once Upon a Time in India?”
Narada just smiled without saying anything,
Kitty continued, “Look, I have been to India. I have seen the place; such events are not any more likely to happen there than they are here, in Florida! There is nothing so special about the place that makes miracles!”
“You are talking to me. Is that not a miracle?” The figure challenged her, “And what’s more, places seem different when one is a Traveler, like me. At any rate, none of my stories begin so unimaginatively!”
“Oh?” Kitty responded, “What else could your oh-so-special stories start with? Please! Don’t even begin with me! I can tell you what story you were going to tell me: it HAS to be about Draupadi or Kunti or someone like that, a queen, a powerful woman with special abilities given by gods, someone with many husbands. Who else can fry iron?”
“Very good! You know of your epics! Very commendable. But this person is an obscure character from an old variant of oldest epics. I doubt that your mother has been able to tell you of her.”
“Which one of these queens have I not heard of?” Kitty retorted.
But Janitor-Narada was not in front of her any more. She looked around in confusion and saw him at the far end of the room, next to a painting depicting a woman (Sita?) bowing and reaching for the feet of an old woman, whose maternal expression could make the reader believe that she was Sita’s mother. In the far end of the painting, Rama and Laxman could be seen, apparently conferring with an old man, presumably the old woman’s husband.
Kitty read the description, “Sita Bowing to Lady Anasuya,” and it confirmed that the subject of this painting too was Sita.
“I know Sita’s story,” Kitty said guardedly. How much and what had that janitor heard earlier, she wondered again.
“Look again!” Janitor-Narada commanded, “Sita is not the subject of my story. In fact, she is not even in the story.”
Kitty stared rebelliously at the raconteur, refusing to look elsewhere.
“If Sita is in that picture, it will be Sita’s story. And your story will begin with Once Upon A Time in India,” She said this like a statement, a prediction of a situation that is often repeated and recognized.
“Actually,” Janitor-Narada countered, “I will not allude to Sita in this story at all, until the story comes to the part that is depicted here, until the very end.”
“What’s more,” he continued, “My story begins with a tree.”
“Tree? What tree?” Kitty asked, looking around.
“Why, the one I am standing under, of course!” He said.
Kitty realized that he was, indeed, standing under what seemed like a tree.
Narad continued his story from under his tree.
The Fried Iron Berry
Beyond the forests of eye-blinks, between the mortal soil and the endless heavens, there is a tree, or perhaps the tree is there only when I visit this place between places, hidden in wrinkles of time and space.
The tree is my resting space. I stand a breath beneath its unmoving shade and close my eyes, to center myself. Then I open my eyes deliberately and touch the string of my ektara, the single strand instrument that is my constant companion. I am not surprised to find my tree on a white landscape of unending snow fields; the lady I had on my mind commanded a consciousness as brilliant and clear as the ice, her woman-virtue pure as the undisturbed snow fields. I clutch the little ball of iron in my fist and blink to begin my visit.
The string from my ektara twanged, rippling the air and as the air ripples smoothed out, a scene revealed itself. I smiled as I stepped up, ever ready to participate in any tableau: tableaus make for crisp story beginnings and I had one to tell the Goddess Triumvirate of Saraswati, Laxmi, and Gauri, a story about a woman, a human woman at that.
As I advance on the snow, I see a threshold. This threshold is calm, like the environment it emerges from, but calm is not silent. There is a constant swish of wind through peepul leaves, though my tree is not a peepul and at any rate, my tree was nowhere near. The goddess who kept this hearth is a pacific presence. She maintains a thoughtful mien and prefers to wrap and unwrap herself around the Vedas, the texts that are repository of all wisdom and knowledge. But today, the Vedas were quiet and enveloped their goddess like a docile sari. She had chosen to manifest as a quintessential woman, in form of a busy human wife, squatted before an earthen hearth-fire, smiling a welcome at me. Unlike a human hearth, though this one was free of clutter of vegetable peelings, spilled water, and sprinkle of truant grains. There was no smoke, no overpowering stench of old spices haunting pots like uneasy ghosts; here, there was only a thin, fragrant vapor, sometimes sweet as though dipped in saffron, sometimes savory, like freshly crushed cumin.
Nourishment, at this time, was one of the main functions of an ideal woman and the goddesses took particular joy in demonstrations that showcased how perfectly human they were, perfection, of course, being the operative, recurring motif.
“Welcome, weary traveler! What refreshments can I offer you?” the goddess offered, gracious as any hostess.
I must confess to being impressed: the goddess of learning was as efficient a housewife as any who had spent her life before hearth fires. I squatted down and a complex, mandala-based pattern of purest white rice flour arranged itself before me, a rangoli of welcome, a placemat frame fit to receive a platter from a feast. I nodded appreciatively. The next breath showed a pot of icy cool water that sat on the top right of the rangoli pattern. A chuckle escaped me, and the goddess looked up inquiringly. A platter of sweets and savories, which was just about to appear, failed to solidify. The Vedas shifted to underline the query in her aspect.
“Narayan, Narayan, Devi! You know I require nothing that a hearth fire can provide, except . . .” and I waited, stretching the timelessness of her eternal world.
The goddess knew me and a corner of her generous lips lifted as her eyes sparkled, “Oh yes! You have no need of feasts.”
The hearth and threshold disappeared. The goddess waited, a vision of white. I held my smile.
Finally, the Vedas shifted again. “Except what?” the goddess asked, then looked away from me with an admirable feigning of tiredness, “Your puzzles, Narad, are tiresome, especially so when laced with veiled insults.”
I laughed, “You mistake my meaning, Lady. I meant to tell you about the meal I need to sustain me in my travels, since you so graciously offer to host me.”
“One single meal to sustain all your travels? Through the three worlds?” the goddess raised her eyebrow.
“Not an entire meal, Lady, just a fried ball of iron. See? It is hardly larger than a gram or a berry.” I showed her my palm where the bead of iron nestled.
She scoffed, “Iron cannot be fried, story teller.”
I said quietly, “Perhaps it is your hearth-fire that cannot fry it, Lady!”
Smelling a story, she rose in a liquid movement, the hearth-fire disappearing behind her..
“Shall I summon my swan? Are we going to visit?” She asked.
“Narayan! Narayan!” I chanted.
When I opened my eyes next, I found my feet swallowed by the eternal ocean. I smiled in recognition of this world and sought out a threshold and its twinkling hearth fire. Sure enough, across the constantly undulating waves, arose a threshold the color of sea waters, swathed with golden marigold blossoms. This goddess is as fond of variety as the other goddess is of unchanging quietude. As I advanced towards the threshold, I could see the gentle fire dancing around a pot as though it were surf rather than flame. The pot looked as though it were made of opalescent pearl that.
I stepped through the threshold and sat down before the fire and pot. The goddess appeared with a whiff of lotus blossoms. For an instant, I was aware of gold and jewel-studded tiara, a hand caressing a lotus, and then before me sat an exquisitely beautiful goddess. Her delicately sculpted features, the hint of gold glowing beneath the perfect skin held me for a breath. Then the moment passed as I chanted “Narayan, Narayan” and she smiled, a hint of mischief tugging the edges of her dancing eyes.
Before me, she set down a large platter of gold with many bowls and small pots contained in it, each one containing just one portion of sweet. The goddess manifested as an accomplished housewife of a large, well-established family of extremely comfortable circumstances. Her hair had arranged itself into a bun with lotus buds circling it, and her bangle clad held a pot of rose water that I may wash my hands before the meal.
I shook my head as my smile deepened, and I folded my hands in polite refusal. “I need no sweets or refreshments, Lady. I wish your hearth fire to fry but this iron berry,” I explained, showing her the little ball of iron.
“No hearth fire commands such power, Wanderer!”
“Narayan, Narayan, Lady! I have found such a hearth. Humbly, I protest this hearth fails to command it.”
The goddess’ gentle smile froze and she looked inquiringly at Saraswati, who was hovering over the threshold on her swan. The threshold, the gold, the pot, the fire, all submerged beneath the indifferent, eternal waves.
“Ok Story teller, I am interested. Let me summon my elephant and we can make our visit.”
“Be it as the Lady wishes!” I said, as I closed my eyes.
When I opened them next, the scene that greeted me could have convinced a less experienced traveler that he was on earth. I smiled and stirred the string of my ektara. My exhaled breath set the scene and I took a step on the grass that was softer than any worn linen, smoother than silken fabric. The threshold awaiting me this time seemed constructed by two trees that swayed their leafy boughs over a cottage that looked like the perfection of sylvan ideals. As I neared it, a delicious, earthy bouquet invited me. The Lady tending this hearth fire was dressed in a green sari of worn cotton and ornaments of flowers.
“Welcome, Wanderer! Let some wholesome stew and cool, spiced milk conquer your weariness!”
The hearth was perfectly molded of well-bricked mud, the flame perfectly controlled beneath the perfect curve of an earthen pot decorated with colorful curlicues. The contents bubbled slightly and the goddess picked it up and set it on the ground without moving her eyes from her guest.
I smiled at this remarkable recreation of an earthly woman’s world and sat down. A large banana leaf settled exactly before me and the goddess smiled at the leaf in satisfaction. She took a small white jasmine blossom from behind her ear and placed it next to the leaf and I saw that it was really a small earthen pot of cool milk that smelled heavenly.
I folded my hands and the goddess, who had just been about to arrange perfectly cooked greens, stews and grains on the platter, stopped and waited.
“Delicious as this fare promises to be, I must regretfully beg your indulgence, Lady.”
The goddess’ eyes widened as she spoke, “What? Does Narad the Storyteller find my hearth unconvincing? What can it produce to satisfy?”
“Narayan, Narayan, Lady! I mean no disrespect to your hearth. The only thing required of your hearth is that it fry this little iron ball. I require no further nourishment.”
“Why would Narad wish for un-natural foods? How would this nourish?”
“This request is no more un-natural than serving human nourishment to cosmic visitors! It is more a question of testing the mettle of this hearth, Lady,” I countered.
The goddess glanced at the other two manifestations who had accompanied me. She glared at me and her tiger, suddenly there, roared in displeasure.
Taking their cue from the tiger, the elephant harrumphed and the swan shook his feathers in derision. The threshold and hearth fire disappeared and the three goddesses stood before me, mounted on their familiars. These were consorts of the cosmic triumvirate, the Trimurti, consisting of Brahma (the Creator and Saraswati’s husband), Vishnu (the Protector and Laxmi’s consort), and Shiva (the Destroyer and Gauri’s spouse). Of course, Laxmi and Gauri, like Saraswati’s hearths had failed to fry my iron berry.
“What pointless task is this, Narad!” Gauri exclaimed.
“What are you trying to tell us?” Laxmi asked.
It was time to reveal the main theme of my game. “Devis, please do not take umbrage at my little game. I mean to say that your hearth-fires need the potency of Wife-Dharma, or Pativrata, and lacking that, have failed to fry this berry. However, I do know of a lady whose hearth-fire is so powered by her chastity and pativrata that it can do what no other fire can do in all three worlds! I seek a fire equal to the one she commands.”
I knew that I had piqued their inquiry.
Saraswati, perched high, with skin the color and fragrance of honeyed milk, clad in sparkling white. As goddess of learning, she was steadfast in her logic, even as she fed pearls to her swan, teasing the creature with a rice-pearl treat, then hiding it strategically, forcing the swan to find it. She lived in Brahmalok, with her consort, Brahma. From Vaikunth, Vishnu’s abode, Laxmi, the flighty goddess of fortune sported with her pet elephant, pulling his ear, then twining his trunk, then showering gold on his head, her movements fluid and slippery. The elephant bore it all with good humor, used to his goddess. She demanded to be wooed and appeased almost constantly; if she lost interest, she’d leave and sudden destitution would follow. She was a vision in deep scarlet and gold. The third goddess, Gauri, lived in Kailash, with Shiva, her consort. She preferred green, being the goddess of the natural world. She tickled her lion behind his ears and he looked up at her in clear adoration, making her smile.
Their eyes kept changing colors, as though they were prisms for light instead of solid, swallowing bodies. They sometimes spoke as one, sometimes as separate entities. As story teller, I made sure to change my address to match theirs.
The three were idols of feminine perfection, nari-dharma, a combination of strict precepts adherence to which lifted mere humans to supra-mortal status, fit for worship. The triumvirate of goddesses made sure to maintain their cosmic position by insisting that their nari-dharma exceeded that of any other human woman. This dharma was believed to be the most powerful tool available to female beings who wished to harness celestial powers. My dissatisfaction with their hearths had made the goddesses bristle.
The three goddesses said in unison: “You stretch our belief, story teller! Unimaginable peace? Power over the elements? A mortal defeating death? The chastest wife on earth and in all three worlds? Really?”
I swung my head in protest, “Narayan, Narayan, Lady! I search all the worlds for ideals. I thought it my responsibility to tell when I come across an ideal. Lady Anasuya . . .”
“Yes, yes. You were heard the first time. But how can a mere human woman acquire such powers by just following her stree dharma, the precepts of civilized womanhood?”
“Narayan, Narayan! Do my Ladies not recall the import of following precepts of humanity? Why, a flourishing kingdom turned into wildest jungle because a woman was raped! I refer to the kingdom of King Danda, who forced the Rishi’s daughter, turning his kingdom into Dandaka Forest. If that can happen because Dharma was not followed, it bears thought what could happen if Dharma is adhered to!”
“But we have heard you tell of other so-called perfect women!” The three goddesses were intrigued, I could tell, despite their words.
Saraswati spoke, “We have heard your tales, but on being tested, these perfect women failed! Remember Renuka?”
Gauri said, “What about Ahalya? She could not stand up to the gods’ test!”
Laxmi added, “And then there was Arundhati, quite a promising candidate, admittedly. Perhaps this Anasuya is chaste until tried?”
Then Saraswati, the goddess stroked her swan’s head as she mused, “I would like to meet this Anasuya.”
It seemed that all three had spoken.
They are goddesses. These tests are their nature and they are subject to their nature.
I, too, am subject to my nature: the story is the truth and I tell the truth of all three worlds, above, beyond and between. I turned away, chanting “Narayan, Narayan!” while the tree floated away.
The wild cat looked around with sunken, dry eyes, trying to discern a hint of moisture on the wind, but found none. She plodded on doggedly; the parched cry of her young rang in her ears, followed her so that she did not notice the burning, cracked hard land beneath her soft paws. She needed to move her litter nearer some water source, but in spite of wandering almost incessantly, she could find none. She let out a soft, throaty whimper as her head hung lower. She knew that she could not carry on much farther; in fact, she was not completely sure that she could find her way back to her litter.
Suddenly, a whisper of a movement caught the edge of her eye and instantly, she leapt and caught her quarry, her blood instinct taking over when her consciousness could not. It was a thin rabbit, another mother who had been forced out of her nest to forage for her starving young. The wild cat could feel the almost relieved resignation in the rabbit’s aspect as she tore open her prey’s throat and quenched her thirst. She almost trotted to her cave where her litter waited, proudly bearing her prize. But she was too late; her young had perished from thirst. She purred and whined at their bodies, turning them over for any signs of life, but found none. She abandoned her kill and settled down beside her litter, her grief as enormous as the unrelenting famine that clutched the land.
In a burrow not too far from her cave, a litter of rabbits died, too weak and young to understand the connection between waiting for their mother and the need to sleep deeply. The snake family that lived beneath the burrow should have been glad of this sudden feast, but the earth above was too hot and they did not leave their nest, curling down to preserve their resources to survive the famine. The tree that had once been a thriving, blossoming center for all that lived around, was dying as well, his once verdant branches now obscenely bare, stretching out into the atmosphere to catch any lingering moisture. Its roots had dug deeply into the earth, but all the soil had dried up and the tree knew that it could not stretch its roots or branches any farther.
The stubborn famine that had gripped the land had dug itself deep into the earth, drying up all the layers of mud, choking life out of the parched land. The sky was as relentless as the earth, uninterrupted in its starkness, even at night. The fight for life was slowly being drained away from the land, along with the water.
Anasuya and Atri, who lived on their ashram considered the landscape around them.
“My wife, the land dies before our eyes!” Atri exclaimed, almost in disbelief. He held her hands, for comfort. He bowed down and brought up her palms to cover his face.
Anasuya looked down at her husband’s bowed head, “We are sentient humans, my husband, and thus, it is our responsibility to liven up these lands. We cannot let all die!”
Her fingers caressed his gaunt features for a breath and then curled into heavy fists, fell down to her sides. As though dragged down by the heaviness of her deternmined fists, Anasuya set her jaw and sank down where she stood, clearly beginning her meditations. Atri’s weary gaze looked down at her and he nodded in acquiescence of her decision. He brought her a little earthen lamp to help her induce the meditative state. But before the meditation took her away, he uncurled her fists and held them gently until she opened her eyes. When she did, he spoke into her eyes, “Keep these small palms safe, wife; they are my home and anchor. Your poor husband might fall if they are not around to catch him.”
Anasuya nodded slightly as she fought off the meditation for a few precious moments with her husband. She did not say anything, only clasped her husband’s dust worn feet and touched them to her forehead. His smile deepened: what her hands were to him, his feet were to her.
Then Atri stepped away from her. He too was convinced of the rightness of her intent. Anasuya kept her dimming gaze on the familiar feet as they receded and when they disappeared from her sight, the meditation descended.
The earth cannot be allowed to die; the creatures that gave up their life to this famine were her offerings as she began her insistent supplications. To reflect the starkness of the landscape, she clad herself in a single, undyed garment. To express the extreme thirst of the land and its creatures, she gave up food and water. She meditated with her entire being and her austerities began to burn up first her body so that her garment rotted away, and then the earth she sat on, and finally the sky she sat under.
Atri shook his head and tore his gaze from her open palms as they lay atop each other. Then he left to pursue his own meditations. Anasuya was already deep in hers. She began by contemplating on misery, evoking the suffering of the dying creatures who had called this famine eaten earth their home. Then one by one, she summoned images of each sufferer, and one by one, she put each image away. This was the most time consuming part of her odyssey. Her body screamed for food, water, comfort, throwing up insistent images of a hot bowl of rice, a pot of cool water, of woven quilts on her cottage bed; every time, she imagined Atri in deep meditation and this, like always, empowered her enough to banish the disturbances, to hone and sharpen her purpose. Without losing awareness of the sufferers, she split her mind so an empty space was formed. Here, she poured in contemplation of impermanence of all life, which she collected in a small pot and placed it next to the suffering creatures.
By this time, the moon had turned over countless times, the sun had glowered and burned the starving world into a fever pitch, and Anasuya’s single, rude garment had rotted off her emaciated frame. But time had stopped for her. It didn’t matter that months had flown past; this would take as long as it would.
Anasuya contemplated the formless universe, looking for a solution, a way that would end the famine, yet not steal another living being’s resources. She widened her inner eye to include all the worlds, above, below, and beyond. Finally, the way revealed itself: she considered the heavenly river, flowing through velvet space as though it were liquid pearls. This river’s waters ran deeper than earth oceans, waves and currents tumbling over each other, in luxuriant abundance.
Months after the lamp had lit before Anasuya, a small smile tugged at the edge of her features, betraying her humanity.
Anasuya narrowed her inner vision to focus on the river and began her long journey back to the patch of earth she squatted on.
A few months after, Anasuya opened her physical eyes to find herself sitting in the middle of a deluge that turned into a river.
It was a few more weeks later, one the evening she felt human enough to venture beyond her bed. Atri helped her walk to the river’s bank. He supported her as she took her first steps in more than a year, so exhausted and drained had she been at the end of her ordeals.
Atri, as always, divined what she was thinking of and assured her, “It was worth it. There is a river here now. Feast your eyes on this evening, Anu.”
Anasuya bowed her head to better hear the wind weaving through the busy tree. A squirrel saw them and began scolding them, trying to keep them away from her nest. A couple of storks, obviously travelers from a far land, majestically strode out of the shallows farther down the stream, strolled unhurriedly to the bank where they had nested among the thrushes. Anasuya and Atri sat in silence, just enjoying the sounds of a busy beauty that characterizes all life. A loon called, heralding the moon-rise, and soon the twilight was filled with song of frogs and cicadas.
“Mmm,” Anasuya sighed, “There can be no heaven that could offer anything more pleasing. Unless . . .” she cut her eye teasingly at Atri.
“Yes, unless what, wife?” he prompted.
“Unless it is the sight of your dear feet walking towards me!” she finished weakly with a smile. Atri laughed and it seemed to her that the very moonlight rippled.
Then she looked worriedly at her husband and said, “I hope that the heavens do not dry out because I convinced the river to wet the parched earth!”
Atri looked at the steady flow of the river their ashram perched on and reassured her, “No heaven would begrudge a thirsty world these streams, especially since they create heaven wherever they run.”
“What is more, “he added, looking up, “the heavenly river is no dimmer, her waters no less pearl-like. Look!”
In the sky, the Milky Way seemed to slope to the horizon, and the earth river seemed to dip and weave so it was easy to think them the same.
“Lady, pray listen!” Anasuya begged Shilavati.
It was time for the sun to rise, but Shilavati had decided that he would not be allowed to rise.
Shilavati turned her red eyes like live embers and focused her burning gaze on Anasuya. She barked hoarsely, “What remains to be said, Lady? Am I wrong? How can this be my fault?”
“But the sun . . .” Anasuya began
“The sun can rot in darkness, if his light brings death to my husband!” Shilavati retorted.
“What means this delay?” Shilavati’s husband moaned. He rode on her back. His sores wept anew and he cried out in pain as leprosy ate at his limbs. The darkness was deep and Shilavati hitched his body higher so he lodged more securely on her back.
They were on their way to the prostitute house, where her leprous husband wanted to meet the dancer he had lost his heart to, his dying wish that Shilavati wished to fulfill. On the way, his body had touched a sage lying on a bed of nails and the curse that erupted from the sage’s mouth was the cause of all the fuss. The sage, in pain, had spat out the curse, “May the one who touched me die with sunrise!”
This was an age when extreme virtue was the key to unimaginable power. There were many ways to harness this virtue, and these depended on one’s placement in the universe. Kings, Brahmins, sages, even Vaishyas were always conducting, planning, or concluding a yagna, the popular, efficient way to accrue cosmic merit or punya, which included sacrifices that could be exchanged for anything that Vidhata, the god of fate, had forgotten to etch in one’s lot. Every other person was a yogi, a person who had conquered his senses and thoughts by yoga. A short walk down one’s street would mean passing by numerous meditators, especially if there is a tree. It was not unusual for trees that stood at the edge of every street, on every crossroads, to have an apron of convenient platforms, in case the passer-by should be struck with a sudden need to meditate.
But yoga and yagnas were not the only ways to accrue this virtue. For women, the most powerful virtue could be harnessed by sattitva, the power derived from their fidelity and their willingness to completely bend their will to their husband’s, also known as pativrata or wife-dharma. Folklore of the time was littered with tales of many satis, or followers of sattitva.
Shilavati, formidable in this power, had stopped the sun from rising, vowing to avoid her husband’s destruction at any cost, no matter how cosmic. She had decreed the sun would not rise, to prevent the sage’s curse from coming true. With great power comes the temptation to flaunt it, and Shilavati, though a great sati, was human enough.
Anasuya found this undertone of one-upmanship quite unseemly and sighed. She tried to reason with Shilavati, “Lady, please consider: the sage’s curse emerged out of pain. Can you not be merciful? Do release the sun! His light reaches farther than your rage!”
“If his coming brings my husband’s death, he cannot reach the place my husband lies,” Shilavati stonily repeated, but the burning in her eyes had turned ashy. She blinked, hitched a sob, and glanced around, as though looking for a way out. The sympathy in Anasuya’s gaze stilled as she heard this. It seemed that Shilavati, like a lot of other women, was flexing her sati muscle.
Anasuya was not sure exactly what an ideal of sattitva looked like. But she was sure that if nourishment was the first function of stree dharma, then any decision that starved and killed unsuspecting creatures could only dim such power, not increase it. All the chasing after powers through following strict rules governing wife chasteness smelled of little else but ambition to Anasuya, though she made constant conscious efforts to not judge her sisters for their humanity. It was as though being faithful to one’s husband were an obligation requiring supernatural efforts, deserving extra-terrestrial rewards and accolades when adhered to, rather than a natural loyalty any being nurtures for its mate. This loyalty could be seen throughout the natural world and Anasuya was beginning to lose patience with the melodrama surrounding female chastity. It was, after all, nothing much more complicated than a civilized woman’s natural inclination to modesty, her disinterest in sharing herself unwillingly, not a smothering set of rules shrouding all women from their nature.
Anasuya felt her temper rising, and closed her eyes to visualize Atri’s feet returning to their cottage in the evening. As it always did, the vision restored her perspective and her grip on Shilavati gentled. She knew that the only reason Shilavati had let her near was her own reputation as a sati par excellence.
Anasuya pursed her lips. Her sati-reputation was not something she had sought out; it had come to her because of her well-known loyalty to her husband, the merit for which, Anasuya believed, should go to her husband, Atri, than to her. She remembered her first sight of her husband; her head was bowed as she preferred to feel the air before trusting her senses. The air must have felt good, because she knew that she opened her eyes before raising her head. So the first sight of her husband were Atri’s dusty, worn feet advancing towards her and this had remained a guiding metaphor for her, definitely not meant to convey that her place was beneath his feet or the other theme-laden interpretations assigned to the image.
Anasuya looked around and tried again, “Lady Shilavati, consider that little shoot, this grandfather tree’s great grand-daughter. Should she shrivel up and die, her tiny limbs stretched desperately to the dark skies? The little sparrow that hides her young beneath her wing will not wake without the sun and smother her children, too weak to peep! The entire family of mice that lives around those roots will perish; venturing out for foraging would be a certain death sentence since their predators can see better than they without the sun, and they know it.”
Shilavati was weeping copiously by now. Her husband had stopped moaning, silent tears leaking from beneath his closed eyes, as though the pain of so many lives seemed too heavy a price for life of a single human.
Anasuya was relentless in her tender pleading, “Please, Lady! No sattitva, no punya can measure up to the pure, naturally sacrosanct feeling that motherhood is!”
Shilavati bowed her head so that her long, unbound hair covered her husband’s head as he lay in her lap, darkening the already dark night.
Anasuya pushed on, ever more gently now, “Your sattitva is powerful, Lady, and if death can be conquered, I will use my powers to add to yours, to help your husband. Please, Lady, do not incur ill-will of so many lives in your insistence to hanging on to a single mortal life!”
She went on, “Lady Shilavati, allow the sun to rise! Do not let your fear of death stifle all life!”
But Shilavati was already shaking her head, her tears wetting her husband’s cold, set face, as the first fingers of dawn peeked over the horizon, like children wondering if was all right to come out, if mother’s anger was appeased now. Shilavati’s grief shrunk towards normalcy, became more human, no longer the looming, roiling rage it had been; her sobs became part of a wider world waking up to its busyness and to life as the sun finally rose.
Anasuya waited for Shilavati to understand the full impact of being mortal. Then, she asked Shilavati to carry her husband’s body to her ashram and made preparations. She got her mind ready and drank in the strong concoction of milk, flour, coconuts, and honey, to sustain her through the ritual. She spread Kush grass in the clearing and set aside a basket of flowers, several pots of water, some milk, a little pot of honey, a rather large pot of ghee, and some mixed grains. She then spread a charpoy in the exact center of the clearing. Then she dragged in the sacrifice, the offering she would make in exchange of a life: it was a large chest of coins, gold, silver, bronze, and white metal.
In an age that worshipped cosmic powers, coin was easy to come by. Anasuya and her husband, the sage Atri had no use for money. But Atri had explained that there was a variety of very, very powerful beings, some who lived beneath the earth and did not wish to share the underground riches with “surface” peoples. These underworld cities were neighbors with the land ruled by Dharma, the god in charge of death, brother to Kubera, the god who kept the wealth of the worlds. One way to reach Dharma vended through these underworld worlds.
Sattitva gave the wife power to not only see the god as he came for the soul of a husband, but to also converse with him. Once a person can converse and communicate, persuasion is a natural by-product. Folklore sang paeans to a wife who had successfully argued with the god and trapped him in the noose of their conversation, and won her husband’s life back. Anasuya could not remember if that had already happened or if it was still to come, but stories are like that; they talk of possibilities with just as assurance as they sing of deeds past. Anasuya planned to offer part of the wealth ripped from beneath the earth in exchange for Shilavati’s husband; after all, a bargain was a bargain, and lives could be paid for in a myriad of currencies.
Aanasuya shuddered to imagine an existence without Atri, and not because her legendary power derived of sattitva from his well-being. He was compass, and though she and her husband had their own separate duties and responsibilities, she feared she would be less herself with him. Her heart went out to Shilavati and she could only imagine the immense loneliness, vast as the sky, which yawned at a person who had lost her mate.
She was ready when Shilavati arrived with her husband’s body. They lay the body on the charpoy and began their ritual. By the time they finished, the chest of coins was empty and Anasuya had broken the chest to feed the fire, adding an almost uninterrupted ghee stream to keep it ablaze. The hungry fire accepted it all and sent a filament of satiated smoke to the body, entering it from the ear, and emerging from the nose, causing Shilavati’s husband to suddenly gasp deeply and exhale heavily from his mouth, coughing as though he’d been through a fire.
“Lend him your shoulder, Lady,” Anasuya told Shilavati, “You might have to even teach him to speak, eat, and walk. Sometimes, when they return, they have forgotten.”
Shilavati, her face a stormed-through land, nodded, and supporting her husband, left the ashram. Anasuya waited till they left and tried to get up but weakened by the ritual, found it difficult to peer through the shifting world enough to understand which way to bend her body that she may stand up. She found she didn’t need to; as always, Atri’s solid frame steered her till she was straight. She softly laughed and shook her head, “My husband! Always there to support the cause of dead husbands!”
Atri answered with a chortle and teased her back, “My wife! Always there to fight for the cause of grieving satis!”
Then, his eyes shining with concern, he looked at her and said, “Anu, why don’t you go to your cottage and rest? I will have all this cleared up.”
“No, lord of my life, no need! I think no ritual complete until the person who began it clears it up so all order is restored. I am not so weakened that I have to force my husband to pick up after me! Besides, I know that you have your concerns that need you more than this messy clearing does!”
Atri smiled, “My good wife remembers my concerns! No need to wait up for me, Anu. Remember, I am fasting.”
Anasuya returned the smile, “As am I; it is the eleventh day of the moon, remember?”
“Oh yes. I will see you when the eleventh day moon shines on our cottage!”
“Are you leaving, husband? Stay, please. Let me at least wash your feet with sandalwood water to ease the path they must tread on! Let me . . . “and she tried to rise. Atri shook his head and squatted next to his wife, catching her hands in his. He gently said, “Anu, listen to me. Why don’t you wash my tired feet once they get tired? You can wash them once I return. You are in no fit state.”
“But I always . . . . Please wait a little, lord. It will take me but a few minutes!” Anasuya tried to get up again as she protested.
“Wife, let us come to a compromise: you can wash my feet before we break our fast under the moon. After all, you have saved one husband already today! I can wait till evening.” Atri said, only half in jest.
Anasuya looked beseechingly at him, “Please, my husband!”
Finally, Atri shook his head in defeat and brought her the platter she used to wash his feet daily. It was ready, with a piece of sandalwood and marigold petals. He placed the platter next to her and sat down, letting Anasuya finish.
“Now, Anu,” He said when she finished, “Please promise me that you will rest once all is cleared. We shall break our fast with fruit today.” He took both her hands in his and finished the gesture that was their particular ritual: he brought her cool hands to his face and lowered his face into them. Her palms cradled his face for a breath and then caressed his cheeks.
The ritual settled world around them into a recognizable, familiar canvas and Atri left for a spiritual conference being held in a nearby ashram.
Anasuya nodded and set about clearing the left overs of the ritual slowly, to give time to her senses to get used to the organized world, where there was a definite up and down, and the directions did not spin. She finished clearing up the yagna space and left the clearing for her cottage, carrying the platter in which she had washed Atri’s feet; the water in it retained a few motes of dust from his feet and she would not let go of this connection until those very feet carried her husband back to her.
I stood meditating under my tree. My tree and I are perched on top of this hill, where such peace pervades. This place, this shady bank of the Mandakini, this muted bird song, these sloughing breezes, this fragrant air, just standing here, one would feel like one was in a clearing on Kailash, or sitting in bower in Vaikuntha, or just contemplating the directions in Brahmalok. All who come here forget petty concerns of their mortality; they may not choose to do this, but this effect is almost like a turnpike. The lady who calls this home makes this ashram a center post that holds the world together, keeps the sky from falling on earth, the planets in their proper orbit, and the sun and moon on their schedule.
Beyond this, wildernesses of many kinds await. Cities, with their busy races, jostling crowds, their many lights wait to swallow a wandering mendicant with just as much hunger as the deep jungles with their hidden snares, uncompromising canopy, and treacherous footholds. Each has its own rules, rigid governances, and a long list of mandates. It is only here, in this nadir of peace that dust-laden feet can rest, know real liberation.
Today, I seek to calm my center to understand the story soon to unfold at the ashram, just down the slope of this hill. Nothing goes unnoticed in the universe, and without a proper story teller to gather, arrange, and remind, chaos would ensue, as the every single event would splinter into infinite interpretations.
A branch shivered at the edge of my vision and I knew it was beginning; the cosmic world was about to descend on the mortal world and challenge the validity of its virtue. I smiled down at my iron berry that had led to this tableau, a continuation of a gauntlet I had tossed on heavenly turf.
Three village wives that were not village wives came to the river bank, loaded with baskets of cloth, presumably to do laundry. They made a lot of noise, giggling loudly, exclaiming at an unnecessarily high decibel, fluttering like a plague of butterflies. Anasuya, mending a weaving of dried leaf mat, heard and looked up. She had known in the deep part of her mind, that the episode with Shilavati would not go unnoticed. The three who had showed up at the river bank must have been in a hurry, their disguise incomplete: the pile of clothes shone as though it had gold thread or gems in it, and the folds looked like the heap had stones in it. No real village wife would even dream of owning such things, and if she did, she would know better than to bring it to the river for washing.
Atri and Anasuya’s home backed up against a cliff, and she could also see the river bank from where she sat. The cottage perched on a plateau of a rising slope of a hill and the person looking out from the threshold would think it perched in an aerie, looking down at the river from between tree tops. Anasuya wove the mat absently, watching the three women, waiting for them to finish with their play. And sure enough, the three wandered by the cottage with studied casualness, their laundry baskets nowhere in sight.
Anasuya welcomed them with a fully laden aarti plate. She sketched circles with the aarti plate around the three ladies, outlining a halo around their heads, and they were amused. Their features arranged around a smile that hinted at benevolence and Anasuya breathed in relief. These were no village women; she knew a goddess when she saw one, and that’s what these three were. They had been drawn to this spot by the stories, of course: the famine, the river, and Sati Shilavati, for instance. Anasuya, however, did not wish to keep them from their divine duties for too long; she looked at the ground and softly said, “My Mothers! What blessing have I incurred that your visage swims before my eyes? Please let me welcome you to Chitrakoot.”
The three goddesses smiled. Then the one in deepest, richest red and gold spoke, “We have been drawn here, Anasuya, by stories of your sattitva.”
Anasuya kept her hands together but looked up inquiringly and said, “I do love my husband. My fondness is marked by all who know us.”
The goddess in sparkling white considered Anasuya, “Yes. We have heard tales of this marked fondness, as you so charmingly put it. You realize that this has caused you to amass enough punya to harness not a little power?”
Anasuya knew a heavy cold in her stomach, as though somehow she had swallowed a ball of iron. She said, “Lady, I can swear on my sattitva that I have not misused whatever power attends my regard for my husband. We both live simple lives, concentrate on maintaining peace and balance. If I have offended, I will commit my hours to strictest austerities from this moment forth!”
The goddess in green spoke up, “No need for that, Anasuya. We all remember losing a heavenly river the last time you practiced your particular strict austerities.” She glanced behind her at the river sparkling in the afternoon sun.
Anasuya kept her silence. There was nothing she could say, she realized, that could be considered the right thing. After a while, she said, “Lady, let me appease you with these fruits and flowers. I only live like my husband’s wife, nothing more.”
The green clad goddess said, “And nothing less! Yes, your husband. Sage Atri. Very powerful, one of the originals! Doesn’t he practice a lot of austerities, live like a mendicant?”
The white clad goddess joined in, “It must get lonely for you, out here, at the edge of the wilderness, weaving interminably?”
Anasuya began to get a glimmer about why these goddesses were here. She tried to protest, “Begging your pardon, Lady of Learning, but I am not lonely! My father is a sage and I grew up in an ashram. This life is not strange to me. I am happy with my husband, just as he is. I promise by all that is holy, I do not envy anyone. It is in my very nature: I do not envy!”
The red-and-gold clad goddess said, “Perhaps, the Lady Anasuya is right. Perhaps she is not envious, because she does not know of an existence other than this!”
The three goddesses were pacing, inter-twining each other’s paths as they took turns to face Anasuya. Their garments did not move with the breezes but just a fraction before, and their eyes kept changing color.
“All those other satis who proclaimed undying devotion to their husbands ultimately gave in to their humanity.”
“Would you not like to watch the divine dances in Vaikunth? Know true bliss at the sight of the Protector dreaming on the Eternal Serpent?”
“Perhaps you would like to contemplate the universe from a different heaven? Watch the planets in their orbits, the comets whooshing by in Brahmalok?
“Kailash has many charms. Perhaps you would like to spend some time in its fragrant, shady groves? The breezes of snow-capped Kailash soothe and renew the very soul”
Anasuya shook her head, “My Mother mistakes me for Lord Narad! I have no wish to travel the cosmos. I am content. I ask for no boons but your blessing and kind regard as befits a human wife.”
“And what wish befits this human wife?” The three goddesses spoke in a voice.
“A child worthy of my husband, my Mother,” Anasuya answered with her head bowed and palms clasped.
The goddesses seemed to have seen enough and left soon after, leaving behind them a fragrance more like incense than flowers, and a promise of a perfect son for Anasuya.
I smiled at my tree. Even though the goddesses had left with a benevolent boon for Anasuya, I knew that this wasn’t the end of a story; rather it was just beginning.
The Ocean of Milk lapped gently at the coils of the eternal serpent. This was one of the High Heavens, Vaikunth, and abode of Vishnu. But the cosmic Dreamer was not asleep. His eyes were wide open and his brow had a furrow as he looked at Laxmi, his consort, modestly studying her hands in her lap.
“This is a strange request from my wife!” He exclaimed. “If you are curious about Lady Anasuya’s powers, by all means, go ahead and test her!”
“My Lord,” Laxmi replied, “We require the Trimurti’s assistance in this matter.”
“Sage Atri is one of the original Seven Rishis. The Trimurti would loathe offending him. If he takes offense, it would affect cosmic balance!”
Laxmi said nothing, but did not resume massaging Vishnu’s feet, without which his sleep would be tainted with unrest.
The god sighed and said, “Let the Trimurti discuss this.”
I went to Brahmalok, the Heaven of Brahma and found matters standing at a similar crossroads. Brahma said to Saraswati, “Atri is one of the Seven who sprang from my thoughts; he is powerful. Why should the Trimurti agree to worry him?”
Saraswati replied, “True, Sage Atri is a Thought-Born. However, we do not wish to worry or anger him. His wife, Anasuya is the subject of our test. My Lord does not need to be reminded that the Karma and individuality is retained by each person, no matter whom they espouse!”
Brahma closed the eyes in the face that directly faced Saraswati and said, “Let the Trimurti deliberate.”
Saraswati went back to reciting the Vedas, an almost unconscious response to anything that agitated.
Things were no more harmonious in Kailash, the Heaven of Shiva. Here it was Gauri who was speaking when I reached.
“My Lord, just imagine! This human woman has accrued a formidable amount of power. Any time that a human, animal, or demon achieves power, he has caused discord and cacophony wide and large enough to affect the cosmos! Why should this woman be different?”
“Lady Gauri, no discord or cacophony has issued from Anasuya. Besides, it is Vishnu who maintains universal balance with his incarnations. Do you seek to outright destroy this lady? For that is what your husband does best!”
“We do not seek to destroy but merely to test lady Anasuya, my Lord! We are appealing to the Trimurti for assistance in this test.”
“The Trimurti, then needs to confer and decide, my Wife,” Shiva said as he closed his eyes for the day.
I was called in once the Trimurti had discussed the matter. I brought my tree and stood beneath its shade.
The Trimurti and the goddesses had already begun the conference when I arrived.
“There he is!” Laxmi said as I arranged myself beneath my tree, “He began this whole business!”
“You see, my Lord,” Gauri added, “Narad wants to fry an iron berry.”
The Trimurti interrupted, “That is not possible. In this cosmos, iron cannot be fried. No mortal flesh can digest it in this form, so the whole idea of frying iron is pointless.”
“The Trimurti speaks Truth,” I conceded, “No mortal flesh can ingest a fried iron berry. However, my flesh is not mortal, and this is just what I require to sustain me through my journey through the three worlds as I seek a hearth-fire as strong and as uncorrupted as lady Anasuya’s.”
Saraswati said, “My Lord! This is a forthright statement of the inadequacy of our hearths. It needs to be tested.”
“Did my Wife attempt to fry this berry?” The Trimurti asked, the face of each god addressing his wife.
The three goddesses, their eyes shining with lightening, said nothing.
“It is explicit now, wherefrom derives this need to test an unoffending human. Wife, you are warned by your husband: this envy is most unbecoming. Leash it and admire a human who has reached where goddesses have not, and learn a few lessons to charge your household. Leave this insistence on testing the lady.”
Gauri spoke in a voice, soft like a cloud that holds thunder, “This lady’s power must be tested, and if necessary, checked. She has already grown powerful enough to drag a heavenly river to flow on earth. How long must the cosmos endure such imbalance? How much more should the heavens share with the earth?”
Trimurti replied, “The heavenly river does not suffer for this, and neither do the heavens know any lack. This river has ended a horrifying famine that threatened to literally petrify the earth. As such it has helped balance the worlds.”
Laxmi spoke up, “Lord, we concede the issue about the river. But if untested, this woman’s power might very well shake the firmament the worlds rest upon! What if she finds need for the Ocean my Lord rests on?”
Saraswati said, “My Lord already knows of Sage Atri’s power over the planets. Is it meet that his wife should command equal cosmic influence?”
Laxmi added, “Besides, my Lord, as gods responsible for the balance and continued well-being of this cosmos, does it not befall us to remain involved in earth-life?”
Gauri said, “My Lord addresses imbalances caused by the individual principals. Let us, then as householders, address this potential imbalance; as wives, we know this playing field well.”
Trimurti addressed me, “Narad, what is your advice in this matter?”
I replied, “Narayan, Narayan! My Lord, all I want, all I have ever wanted in this affair, is to fry this iron berry.”
Trimurti finally spoke, “So be it, then! It shall be as the Goddess wishes. The Trimurti will assist in this test, as long as no Dharma or Cosmic Principles are violated. What is your wish, then, Devi?”
“It is our wish that the Trimurti arrive at Anasuya’s threshold as Sanyasis and beg for Nirvana Bhiksha, which must be accepted without clothes. The Sanyasis must be young men. This is the way, it is decided, in which lady Anasuya’s chastity will be tested.” The goddesses spoke in a single voice.
Then, the Goddess Triumvirate considered me, “Once our test is finished, Narad may ask lady Anasuya to fry his berry.”
I bowed my head in acceptance.
Trimurti said, “Very well. However, if the lady remains chaste, the Goddess Triumvirate shall acknowledge defeat before her and concede that their hearths lack the power of hers.”
“This is reasonable and agreeable, my Lord,” the Goddess Triumvirate said, “We are grateful to our husbands for their assistance.”
“Narad, you shall bear witness in this affair. Tell this well, Story Teller!” The Trimurti commanded.
“As you wish, my Lord and Lady!” I said.
“Anu!” Atri called from the threshold. “I am going down to the river. I will be out till the afternoon.”
“But the midday meal, my husband?” Anasuya came up to him, “What about your meal? I will await your return. Wild rice and grass broth will do?”
“Better than a feast, my wife!” Atri smiled at Anasuya.
Anasuya retuned his smile and brought out the platter of fresh water, strewn with marigold petals and a piece of sandalwood. Atri, used to this ritual, sat down on the threshold step and she placed the platter beneath his feet. She washed his feet, pouring water over his toes, using the petals to rub off grime. Atri watched her, and said, “Lady, you are my equal and you work as hard at our life as I do. Let me wash your feet in return!”
Anasuya’s smile deepened as she retorted, as always, “My lord, my feet are not tired yet and do not deserve such regard. Besides, I have a sense that I will need this ritual today.”
Atri looked down at Anasuya’s upturned, smiling face and said solemnly, “I must confess, wife, my feet remember your loving touch through the brambles and pebbles they must tread. My step is surer because your hands guide it so well. My being, from face to feet, carries the steadying touch of your palms wherever I go, Anu. Your fingers direct and lead me truly.”
Anasuya nodded and looked down at her task; she rubbed the moistened sandalwood into her husband’s feet and said, “I, too confess, husband that this platter that your feet have touched gives me strength as I try to maintain the harmonies around our house. I think I shall have use of this platter before your return. If my touch guides your steps, husband, I would hasten them back to our home.”
True to her word, sensing something she could not quite see or understand, she set aside the platter and sat down to watch her husband as he left for the day, striding away purposefully, his staff beating a rhythm on the ground.
Anasuya watched him walk, a musing half-conscious smile that her face somehow arranged itself in whenever she talked with him. Once Atri’s figure disappeared behind the curve of the hill, she turned back to the cottage. Atri had brought some wild rice grains when he had returned from his foraging last season, and Anasuya had been grateful for that.
For a mendicant, begging for bhiksha, or alms was the major source of food. This begging was part of civilized life; powerful punya could be accrued by giving alms to rishis and Brahmins, and housewives and householders alike were always on the lookout for rishis and mendicants out for bhiksha. Refusing a call for food was unimaginable, and folklore was rich with paeans praising all beings, animals, humans, demons, and gods, who presented an ideal by their generosity. The choice of accepting bhiksha from a person or house remained with the mendicant, and having one’s offering refused as bhiksha brought such darkness to the soul that could only be relieved by the bhiksha being accepted. By accepting alms from a house, a rishi bestowed on that house a blessing of a hundred fold of whatever was given to his bowl, and a thousand fold of good will that accompanied this giving. The Vedas, the holy books of civilized rules, decreed that bhiksha must be given at least once a day, and the larger the portion of bhiksha, the greater the punya. If a wife had the misfortune of not having any mendicant’s “Bhiksham Dehi, Devi; Lady, Alms for my bowl” call resound from her threshold, she would leave her house in search of a rishi, traveling mendicant, Brahmin, or any hungry person she could feed. Women were known to feed hungry animals, if they could find no hungry human.
The problem was, rishis were expected to practice austerities quite frequently, and Brahmins fasted regularly, so finding an alms-bowl or bhiksha patra open to receiving a generous portion was quite challenging, especially if it happened to be one of the lunar days when fasting was recommended as a cure for ornery misfortunes, a way of wooing the cosmos to send in more fortunate circumstances. Of course, the ingenious humanity had found a way to counteract this. Bhiksha could be given in form of readily prepared food, grain, seeds, fruit, flowers, jewelry, clothes, hair, even requests. One needed to be ready for whatever was asked.
In return, the bhikshus, or those asking for bhiksha, respected their responsibilities and were mindful of violations. Only that which the household could spare would be accepted. Bhikshus concentrated on channeling genuine goodwill on the house and the giver, no matter the sparseness of the bhiksha in their bowl; they strove to remember that they were the real givers in this complex exchange. No mendicant made unreasonable demands on the host, and all bhikshus remembered to be genuinely grateful for what they received. Bhikshus were also aware of the household’s obligation to give bhiksha described in the Vedas, and ensured that they stopped by their designated houses even on fasting days, accepting flowers or grain for their bowls.
Ashrams of rishis occupied in a singular position in this complex social machinery. Bhiksha was their main source of foraging; at the same time, bhikshus stopped by their thresholds as well. So the residents of ashrams, the rishis and their wives gave and received bhiksha. No matter how humble the household, bhiksha was an integral part of its maintenance and duty. This ritual of giving also formed the locus of the wife’s routine; only once she had fed her family and given bhiksha would she sit down to her own meal.
Narayan, Narayan! All beings who need nourishment construct such intricate, multi-faceted relationships with it! But let me not digress: let us go back to our story.
Atri had brought in the wild rice grains in his bhikha patra and Anasuya had planted them behind their cottage. She had just harvested the grain for their meal. She set about cleaning and soaking it for the meal and coaxed her hearth fire to life. The rice was just about done when she heard the call, “Bhiksham Dehi, Devi!” Anasuya smiled as she gathered up half the rice and a pot of grass soup. After all, no regular bhikshus came to her door and it felt especially propitious that the call had come on the day that she had just finished cooking!
“Gracious bhikshu, pray tarry! Your call is heard and this is a generous house!” Anasuya called out to the threshold. She freshened up her hair and sari, and picked up the rice and soup pot. But when she reached the doorway, she was surprised: instead of a single bhikshu, there stood three mendicants, looking expectedly at her, their faces arranged in the same slight smile.
“Welcome, bhikshus!” Anasuya smiled, “May I beg your indulgence farther and ask that you tarry a little longer? I have some more rice that I would like to fetch. In my preoccupation, I had not realized that there were three gracious bhikshus who have blessed my doorway on this auspicious day.”
“Lady, stay!” one of the bhikshus spoke. “We require no rice for our bhiksha patra.”
“We have a request of you, Lady,” another said.
We have been fasting for many months and have chosen your house to break our fasting.” The third bhikshu said.
Anasuya’s eyes shone with unshed tears and she was obviously moved by this. Collecting herself, she asked, “Surely some punya accrued in a previous life has blossomed on this day for me! Please, bhikshu, what may my kitchen yield to break your fast? Would you allow this humble rishi-wife to cook you the choicest meals? I had not realized and have cooked only some rice. What can I offer?”
But the bhikshus were nodding their heads, signaling that such a meal was not acceptable.
Mystified, Anasuya bowed her head and said, “Pray, mendicant, do not leave my house with empty bhiksha patras. My repertoire is generous, let me protest with modesty. I can make sweets of roots, fragrant with ghee and saffron; I can serve you fresh, crisp puris and three kinds of savory vegetables, if you but give me a few minutes. If your fast was to woo the Moon, I can serve you meals prepared solely in milk and curds. Pray tell me how I may serve.”
“Lady, we have no use for puris and sweets!” One bhikshu protested.
“Yes, but our bhiksha does have connections with the milk you offer, but. . . “Another bhikshu said, but stopped mid-sentence, looking at their third companion for the rest.
“. . . but we have a special condition for the milk. We have heard tell of your generosity, Lady, and these stories directed our bhiksha patras to your threshold” The third bhikshu finished.
Anasuya, who had been about to return to the kitchen to gather up whatever milk she had, stopped. She waited with her hands folded.
“We need the Nirvana Bhiksha, Lady,” The first bhikshu explained.
“Without clothes, Lady,” The second bhikshu said.
Anasuya stared in surprise, unable to resist swallowing around a sudden lump in her throat, unable to stop her hands from fingering, straightening the edge of her sari around her neck. When she realized where her hands fluttered, she hastily caught the edge of her sari and wiped her face with it. Then self-consciously, she swallowed as she clung to the vision of Atri’s feet returning to the cottage again and spoke, “I do not understand this fast, bhikshu!”
The three mendicants waited for her to explain. If a wife is to refuse bhiksha, she deserved to have her explanation listened to.
Anasuya went on, “Sirs, no man other than my husband has seen me in so intimate a manner. Pray understand! This request could strip me of my pativrata. Kind sirs, be persuaded by this humble rishi-wife! Let me prepare a heartening meal for you. You could partake it behind this cottage, that I may not violate your dignity or my chastity.”
But the mendicants shook their heads. One said, “Lady, bhiksha may only be offered facing the person receiving it. We are not common beggars and are willing to wait till we receive what we need.”
“We were prepared for this, Lady. Have no worries. We leave our blessing on your house,” the second bhikshu conceded.
The three prepared to turn away, when Anasuya said, “Pray tarry, bhikshu! This is a generous house!”
Anasuya begged the three bhikshus to wait a while, “Pray come in! Rest your tired, blessed selves on these mats,” she said, spreading three mats on the table.
Then she went within and returned with a platter filled with slightly muddy water, marigold petals floating around a piece of sandalwood. The three mendicants, who appeared to be holding some conversation silently, looked up at her questioningly. Anasuya returned their gaze with clear eyes, her smile reassuring.
“Lady, what . . . ?”
But Anasuya knew what she was doing. She caught some of the water in her cupped palm and keeping Atri’s face in front of her eyes, sprinkled the water onto the three mendicants, refilling her palm with the water from the platter without breaking rhythm, focusing on Atri as her hands, fingers, palms worked mechanically, till almost all the water was gone.
Anasuya blinked when she couldn’t cup any more water, clearing the haze that had descended when she had begun the sprinkling. When she looked down at the bhikshus, she smiled in satisfaction: the three young men had been changed into three infants, all of them younger than six months. An indulgent smile stretched Anasuya’s features as watched them trying to crawl around each other. The three babes were wrapped in large pieces of cloth, more fitting to a man’s frame, and these cloths tangled in the babes’ arms and feet, hindering their movement and they began to seem annoyed. Anasuya took away the cloths, folded them and put them away on a high ledge. The naked babes, relieved at the freedom, began crawling and gurgling at each other.
Anasuya laid them on the mats and tied rags from her old saris and Atri’s old dhotis above them; the babes marveled at the rags fluttering in the breeze, caught their toes, discovered their fingers, and lost them again. Anasuya finished putting the final seasonings in the meal and picked up the cottage a little, cooing and talking constantly to the babes.
Finally, she noticed that one of the babes had begun sucking his fist, begun to fuss. She took him in her lap and offered him her breast, which he knew instinctively to take, knowing no shame in her unclothed state, since there was none but the babes to see her. Soon, he was full and asleep.
She was feeding the third babe when Atri returned. His eyes widened in amazement at his wife surrounded by the two sleeping babes, suckling a third. His smile widened as he asked, “What a miracle my wife is! I left her languishing alone this morning, hoarding my feet water for company, and I return to a bustling house with three babes!”
Anasuya smiled in welcome, “Oh husband, the heavens are kind to send you home before nightfall! Look what the kind gods have sent us!”
“Indeed, the gods are kind. Whose babes are these? How long may we enjoy them?” Atri asked.
“Husband, these are your sons! We may keep them till they are ready to walk away of their own violation!” Anasuya replied.
Then she told Atri all that had transpired. When she finished, Atri’s eyes twinkled with understanding that she did not want to question. He sat down with her, touching the three sleeping babes, his eyes shining with paternal love.
After an hour or so, the infants woke up and discovered Atri. They climbed about him as he chortled at their antics. Then, almost in play, Atri gathered all three in an embrace. The three babes squirmed, but he held them fast. The three babes melded within his arms, and when Atri let go, there was one babe with three heads and six arms.
“See, wife?” he beamed at Anasuya, “The gods are kind! Had the goddess not promised you an extraordinary child?”
“But, my husband . . . “Anasuya began, but couldn’t think of what else to say.
I stood beneath the shade of my tree, which I had carried with me. The three goddesses paced in an intertwining pattern before me, their familiars pacing behind them. I would need my tree’s shade today; the air here was shot with electricity, a heat current woven within that could singe a mortal’s breath.
“This was to be a mere test!” Gauri exploded, her tiger growling deeply.
“We were not to be tested,” Saraswati reminded me; her swan swung its head ass though to peck at my feet.
I did not move.
“How could we lose our husbands in this way?” Laxmi repeated, stroking her elephant’s trunk absently as he touched her shoulder in commiseration.
“Lady, I did tell you of Anasuya’s sattitva and its power,” I said.
“So we wait for an entire human life time till our husbands return? How is this sattitva?” Gauri questioned.
“But Mother, you promised Lady Anasuya a child worthy of his father! An extraordinary son! What could be more fitting than the three cosmic gods as sons?” I reminded them.
“Foolish story teller! Imagine the cosmic implications of their unavailability!” Laxmi admonished.
“This diatribe is meaningless,” Saraswati said. “We have to get our husbands back.”
“Divine One, only part of the essence of the Trimurti, the triumvirate of gods, resides in the child. No apocalypse threatens!” I tried to gentle their restlessness.
Gauri loomed before my face with ferocity that I blinked at: “What about our sattitva, bard? Without husbands, how can we practice this virtue? You know, we are the ideal that wives worship!”
I had no answer for this; after all, this was part of the story and I am afraid I was more concerned with the meter that I would use to tell it than appreciate the conundrum that the goddesses’ situation had become.
Saraswati said, “We will go to Anasuya again.”
Laxmi said, “We will beg her to return the Trimurti.”
Gauri said, “Our husbands await, Devi! Let us hasten.”
Narayan, Narayan! Wifehood turns goddesses and women into the same, unchanging creature!
Atri and Anasuya were playing with their extraordinary son. Parenthood had softened their features and a permanent smile had settled into corners of their mouths.
“How will he go to his guru’s ashram?” Anasuya asked.
“What?” Atri looked away from the boy at his wife.
“Well, look at him! Have you noticed that he has more than one head? Will not the other boys tease?”
“What need has he of any guru or tutor? Look at him! He has the Vedas! What can a guru teach him?”
“But every normal Brahmin boy . . . “Anasuya protested.
“Ah, wife, but our Dattatreya is no normal Brahmin boy!” Atri said.
He continued, “Our son is the self-teaching one! The air, birds, trees, and stones will be his gurus!”
It seemed true enough; the boy seemed to be constantly absorbing the world around him. Anasuya smiled at the boy, “What a large name for a little boy! I will call him Datta!” she said.
“Bhiksham Dehi!” The call from the threshold caused all three of them turn towards the door. Datta ran to the threshold, each of his faces agitated. There, on the threshold stood the three goddesses. They had not bothered with any illusion or glamour and their familiars were nowhere around. The three stood there, looking longingly at Datta.
“Please, Devi. Bless our home and step in,” Anasuya invited.
Atri put his arm around Datta.
The three goddesses stood before Anasuya, their hands folded in supplication. They spoke with one voice: “Lady, forgive us our tests. We only wished to test the extent of your chastity.”
Anasuya said, “Mother, you shame me by speaking thus! It is my privilege that you thought me worthy of your tests.”
“Lady, pray return our husbands to us! Our divine abode is lonely without our husbands.”
“Wait!” Atri spoke. “My wife was given the boon of an extraordinary child. How can She who grants this boon take the same away?”
“Return our husbands, the Trimurti. We grant the Datta shall retain a particle of the Trimurti and remain the extraordinary son that he is.”
Anasuya, Atri, and Datta bowed their heads and joined their hands. When they opened their eyes, they saw the Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva standing next to their wives.
I came forward before the Divine Ones left.
“Lady Anasuya, I need sustenance,” I said.
Anasuya and Atri looked at me in surprise, noticing me for the first time. They welcomed me and asked me to rest on a woven mat. The Trimurti had left, but their Divine Wives lingered, not willing to miss this. Anasuya had covered her head with her sari and gone to her kitchen to fetch a portion of the family’s meal. Atri, divining that the rest of the evening would be Anasuya’s, took Datta with him and left.
To Anasuya’s surprise, the goddesses and I followed her to her hearth-fire. She looked up inquiringly at me. I smiled and explained, “Lady, I do not require a portion of that meal. I have a special request.”
Anasuya, her eyes racing to the goddesses and back to me, clutched her sari more closely and bowed her head.
I laughed and said, “Narayan, Narayan, Lady! I do not require a Nirvana Bhiksha. Please rest your heart. I have an iron berry that needs to be fried. If you can fry this berry, then the Devis and I will be satiated.”
I offered her the iron berry.
Anasuya took it and lit up the hearth-fire. Her hearth was worn and a bit of mud-brick had broken on a side. There was a splotch of black above the hearth, despite the mud pipe that tried to rein cooking smoke and coax it out of the roof. This blackness was mirrored on the hearth itself, with irregular patches of burned brick, the entire space covered in ashes that seemed to defy all efforts at sweeping. Anasuya reached for a pot of water she kept within reach as she waited for the uneven flame to steady. She sprinkled the water in an attempt to damp the ashes. Then she settled into her task.
She reached for a platter with slightly murky water and a piece of sandalwood floating in it with a few marigold petals. Then, she reached up and got a frying pan, which she began heating on the hearth.
“I need a pan larger than the berry,” She said, “Berries tend to swell when fried.”
We watched in silence.
Anasuya cupped her right palm around some of the water in the platter and closed her eyes, keeping her hand submerged in the platter for a few heartbeats. Then, she placed the iron berry in the hot frying pan and sprinkled the water from the platter onto it. The water sizzled but nothing happened. She began swirling the berry around the pan with a stirrer as she cupped some more water and sprinkled it on and around the berry, her eyes glassy.
Soon, the berry was dancing in the pan, large as a grape, fried golden.
The uneven flames danced around the blackened pot that held memories of countless meals. My hostess expertly caught the pan between folds of her sari edges and removed it from the fire. Then Anasuya doused the hearth and served the fried berry to me in a plate-like shard which had once been the bottom of a pot.
I pressed my palms together in genuine respect and offered Anasuya my heartfelt namaskar. Then I got up with the rough plate and its berry and shared it among the goddesses. It tasted exactly the way a fried berry should taste like!
I smiled at Saraswati, Laxmi, and Gauri. Then I turned to Anasuya and thanked her, “Gracious Lady, indeed, your hearth is generous. I am satiated and bless your household for this bountiful hospitality.”
She joined her hands and replied, “My sincere gratitude to you, Great Muni, for choosing my humble abode and offering this opportunity to me.”
Saraswati, Laxmi, and Gauri folded their hands at Anasuya. Her eyes widened in alarm. She protested, “Mother, what . . .”
The three goddesses spoke with a single voice, “The privilege of standing at your hearth is ours, Anasuya. Your satittva and pativrata are unparalleled in the cosmos. Humans, animals, and demons often place offertory to us. Let us present you with offertories as a sign of our respect to you.”
Laxmi came forward with her offering, “This sari shall never decay or wear out. It will always be enough to cover your modesty and proclaim your status as a wife.”
Saraswati came with her gift, “This garland of flowers will never wilt. It makes its wearer appear more winsome and beautiful.”
Gauri had a pot in her hand for Anasuya, “This pot of unguent will always be full. The unguent will ensure everlasting youth.”
Anasuya bowed as she accepted the gifts. Then, she looked at the goddesses.
The three goddesses smiled widely and spoke in a single voice, “You will not have a daughter of your flesh, but you may share these gifts when your spiritual daughter visits you. Have no fear, Sati, you will recognize her when you see her.”
“They arrive today, my wife,” Atri said. Atri and Anasuya had spent the day on the porch of their cottage in Chitrakoot. Datta had long left the cottage to pursue his destiny. I had visited them the previous day to tell them of the impending arrival of Rama, the Prince of Ayodhya with his wife and brother.
Atri knew of the spark of the god in Rama and looked forward to the visit. Anasuya had prepared accommodations for them, humble but comfortable.
“I have tried to soften their pellets. If they really mean to go on to Dandaka forest, our ashram might well be the last place of comfort for them!” Anasuya replied.
Through the decades and ages that had followed the Triumvirate’s test, they had hosted many visitors, being the last stronghold of civilization before unimaginable wilderness, and the last stronghold of wild, natural beauty before the manicured, tamed human settlements.
Atri looked at Anasuya and his eyes twinkled, “You might find a nice surprise in this visit, all for you, Anu!”
Anasuya smiled without looking up. “What can a prince bring me, my lord? The sun rising every day is miracle enough for me,” she countered.
“My wife sees miracles in the commonplace; that is her charm! Who knows? There might yet be wonders undiscovered, kin un-met!” Atri said.
Finally, the agitation of birds hiding in the grove heralded their visitors. Anasuya watched the three path-weary travelers, the princes bracketing the princess as they walked in a single file along the narrow way that led up to the cottage.
At last they stood before Atri with their hands folded.
Anasuya could hardly believe her eyes; she had forgotten to blink. She choked on a sob and thanked the Goddess with her first coherent thought.
Here, finally, at last stood a daughter before her. Princess Sita looked up, as though catching Anasuya’s thought.
In a recognition that went beyond mortal bonds and immortal promises, the princess smiled.
Narayan, Narayan! Weak as human flesh is, the linking of their spirits lights up stairways of stars that a story teller may map a boundless universe.
Narad had turned and walked away, taking his veena and tree with him. His veena / broom seemed to point towards the other end of the corridor, as though indicating the direction Kitty’s journey should take next.
Kitty looked unseeingly after him, trying to swallow the lump squatting in the middle of her throat. Again. What was it about these strange stories?
Kitty dashed a hand across her eyes to clear her vision. Then she spoke aloud, more to reassure herself than to actually ask a question.
“Aren’t the epics supposed to celebrate the gods? How come, then, a mere woman is more powerful than the goddesses? Come on! What madness is this?”
“A madness? Who has a question about this?” A disembodied voice answered. It came from everywhere, from the walls, the ceiling, from all around. It was a whisper, but there was an insistence about it, a compulsion about it.
“I have a question about madness!” Kitty spoke to it, “How can stories about gods and their power hold messages about the nobility of human beings instead?”
“Gods! Who knows what they are or how they think!” the voice whispered back.
“Well, isn’t that what these stories are for? They explain all the religious things?” Kitty asked.
“I don’t know what all the other stories do. I know only what this running after a god did to me,” the voice whispered with a hint of scorn and uncertainty.
Kitty thought about this for a bit.
Kitty had long accepted that the laws of her recognizable universe did not apply to the Corridor of Queens. She did what any logical person with empirical thinking would do; she decided to go with whatever was going on, hoping that sooner or later, she would find her way out of this room and find the bright October day the way she remembered it. She did not know exactly how much time had passed and Shania’s Halloween party was drawing ever closer. Kitty would have to leave soon to get dressed in her costume. She was going as Merida, the latest Disney princess, a character whose spunk she admired.
There seemed to be no one like Merida here, Kitty thought to herself. What girl had the courage to go against the norms of her society, even flout the traditions of marriage?
As though in response to her thoughts, the same disembodied voice sent a giggle rippling around the room, ribboning Kitty as she stood next to the bench. It seemed to lead her towards itself. Kitty let herself be lead to the portrait that seemed to beckon to her. She found herself in front of the portrait of a girl, about the same age as herself and Merida. The girl’s eyes laughed with unleashed mischief and she held a piece of her odhni scarf between her teeth, hiding a side of her face. This gesture, universally female at the same time typically Indian, highlighted her dancing eyes and her youth.
“I can tell you of madness and courage!” the same voice said in its whisper.
“Who . . .” Kitty began. The portrait seemed to cut her eyes towards the bottom of the frame and Kitty read the title of the painting, “Radhika.”
“Ah! The girl with the divine boyfriend!” Kitty said, unable to keep censure out of her voice.
“Divine boyfriend . . .” The voice repeated, with a hint of scorn and unimaginable feeling.
“Well, aren’t you Krishna’s . . .” Kitty said.
“Oh yes, yes, of course I am!” The voice interrupted impatiently.
“You had it good! I am not even allowed to have a boyfriend. You had it good, what with all that dancing around in moonlight with your boyfriend!” Kitty said.
“Yes! That’s exactly it! Moonlight! Dancing! Yes!” The voice said, excitedly. Then, “But you cannot imagine the price for it.” This was said with a depth of feeling that could not belong to a person so young.
“Price?” Kitty asked in surprise. “I am not sure of this price. In every picture I see, you and Krishna are always smiling, together, the very picture of happily-ever-after! There is no price!” Kitty exclaimed.
“There is always a price and I am not the only one who paid for the Divine Joy you see in these pictures,” the voice ensured Kitty.
Kitty cut her eye at the portrait, unwilling to suspend her disbelief.
“At any rate, I don’t know what your portrait is doing here; you are not a queen, are you?”
Radhika’s voice giggled again a little.
“Her story does not stand alone,” another voice spoke from behind Kitty. This was from a painting from Krishna’s story, about His biological parents’ incarceration. The person in the painting’s foreground was Devaki, the mother, encased in chains, in a supplicatory attitude, spreading her hands towards the infant held by ankles by her evil brother, King Kamsa.
“Our stories are the same, yet opposite. Hers ends where mine begins,” the new voice said.
“That is confusing!” Kitty said.
“Listen to our story! Decide after that!” Both voices spoke at once.
“Decide what?” Kitty asked.
“Who paid the highest price, of course!” Devaki’s portrait exclaimed, with some haughtiness.
“Wait!” Kitty said before the voices could begin again, “I know both stories! Ok, Devaki, you were imprisoned, but you ended up the queen!”
Both began to speak, but Kitty held up her hand and continued, “And like I said, Radhika just spent her life dancing in the moonlight.”
“We must tell you properly,” Both voices said simultaneously.
“All these voices!” Kitty exclaimed, “How can I tell who the ‘I’ in whose story is, if both of you speak together?”
“We must tell,” The voices insisted.
“What do you want?” Kitty said in exasperation, “Both of you!” She further clarified.
“All I wanted was to be a mother to my children,” Devaki’s portrait said.
“All I tried to do is trap some moonlight in my wooden box,” Radhika’s portrait said.
“See? She talks like a mad woman!” Devaki said scornfully, dismissively.
“So you agree that I have suffered?” Radhika countered.
“I thought I was to be the judge of that!” Kitty interrupted the two.
“Yes. She is right,” Said Devaki, “I will begin.”
“One Day . . .” she began.
Moonlight in a Wooden Box
Devaki sat stonily, facing the stones on which her new born children had been smashed. Vasudeva, her husband thought the stones obscene, but she insisted that those stones were worthy of her worship. Over a decade had passed since Devaki lay on the makeshift hay pellet, her body building up to its ultimate raison d’etre, to give birth, and Vasudeva was grateful for the peace. They had had no daimas or midwife attending her birthing bed; Vasudeva would receive the baby and cut its cord. Then both of them would stare mutely at the infant anxiously, thirsting to hear his first voice, dreading the sound that would announce his arrival, for this announcement would invariably end their baby’s life. The first cry of the new born would alert King Kans and the baby would be dashed against the cold, black stones before the hour was out.
Six splotches of discoloration stared back at Devaki and Vasudeva feared that they spoke unimaginable things to his spent wife.
It hadn’t always been thus: Devaki had been a treasured sister to Kans, even after he snatched the throne from King Ugrasena. But then, on their way back from her wedding, the sky had suddenly spoken to Kans. To Kans, the sky-voice prophesized dire consequences from the issue of the marriage he had just celebrated, and he had thrown his beloved sister and her new husband into a dungeon cell, bypassing the awaiting celebrations and stunning the welcome the city had arranged for the newlyweds.
That was at least a decade ago, and if it hadn’t been for some kind guards, still faithful to Ugrasena, who remembered their princess as a happy, sprightly girl in love with the world, Vasudeva knew that his and Devaki’s lot would indeed have been pitiable. He was grateful for them.
“Devaki,” Vasudeva gently spoke, tried to break her intensity. But like always, she did not respond and he went back to sit against the far wall. He stared unseeing at the window high on the wall, and murmured, “One Day . . .,” rubbing the chains hanging pointlessly on the walls.
Radhika walked alone, masticating a piece of dry fodder as she carried a bale of it on her right hip, balancing an earthen pot of curds on her head, when the pot smashed as an unseen pebble struck her. She cut a noticeable figure, being taller than the usual gopa or gopi, her fair skin as rare as her height. She walked with unconscious grace; her lissome figure swayed as her neck, shoulders, back and feet adjusted the weight of the pots, weaving the movements in her gait. She stopped mid-stride when the pot broke, her veil and skirt swirling in arrested movement.
She spun around on her heel, letting the pot break, wetting her and the dry dust of the road.
“Cowards!” She screamed, “Show yourselves if you dare!”
She glared all around the shrubbery and trees lining the path, which seemed to have erupted in giggles. Radhika turned away, slowed her heaving breaths, and began humming tunelessly to drown out the giggles. The path from the marketplace on the Mathura road, to the village between the four hills, meandered through Vraj lands. For Radhika, the mango orchards that dotted the banks of Yamuna River required extra vigilance, for it was in these that the good-for-nothing gopas, the cowherd boys hid. They would pelt her with flowers and pebbles, sometimes causing her pots to break, sometimes causing only mild irritation, but always startling her.
Today, however, she was prepared. She had an extra odhni, a half-sari bundled in her bale. She quickly changed, uncaring of the hooligans, glaring at the mango trees. She spread her ruined odhni on a brier bush and picked up a distinctive piece of my broken earthen pot, the piece with the potter’s insignia still fresh on it. She waved it above her head, still glaring, to show the hooligans what she had, and began resolutely towards the fork in the road beyond the orchard. One fork one led to the hills, where Radhika’s village lay, and the other fork led to Gokul and the house of the queen of cowherds, Yashoda Rani.
Radhika’s sakhis, her loyal friends, were waiting for her a little down the road; Radhika had decided to take the fork to Gokul. After all, those boys belonged to Yashoda Rani’s clan and this time, she absolutely must believe the gopis, the cowherd girls, when confronted with concrete proof. Radhika had tried, previously, to go to her with similar complaints, but somehow, she would end up babysitting Yashoda’s youngest son (who was quite winsome when on his own, away from other hooligans, but that was beside the point). This time, she’d go to her with her sakhis, so she would not get distracted. Yashoda’s precious son had wreaked havoc with the other gopis too.
“Why only yesterday, that kanha of hers broke my pot as I was bringing in water from the river!” Lalita, devoted to Radhika and her causes, claimed, “You should have heard the tongue-lashing I got from my sister-in-law, a diatribe worthy of Radhika’s Kutila Bhabhi!” Lalita shuddered, referring to Radhika’s sharp tongued sister-in-law.
“But Yashoda Rani did not believe you, did she, Lalita?” Indu, another gopi prompted, bringing the subject back to their discussion.
“No, Lalita, she absolutely did not! Yashoda Rani just said what she always does, and offered us laddoos for our trouble,” Sudevi, another gopi said.
“’Boys will be boys!’ How well we know that!” Indu sighed as she repeated the often-heard phrase. Yashoda Rani was known for her indulgence where her son was concerned.
“Ah, but Indu, today, we have the stamp of the potter!” Radhika said, “And that potter is not cheap! See? Yashoda Rani should know that her beloved son causes coin-harm to our families! Can you imagine the scolding that could await us if we were to lose an expensive pot?”
“You are right, Radhika! Let us go now to Gokul and confront Yashoda Rani right away!” Lalita said.
Indu, always up for detours, giggled as she said, “I know a short cut to Gokul. You see that little trail hidden underneath those bushes? We just follow and take the short fork by the peepul. We should be there soon.”
“Keep together, gopis! Look out for those hooligan gopas. We don’t want to incur more losses!” Radhika said.
Soon, the gopis gathered in the threshold courtyard of Yashoda Rani’s house in Gokul. They did not have to call her; she had been churning butter in her threshold, and seeing them, she got up with an inviting smile. Some of the gopis shuffled in confusion; they had come to complain, but how does one complain to such a winsome smile? Radhika, however, was determined and began, “Gods be with you, Yashoda Rani. We come to voice our concerns regarding your son, Krishna, and his band of gopas.”
Yashoda Rani cocked her head as though to listen attentively, but the smile on her face did not dim. Radhika tried to ignore the smile and licked her lips, saying, “He has caused us coin-harm in breaking our expensive pot in the mango orchards on the road to Barsana, our village. Here is a fragment with the potter’s signal. This is the expensive potter who has his establishment on the Mathura road, just before the market.”
But Yashoda Rani only glanced cursorily at the fragment of broken pot that Radhika had extended for her examination. Radhika glanced irritably at her sakhis crowding behind her, letting her shoulder the onus of all their complaints, as though they were mere audience to the exchange.
“What is more,” Radhika continued, “My odhni has been rendered useless as the pot broke on my head, spilling left over curds on my person.”
“I see,” Yashoda Rani said airily, “Now will you girls stay for a snack? Of course, you can choose any pot you wish from my courtyard; there are some from your preferred potter!”
“And for you, my dear,” the Rani continued, looking affectionately at Radhika, “You will have a new odhni. No! I won’t hear of it!” She waved all protests away. Behind her, her hooligan son, Krishna, loitered around the courtyard, just outside the main door. His tall, lanky figure was hard to hide behind the tree and wall he peered over. The gopis could see the other gopas sniggering as they perched on the tree branch that hung over the courtyard. More gopas peeked over the wall that separated the Nanda house from the village.
Yashoda Rani ignored them all, until Krishna, smirking at the gopis behind her back, suddenly over turned the pot that of freshly churned butter. The clatter caused a flurry of activity in the tree and on the wall, ending in sudden disappearance of the gopas. All through the flurry, Krishna stood still, looking like a trapped deer.
Yashoda Rani turned around to face her son, “Ka’han? Are you hungry, my child? Come, have some laddoos!”
Krishna began edging away. He stammered, “No Maa! I was just . . . This pot . . . The butter is so sweet and fresh!” He finished and ran away, vaulting over the wall. Yashoda Rani just sighed and began gathering up the spilled butter, trying to salvage as much as she could. Radhika leapt up and began helping her. Once the mess was cleaned up, she looked up at Yashoda Rani and said, “You see, Yashoda Maaji! We do not lie about your son’s mischief!”
Yashoda Rani just laughed and when she spoke, her maternal love dripped from her lips, “My Ka’han! The joy he brings is worth a few pots and some spilled butter!”
Just then, over Yashoda Rani’s shoulder, Radhika could see Krishna’s grinning face over the wall he had jumped. Radhika started to alert the Rani, but then found her lips twitching in a reflected grin. The boy was charming, if nothing else, and it was easy to see why no one could stay angry at his rambunctious antics for long. Yashoda Rani refused to address the punishment or consequences her son would face. The gopis had no choice but to accept the gifts and repast, and once a polite interval had passed, to leave for their village.
As the girls walked through the orchards towards the hills of their village, Radhika steeled her gaze and tone and spoke to the mango trees, “One day I’ll make her precious charmer hooligan of a son grovel for mercy from me! Just you wait. One day!”
The cruelest thing about their incarceration, Vasudeva thought, was that they were surrounded by corpses of their babies. King Kans would drop the babies once his job was done, and stride away, uncaring of disposal of bodies. Vasudeva and Devaki were left to deal with this as they saw fit. Vasudeva had cajoled, begged, even attempted to bribe the guards for some fire, but the terror that King Kans inspired had proved stronger. Unable to cremate the infants, Vasudeva was forced to dig out the loose soil around a few stones in the wall beneath the single barred window, and bury the remains.
“Aren’t you afraid that we will one day dig our way out?” he had shouted at the guards. But the guards had only snickered and the kindest one had explained, “These cells have two walls, and the strong wall is the one without any loose soil.”
Vasudeva had sensed the kindness in the old guard’s tone when the first infant lay broken on the jail floor. The guard, Somaraj, had been in service before King Kans had snatched the throne from Ugrasena and had reserved a soft part of his heart for the princess Devaki. Vasudeva had begged Somaraj, “Please, kind sir, if you cannot bring me fire, can you not at least bring my son’s body to the ghaat for proper cremation? Please sir! Have pity on helpless, bereaved parents!”
But Somaraj had shaken his head, “Pardon me, my prince! We are not allowed to remove the bodies of the poor babies.”
Vasudeva had begged, “A little flint and wood, then? Please, if you won’t pity my plight, just glance at Devaki! For Devaki, kind sir!”
Somaraj’s voice turned gruff with unshed tears, but he shook his head again, “I am unable.”
“Leave those lotus flowers there!” Radhika told Lalita, “I want to weave them into hair garlands,” Radhika explained.
The gopis were finishing up their evening ablutions in the river, getting ready for their night forays into the groves. The large Aso moon hung low on the horizon, promising cooler months and festivals.
“But they will shrivel!” Lalita said, “We are going to the raas lila and it might be hours, days, even, before you can do your weaving!”
“Those flowers never wilt for her!” exclaimed Indu, who had been helping with the lotus.
“Yes, Lalita, don’t you know? The most important job that flowers have is to keep our Radhika Rani enveloped in their fragrant buds,” Priya teased.
“Yes, Lalita! Have you failed to recognize me? I am the water- born goddess, ensconced in lotus petals!” Radhika joined in, splashing her sakhi with the water.
“Hmph!” Lalita harrumphed in mock disgust, “I would be queen of the heavens, like that moon or a constellation. At least that way, I would not be mired in horrible mud!”
The gopis laughed at this. Then they hurried up as they gathered their clothing and utensils strewn along the river bank. The first night of Aso was always celebrated with fasts and festivities. Tonight, the village would go into the woods along Yamuna’s bank with offertory and worship plates for the huge banyan tree. The gopis had planned to steal away deeper into the forest to a shrine devoted to Kama Dev, the god of desire, and his wife, Rati, to pray for love. The gossip mill warned the gopis that gopas had planned to follow them into the deep woods.
“So,” Radhika said, addressing her friends, “Lalita, you will lead your group of gopis down that path behind the berry bush; Indu, you will take the road down by the willows looking down at the stream. I will take the trail by the kadamb tree.”
“That should keep those gopas confused!” Sudevi exclaimed in joy.
“Look at that moon, Radhika,” Indu pointed out, “It is your moon; it shone this bright on the day you were born and gave you your white, glowing skin! So nothing will go wrong today!”
“You are right, Indu,” Radhika said resolutely, “Eluding those gopas should be our sole focus.” Then, with mischief shining in her eyes, she added, “Perhaps they will mistake my glowing skin for moonlight; they don’t seem very bright as it is!”
“Should we leave these lotuses beneath this tree?” Lalita asked.
“Take them! We will add them to my puja platter as part of the offertory,” Radhika instructed. She nudged Lalita and said, “As long as I carry them, they will not wither!”
Radhika joined her mother-in-law, Jati Ma, in the customary puja for married women later that evening. The puja was conducted at the foot of the old banyan tree at the edge of Vrindavan, the Basil Woods, and the Radhika followed Jati Ma as the women bound the tree’s trunk with wish-threads of their husbands’ well-being. Then the older women sat beneath the tree’s spreading shade to spend the night in devotional songs. But before the hour was through, Radhika and the other gopis stole away from the group to their designated shrine in the deeper woods.
On the river bank, as Radhika led her band of gopis, there was a heron meditating in the shallows and as they approached, it called out before drawing an arc in its flight, wings luminous in the fading light. The heron-call rode on a new breeze that hovered a bit and descended, causing a flock of parrots to squawk, flutter, and their flight sketched an indecipherable cipher in the suddenly busy sky. Radhika felt the edge of her odhni lift slightly in the new air, felt it tugged insistently. She looked behind her, but the other gopis did not seem to have noticed anything. She thought she had imagined the strangeness in the breeze, imagined that something endless was beginning. She shook herself to dispel the shimmering, afraid that she’d alarm the others. But when she looked behind her, she was alone on the trail. She could hear the gopis giggling in the woods, so she knew they were not harmed. She smiled and shook her head as she turned back to the trail.
But Radhika still felt the insistent tug on her odhni. It must have been the shifting light of the evening or Radhika was still dreaming, because when she looked back, she saw Krishna, a peacock feather struck jauntily on his crown and grin firmly in place! She blinked several times to clear her eyes, but it refused to shift. It felt like a film of another dimension had slid over her reality and would not budge until it was good and ready.
Then he spoke, “Radha. Come. The moon will rise. Our time is here. We are awaited at the dance. Come.”
When she heard her name in his voice, her world shifted on its axis; some lost puzzle part righted itself and nestled in the hollowness awaiting it ever since she had known her own name, ever since she had recognized her own face.
He still held her pallu, but now, he was leading her, and in her trance, she was aware of every small detail, her senses enhanced, heightened. She could hear the busy ants beneath the earth, scuttling beetles on the forest floor, the slight fishiness of the gently lapping waves, the beckoning breeze redolent with bees’ buzzing and jasmine, the tinkling of her sakhis’ anklets as they sported with their gopas.
Krishna led her through the undergrowth until they reached a clearing in underneath a spreading kadamb tree, which stood near enough the bank of the Yamuna so that the river could be seen if one stood beneath the tree. Krishna stood leaning against the tree, and looking at Radhika, he smiled and said, “Let it begin!”
Then, he put his lips to his flute and what flowed out from that flute was sweeter and more irresistible than the moonlight, fragrant with champa and parijatak. Radhika saw Indu peeking through the woods, as though summoned by the flute. Radha laughed in joy and caught her friend in a whirl, which ended in a dance.
Soon, the flute summoned all of Radhika’s sakhis and all the gopas who had followed them into the forest. Everyone joined in the extempore dance that Radhika and Indu had begun. Each dancer followed his or her own fancy, yet, as though bound by a single consciousness, their individual gestures and movements complimented each other, until, like a richly woven tapestry, the clearing in the forest unfurled with the single Dance. Time and space outside the Dance seemed to have disappeared; within the Dance, time and space were kept by the whirls, steps, arcs, and waves the dancers sketched on earth, in the air, all around them. The very River seemed to keep pace with the dancers and the breezes swayed blossom-laden boughs to join in. The gopas and gopis called this the Raas Lila, and since it was Krishna’s flute that had begun it, they claimed it was his Raas Lila.
That night lasted for only a moment, but it was vaster than ages, for then, Radhika learned of the being hiding deep within her mortal self. She remembered the irresistible flute song and her body weaving and curving to its tune. She remembered dancing till her anklet broke and stung her foot. Her lover had led her to the kadamb tree and they had sat there till the moonshine faded. In his endearment, he called her Radha Rani, Radha, the queen, a self she began to associate with the raas lilas, the endless roundels and forest nights.
“That hooligan! You were with him! What would your mother-in-law think if she knew?” Lalita exclaimed when Radhika told her sakhis of what she had thought she had dreamed of in the groves.
“Could you not have given him the thrashing he deserved instead?” Indu exclaimed.
“But I was not sure if I was awake! Did I imagine all this? Oh, what will I do if I see him? Tell me, Lalita, were you with me all night long?” Radhika cried.
“Well, no. We were, you know . . .” Lalita shifted as she stammered. “But if you had called to us, we would have surely come and pinched you awake!”
“I couldn’t,” Radhika said softly, with a secret smile, “I was unable.”
It seemed to Radhika, as her sakhis laughed, that their laughter had heralded an unseasonable spring in the beginning of autumn. She smiled at the air to welcome it.
MINE, NOT MINE
Devaki stared at the roof of the dungeon as she lay on a bale of hay, beyond pain, as her body birthed her eighth infant. Vasudeva, who squatted beside her inert body, feared that he was going to lose her and his child this night. But Devaki seemed gripped in some vision, seemed to have flown away, leaving her body to do its will. Somaraj, who was looking anxiously between Vasudeva and Devaki, whispered, “Is she all right? Check her pulse, my prince!”
“Her pulse is strong. Do you blame her for her absence though?” Vasudeva replied.
Somaraj did not know how to respond to this. Devaki’s last pregnancy had ended badly. Rohini, Vasudeva’s first wife, had come to visit them in the dungeon, and that night, Devaki’s blood had run. Somaraj felt sorry for the princess he had seen grow up from a lively girl to this broken woman he was condemned to guard. He and a few guards, loyal to the Yadav line, had been saving some of their rations to feed the prisoners. They tried to keep the prisoners’ cell as clean as they could and had smuggled in their wives twice daily to sweep the floor and clear the chamber pots. The guards also smuggled in fresh hay so that their erstwhile princess may live in relative cleanliness, if not comfort. When offered fresh garments, Vasudeva, concerned about being found out had convinced them to bring in only a single set of clothing that closely resembled their own, so that their clothes may be taken for a washing and returned without attracting attention of the head jailors, who reported directly to King Kans.
Vasudeva glanced at Somaraj and said, “At least she is not in pain presently! And if she is lost in the kind of dream I dreamt last night, then she is in a really good place.”
Somaraj turned back to Vasudeva and said, “I will pray, then, that she is lost in your dream, prince!”
“The Rohini constellation shines brightly, even though those clouds,” Vasudeva said, “It augurs good omens! Perhaps this child will not . . .”
And sure enough, the child did not cry. Somaraj and Vasudeva exchanged glances, and Somaraj led Vasudeva to the tunnel used to smuggle wives in, the silent child in swaddled in a piece of fabric torn from Devaki’s sari, snug in a basket saved from the evening’s meal. Vasudeva left Devaki in her trance, and his heart full of fears, walked silently down the tunnel to the River’s bank. He tried not to think of the pelting rain that might drown the child as he held the basket, first to his chest, then, as he stepped into the swollen river, over his head. He was so afraid that he did not feel the rain wet him, or the river drown him. When he emerged on the far bank, he saw the child squirm a little and hurried to his friend’s abode. His friend, Nand, was the head of gypsy cowherds and Vasudeva felt that this child, if he lived, would be safe as a gypsy rather than a prince in a dungeon cell.
Nand awaited him on the threshold of his home, with another basket, holding a girl born of his wife. The two men exchanged children and Vasudeva was back in the prison cell just as the girl in the basket began to wail.
Vasudeva had been tempted to step into Nand’s threshold, to don a cowherd’s lot, to smuggle Devaki out of their prison. But he was a prince and he thought of what King Kans might do to Somaraj and the other guards. When he reached the prison, his absence, Somaraj assured him in whispers, had not been noted.
The child’s cry had woken Devaki out of her trance, and she looked up at her husband, wonder shining in her eyes, “It’s a girl, my lord!” Then, with sudden grief piercing the wonder, she said pleadingly, “Do I have to give her up too? Could I not keep her for myself?”
“So you like that peacock feather, do you?” Krishna teased Radhika as they sat together on the moon bathed bank of Yamuna, their bower of jasmine, parijatak, and champa blossoms swaying gently beneath the kadamb tree.
“Well, yes. It reminds me of my Bapu and my peacock feather,” Radhika said, her eyes gazing at the memory.
“Tell me!” Krishna demanded.
Radhika began, “I was the adored child of my family, but no one adored me like my Bapu! I could always find a treasure in his garment for me, knotted with his special knot he knew only I could undo, a special treasure safe from my brother and sister because the knot kept them away!”
Krishna laughed at this.
Radhika went on, “Then one day, he brought me this feather. The first time I found it in knotted cloth, I thought it was an eagle feather or a pigeon feather; but before my eyes, it unfurled, revealing an unblinking eye at its heart, an eye that seemed to see through to my very soul!”
“What did everyone say? Did you show it to your sakhis?” Krishna asked.
But Radhika protested, “My sakhis were jealous! So I put it away where no one can get to it. I have a wooden box full of those treasures, shell pieces from far away river beds, smooth stones always warm to the touch, abandoned leaf nests of ants, and now, my favorite, a peacock feather that holds a kaleidoscope of blue rainbows in its depths.”
“Ah! So you want to keep the feather for yourself, make it yours alone!” Krishna teased, “What use is it to you or anyone now?”
“It has a lot of uses, Kanha!” Radhika said, “To write on sand with, to draw henna patterns on hands & feet with. . . But ultimately, I saved it in my treasure box because I feel safe when I think of the vigilant eye. Besides, this way, it is mine, and mine alone!”
Suddenly, Krishna looked at her solemnly and asked, “Would you lock me in your wooden box too? Steal me away, make me yours, and yours alone?”
Radhika smiled, her dimples winking at his solemnity, “I love the world too much for that, Kanha! Besides, you wouldn’t let me lock you in my wooden box!”
Then, as if she couldn’t help but ask, she asked, “Would you?”
Krishna relaxed and settled back into the bower but did not answer. After a while, he asked, “So, Lalita tells me that the lotus blossoms don’t wither for you.”
Radhika looked suspiciously at him and asked, “Lalita? Whenever did you converse at length with Lalita?”
He raised his eyebrows at her, “When you weren’t looking, I stole from your wooden box, Radha Rani! Don’t change the subject.”
Radhika sighed and conceded, “Yes. It is true. These lotus blossoms are the same as the ones we built the bower with.” Then, she smiled and said, “Indu says that this makes me a water-borne goddess!”
“She is right, you know,” Krishna said in a serious tone, causing her to glance sharply at him, “That alone is proof of your goddess-ness!” he said, wriggling his eyebrows at her, until she dissolved in helpless giggles, pelting him with the same flowers.
“Oh kind goddess-ship!” he cried, panting in helpless laughter, “Desist your cruel pelting, I beg on behalf of this erring humanity!” Radhika desisted and the night passed as though in a dream.
The next day, as she went about her chores, grinding lime stone for etching patterns on walls, going to the market place to sell fresh dairy, lighting the low fire place to prepare the evening meal, she thought of Krishna’s insistence on not being owned. He’d pointed out that people already shared each other because relationships define the portion of and manner in which that person can be shared, and for how long; that human beings cannot be owned by others.
Radhika smiled to herself as she addressed him in her mind, “But I never could extricate myself completely from you, my Kanha, nor can you from me! I know you don’t want that; but wittingly or unwittingly, we leave parts of ourselves with the other, parts we share with no one else, parts so germane to our beings that we don’t even have names for them!”
Ownership of the other notwithstanding, Radhika’s dreams with Krishna (if indeed, they were dreams; she was never sure) had given her part of herself, made her believe in the eternal and it might have been the fragrance laden breezes, the smell of the water, the moist leaves, the rain-washed moon, or maybe it was just Krishna himself, but there were times when they were joined in the kaleidoscope of a dream that she could have sworn that she was floating on lotus blossoms and she couldn’t have said for how long.
IV. LATER USE
“Forgive me, my brother!” King Kans pleaded with Vasudeva as he freed his prisoners. It seemed that the fiasco of attempted murder of Devaki’s daughter had shaken the king’s conscience awake. When King Kans had dashed the infant’s head on the stones, the stones seemed to have gripped the king in a trance not unlike Devaki’s. He had stared at the roof of the cell, as though he were listening to yet another sky-voice. After a while, he had stridden away and Vasudeva noticed that there was no broken body waiting to be buried. The following fortnight, King Kans had arrived at their cell, repentant at his behavior.
Vasudeva regarded the king’s aspect but was not convinced, especially since the king was accompanied by his trusted advisor, Banasura. He glanced at Somaraj, who nodded imperceptibly, so Vasudeva was further assured that this was an act, that their imprisonment had but changed, perhaps lightened; it was far from over. But he was glad for Devaki’s sake. At least now, their living quarters would be cleaned properly and they would not have to be surreptitious about their hygiene.
They were moved into the old palace with the ousted king, Ugrasena, and his wife, Padmavati from whom Kans had snatched the throne. The palace was descript and parts of the roof leaked, but it was much better than the cell, if for no other reason, than the privilege of being able to see the open sky. Of course, Banasura’s guards were always around, and Devaki was attended by a hunchbacked crone, who kept asking questions about Devaki’s daughter. Every visit to the temples, every outing to the gardens, each of their movements was closely watched, and the four prisoners of the palace felt the backs of their neck constantly itching.
When Vasudeva requested his personal guard, headed by Somaraj, the request was granted, but the watch over the palace doubled. Vasudeva found this atmosphere so stifling that he often wished for the relative liberty of the cell. He had asked Rohini not to visit after her first visit to the palace, as she could easily be followed back to Gokul; she lived with Nand’s gypsy cowherds.
The very first thing that Vasudeva initiated when he was granted his guard was to have the broken bodies of the slaughtered babies removed and conducted a proper funeral for each. Each time he stood next to the broken pot and burning pyre, he felt a part of him loosened, and a part of him lost. Devaki had refused to part with the six stones, and that was all they had of their eight children. Devaki, of course, did not attend the funerals, but Vasudeva was aware of the gleaming eyes of the hunchback crone as she watched from a corner as he went about the rites.
Once the funerals were over, Vasudeva began to keep close watch on his guards, learned their rude dialect, and kept meticulous notes about their whereabouts and routines. Devaki spent her time bathing her six stones, offering them delicacies, anointing them with vermilion, as though they were child-gods. Vasudeva watched the crone, whose furtive questions to Devaki elicited no concrete replies.
When Ugrasena asked Vasudeva the reason for his vigilance, Vasudeva just shrugged and replied, “For later use.”
“You shameless hooligans!” Radhika shouted as she led the gopis, chasing Krishna and the gopas with staves. The gopas, faster and unfettered by ghaghra skirts, skittered away among the mango branches.
“You would take our clothes as we bathed!” Indu shouted as she brandished a laathi staff of her own.
“Why are you running now? Don’t you want a closer look? Come! Let me show you how this laathi works!” Cried Lalita.
“It is that Krishna!” Radhika cried, “There were no others, spouting tenets about the proper way to bathe in a river! Catch him!”
Radhika now brandished a pot full of colored water that she aimed at Krishna, who tried to scramble out of range. Unerringly, she aimed it at the mango trunk he hid behind, and the pot broke against the tree, covering Krishna in colored water.
“Hahaha!” She laughed triumphantly, pointing at his startled expression, “Look at his face! See my peacock feather? I could knock him down with it!” The gopis joined in her laughter as they chased, caught, and colored the gopas.
It was Holi, the festival of colors, and the gopis had decided to wreak revenge for the gopas’ pranks. This was a day when the world was covered in many colors and inhibitions broke down; it was the perfect day for revenge.
Radhika had her own agenda for this festival. She was not yet sure if her trysts with Krishna in the groves were real or if she dreamed. Whether she was at home at her chores, tending cattle as they grazed, at the marketplace selling curds and fresh cream, or playing kho, she was becoming increasingly aware of the flute call and of Radha Rani, that still center of the simple-not-so-simple gopi called Radhika. She had to make an increasingly taxing effort to remind herself that she was not Radha Rani, that she was nothing more than the gopi, Radhika, wife to Abhimanyu, daughter-in-law to Jati Ma. But with her realities shifting, she felt the urgency to find an anchor.
To this end, this Holi, she had tucked her precious peacock feather into her sari, and as she chased Krishna, she struck him with the feather, slightly scratching his arm. That night, she looked for the slight scar, and exclaimed in triumph when she found it. Krishna looked at her, his gaze inscrutable.
“We exist!” She explained, “I had thought this a dream, but if it was a dream, this scar would not be!”
Krishna smiled slightly at this and said, “Always carrying the wooden box, Radha Rani! Why lock things? What are you afraid of? “
Radhika looked at Krishna and said seriously, “Kanha, I try my best to be discreet about the groves, keeping Radha Rani firmly in check beneath Radhika, for fear that I might gain a reputation of being a wanton and all for nothing, because after all, all this might be a dream!”
Krishna replied, “If this is a dream, may it never end, my Radha Rani! I cannot live without it!”
Radhika protested, “See, I am not the only one with the wooden box!”
She pouted in mock anger, “I never seek you out or treat you any differently from the other gopas. It is always you who calls me out, interrupting my evening chores with your flute, knowing my helplessness to it! I beg you to wait till moonrise, till I can reach the bower, no flute needed, but barely do I return from selling curds or begin churning butter and your flute begins its come-hither-Radha-Rani tune!”
Krishna teased, “Yes, my Radha Rani! I seek you from all other beings in the world!”
Radhika looked skeptically at him and went on, “Me alone? The other gopis complain of the same thing, the flute summoning at inopportune parts of the evening, when they are busy with the kitchen fire, or serving food, or even sleeping.”
“So?” He asked.
“So, this scar marks you as my Kanha!” she replied with her dimpled smile.
He raised a brow at her, “What is your command, then? May I be allowed to braid your precious lotus in your hair? Redden your feet with alta paste? Color your palms in henna?”
“Yes, to all your wishes! But first, your Radha Rani is thirsty for moonbeams,” Radhika teased back.
“As my Radha Rani wishes!” Krishna replied, catching the reflection of the moon in his cupped hands as he collected the water and brought it to her lips.
That night was wonderful for them, their union perfect. It was so perfect, in fact, that each forgot the boundaries that separated individual selves. Radhika’s Kanha found her blue choli piece and tied it to his chest, forgetting that he was not Radha-Krishna any more, now that the night was past. Kanha’s Radha Rani, too, forgot that she was not Radha-Krishna and took his saffron pitambar and wore it on her waist. Lalita, Vishakha, and Indu laughed when the couple emerged from the bower, dressed in each other.
Later, Radhika confessed to Krishna that she felt guilty, that something must be done to make amends to Abhimanyu, her husband, who was tending to the King’s cattle, not harming anyone. Krishna used his flute to point at the world around him, as an extension of his pointing finger, and he said, “Look at this moonlit river bank, the fragrance of our bower, the music of these river waves, the coolness of this moon-washed breeze. Let us lock this moment in a wooden box. Only my wooden box has one more thing in it: Abhimanyu’s name.”
Radhika looked at him in surprise, “Why should we do that?”
“For later use,” Krishna replied.
Somaraj knocked on Vasudev’s window with the special knock in the middle of the night. Vasudeva, awake instantly, opened the window to see Somaraj looking anxiously at him.
“What. . .” Vasudeva asked, his brain unwilling to listen to the staccato his heart beat against his breast.
“They found him.” Somaraj murmured and then he was gone, striding away as though he had never stopped at the window, as though the rhythm of his pacing around his prince’s chamber had been uninterrupted.
Vasudeva quietly shut the window and went back to sit on the bed, shaking Devaki awake. As months had passed, Devaki had begun to return to herself. Padmavati’s nurturing presence had done more for the princess than any medicinal could have. Vasudeva had taken her in his confidence and told her all that had happened when she had been in her trance, in the dungeon cell. She had begun to feed outlandish stories to the crone, to steer her away from their son. Of late, however, she had confessed to Vasudeva that the crone had stopped asking and she, Devaki, was afraid that her stories were no longer deemed credible.
“What happened, my lord?” Devaki asked, awake as soon as Vasudeva had touched her.
“King Kans has found him,” Vasudeva repeated Somaraj’s message to her. Her enlarged pupils bespoke her terror at the thought and she quieted herself with effort. Vasudeva and Devaki looked at each other and gulped down all that they needed to say.
The following morning, the proclamations through the palace and city shouted, “King Kans has been blessed by the gods! Certain divine favor has been showered on our beloved King in form of confirmed identity of his long-lost nephew, the only surviving good-son of Prince Vasudeva and Princess Devaki! Ready Mathura to welcome him! Good citizens, prepare to celebrate the union between estranged Uncle and nephew!”
Now, everywhere Vasudeva and Devaki went, they were smothered in congratulations. Their circumstances improved as well; they were no longer kept in the old palace, but were transported with much fanfare to the central palace, along with their chosen retinue. Vasudeva had insisted on bringing Ugrasena and Padmavati with them, and even though King Kans was uncomfortable with this, it was allowed, at behest of what Vasudeva suspect as Banasura’s intervention.
“Why do I feel like a buffalo being readied for sacrifice?” Vasudeva commented wryly as he looked over the bustling city street from their apartment, high above it.
Devaki laughed and said, “As long as the buffalo knows what is happening, his sacrifice will not be in vain! All beginnings are tied in with endings, and who knows what end my whirlwind brother will begin when he invites our son to finally step on the land that birthed him?
The peacocks crow urgently; autumn clouds affect them so. You know, my lord that the peacocks’ crowing heralds a new season!” Devaki replied.
Radhika sensed the changing weather before the summons from Mathura arrived for Krishna and his cousin, Ram. Sometimes she wondered if the crowing peacocks really did summon the clouds, like Vishakha claimed. Radhika felt the seasons within her, as though she had expanded her boundaries and though was Radhika the gopi, Radha Rani of the groves encompassed the vast skies beyond ken, beyond imagination.
The changing seasons felt like clockwork set in motion deep with her: first the peacock perched on Mukhara Ba’s cottage crowed, tentatively, almost insubstantially, and soon, he gathered wind, confidence, and cohorts; the hair on Radhika’s neck wake up and in her dream, Radha Rani smelled the wet earth. Radhika’s head felt heavy when she woke, as though the monsoon emerged from within her, as though something gravid in her center waited to thaw and flow.
Later, in the still heat of noon, the koel song erupted, spicing up the shimmer in the heat, adding to the peacocks’ cacophony; Radhika’s eyes began to twitch and water. By the time the horizon weighed down with clouds the color of Krishna, she felt her mind skittering, her spirit restive, much to her mother-on-law, Jati Ma’s annoyance. Her bangles and anklets moved incessantly and nothing she did calmed them, even when the early afternoon slackened, like molasses. She felt the house exhale in relief when the rain washed full moon finally drew her to the groves.
She began to leave parts of herself in the groves, strew bits and parts of herself all over sandalwood forests, beneath patriarch kadamb trees, behind veils of jasmine creepers, on flower beds, in vast moonlit skies, the unbearable sweetness of the koel’s lament, the fragrance of newly ripened mangoes, in the eternal roundel.
Radhika sat quietly in the bower, as though she had aged a thousand years. Krishna had just offered her his flute.
“Take it,” he said, “When I have need of this music, I will look for you here.”
She looked at the flute as she accepted it, “I will carry this on my person.”
Then attempting to lighten the mood, she said, “Besides, it would never fit in my wooden box.”
He smiled in acknowledgement at her intended humor. Then she offered her most precious possession to him.
“Take it,” she said, “Wear it on your person when you think of me.”
He took it and stuck it in his turban. He looked at her and said, “I leave my youth with my Radha Rani, just as I leave my boyhood with Yashoda Maa.”
Radhika looked up in desperation and began to say, “Oh, Kanha, can you not. . .”
“No.” Krishna replied definitively. “But you will wait for me here?” he asked in a desperate voice that matched hers.
She did not reply. But she knew an unraveling had begun. She conceded to herself that it wasn’t the first time that she felt losing herself; she had often lost herself with Krishna, but then, they had found that they’d misplaced themselves in the other person, so neither she nor Krishna were completely lost.
VI. LOST AND FOUND
“Are they here?” Devaki called to Vasudeva as she hurried to the threshold of their palace apartment with a puja platter.
“Not yet. Ram and Krishna must first win a rather unfair, weighed wrestling match,” Vasudeva responded, looking into her eyes to convey the fears haunting him. Their long incarceration and stay at the old palace had forced them to cultivate an eye-lore and now, it had become their preferred way of communication. They had not wanted to be overheard by Banasura’s battalion when they were watched, and now, Vasudeva did not want to alarm Padmavati unduly; she had been preparing for her grandsons’ arrival for days.
Vasudeva had run into Nand few weeks before Kans’ messenger reached Gokul, and Nand had regaled his old friend with tales full of antics of the two brothers, growing up as cowherds. Ram, who was being brought up by Rohini, was Devaki and Vasudev’s seventh fetus, which Rohini had carried within her when she had visited the dungeon cell. Ram and Krishna had been brought up as cousins and had only lately learned that they were brothers. They had vowed life-long support to each other on the spot.
Vasudeva had brought back those tales for Devaki, Padmavati and Ugrasena, and all of them were waiting to meet the boys in person. Now, it seemed to Vasudeva that all would be in vain: the wrestlers the boys were asked to dance with were undefeated, seasoned warriors; the two cowherds, who only knew how to woo Vraj maidens, play the flute, and steal butter, would be crushed within minutes.
“Take me to the wrestling grounds!” Devaki commanded.
“Devaki, no! You will not be able to watch your sons dashed on the ground a second time!” Vasudeva said.
Devaki looked at her husband and said in a stone clad voice, “Better that than to never see them in this lifetime! I urge you, husband, and take me where I may gaze on my sons. What happens after, I cannot tell, but now, I need to see them!”
“Somaraj!” Vasudeva called and asked that a guard be organized to escort him and Devaki to the wrestling grounds.
“The wrestling grounds! But my prince, you know . . .” Somaraj protested.
“Please, my old friend, do this last service for us!” Vasudeva said quietly.
When they reached the royal tent, they avoided the front rows, where Kans and Banasura sat with their retinue. They loitered along the corner leading to the elevated watching platform from which Kans and his retinue watched the match. Devaki looked out at the maidan and stopped. She smiled so suddenly and so brightly that Vasudeva thought that the sun had emerged from behind clouds; he had not seen her smile like this since their wedding ceremony. She turned to him and said in wonder-filled voice, “They are beautiful! And that blue of my young one’s skin! Have you ever seen anything like it? It complements the morning gold of my Ram so perfectly!”
“Yes. They are beautiful boys!” Vasudeva smiled as he looked at her.
She nodded. Then turning back to the boys circling the wrestlers, she spoke in a voice as definite as the spring that decides to end the winter, “No harm will come to them. You just wait and see: Ram will bring in a fair day, like the dawn, and Krishna will quiet the whirlwind my brother is.”
Vasudeva shot a worried glance at her and turned back to the maidan, not so much to watch the wrestling as to gather his sons into his eyes. Now that he had found them, he wanted nothing more than feast his parched eyes on his sons the color of a monsoon morning.
For Radhika, this was a different losing, and it was not kind to her. She fought for her very sanity.
Some nights, summoned by what she thought was his flute, she crossed the river bank, a brier bush, in storms, huddling the midnight away in Radha Rani’s bower, wet and shivering, while Lalita or Vishakha pleaded, bargained, argued with her. For days after, she refused to leave the bower, afraid of missing her Kanha, so Lalita was charged to roam the midnight forests to look for him, to plead, bargain, and argue him into going to Radhika if she found him. Radhika, waiting in the bower, felt like a helpless god, silent, trapped in an idol, unable to move, while her most ardent worshipper flitted among transient pleasures, denying his god, resisting his need to find her.
The day that followed such a night would be even worse. Radhika would be an automaton, going through the motions of the day without paying much attention, well-deserving Kutila’s taunts. She grew absent minded and swung between intense joy (after a good night in the groves) and just limp exhaustion (after waiting for him in vain). She’d be easily offended at an imagined look from a sakhi, or a scratch from a thorn, when the extreme sourness of a mango could send her weeping at the unfairness of it all, when twilights made her pensive and the heat irritated her beyond bearing.
Pryamvada, her sakhi, claimed that once, Radhika even raced to the forests, burning up in fever, unmindful of undulating snakes in the undergrowth, but Lalita was strangely reticent to confirm or deny this.
“I remember no such crazy dash to the forest, but then, if I were burning up in fever, I wouldn’t, now would I?” Radhika commented mildly, “Besides, it is you, Pryamvada, not I, who is afraid of snakes! I really don’t mind them!”
Kutila, Radhika’s bitter sister-in-law, enjoyed Radhika’s distraction more than anyone else did. She always had a footnote, a commentary for all the chores Radhika was responsible for and with the village walking on tenterhooks around Radhika, her taunts took on extra vitriol:
“There she goes! Some people are lucky enough to gallivant around markets, hobnobbing with all and sundry, while poor unfortunate Kutila, patient Kutila grinds grain forever in the back of her mother-in-law’s courtyard!” Kutila would say, as Radhika walked along the road that took her away from Barsana down to the Mathura road market every week.
“Mind that you wear your choicest odhnis, Radhika! Never mind if you tear them to pieces or ruin them with wasted curds! The darling of Yashoda Rani may have the pick of colorful odhnis galore! Never mind that you never remember poor Kutila slaving away in Barsana as you choose your new odhni!” She would call out to Radhika’s retreating back.
“Leave the girl alone!” Jati Ma would hiss at Kutila softly, “You cannot imagine what she goes through.”
“No, no! How could I imagine!” Kutila would retort loudly, “Only she suffers! Her husband is the only husband who travels away from this village! The rest of us, we are all forever blissful, dancing our nights away in trysts!”
“Oh, and that Kanha of hers!” Kutila would exclaim to women picking rice from pebbles in the front courtyard on still afternoons.
“I had suspicions of him from the very beginning!” Kajari, the neighborhood gossip, would prompt. Kutila would continue in hushed tones, “He never resembled the king or queen of cowherds in form or feature, both being so fair and him of that, that indescribable color! Who knows where they picked him from?”
“What a scandal!” Kajari would say, shaking her head.
“Him and his band of ruffians! I tell you, Kajari; only lack of a true mother’s love is the secret behind all that wildness! Yashoda Rani was only a foster mother; after all that is the truth of that boy’s life, the only one we know!” Kutila would declare.
One afternoon, Radhika was picking through the barley for the evening meal, just behind the kitchen door and heard the women talking. She rose, spilling the barley and striding to the courtyard, her eyes bright.
“That’s balderdash!” Radhika exclaimed to the women, “I don’t presume to know the truth any of Kanha’s other truths, but I know one truth: if ever a mother loved a child, it was Yashoda Rani in her love for Kanha. She loved him better than anyone could. And so far as Kanha’s wildness was concerned, to who had it not spread joy? I remember you all enjoying the last Holi with the gopas!” Radhika glared at the women as she stood above them. The women stared at her until she turned her heel at them returned to the kitchen to clear up the spilled barley.
“Why don’t you leave the girl alone?” Jati Ma scolded Kutila, “When have you been mistreated that you have become this bitter tongued nag?” Then, with a sly smile, Jati Ma mused, “Perhaps you miss your parents? Would you like to visit them? I am sure that your stories would benefit them much, since they might not have heard the way you tell them.”
After this threat of a long banishment from Jati Ma’s home, Kutila made sure to veil her taunts in sarcastic compliments and ensure that she spoke them only outside Jati Ma’s hearing. Radhika did not seem to register them after her outburst, but the venom of Kutila’s comments was much discussed by Radhika’s sakhis, who found the whole business entirely deplorable.
“I bet she’d be really adept at Abhimanyu Bhai’s dice game, what with all her strategies and endless fault-finding,” Indu said to Lalita under her breath as the two sakhis talked at the village well.
“Poor Radhika! Is it not enough to bear the pain burden she carries; now she has to listen to this venom?” Lalita replied.
“She is so torn apart!” Indu said sadly, “It’s as though she wants to be Radhika, but Radha Rani won’t be denied! Oh, Lalita! What is to happen of our dear friend?”
Lalita shook her head, “She seems to be closing in on herself, like a lotus blossom un-blossoming, petal by petal!”
It seemed that none of the taunts bothered Radhika much anymore. Her distracted days became waiting areas for the night. In the still afternoon, when everyone rested, she took to stealing to the garden behind her house, to her favored seat behind the jasmine trellis and weave garlands of musky fragrances, of lotus blossoms, of jasmines. She would focus on replenishing jars of sandalwood unguents and forget that Krishna did not visit her bower anymore; she would complain to her sakhis about having to studiously ignore an unfamiliar earing caught in his hair, or that he’d arrived when dawn was almost breaking.
Sometimes, in still, cold Poash twilight, Radhika could be seen carrying an earthen pot filled with water, lingering in mango orchards, waiting, even wishing for a pebble from an invisible gopa. But that time had passed and no pebble interrupted her trail as she meandered to no particular place.
The Vraj folk watched her in mute distress and sympathy, unable to offer her succor, unable to reach her. Everyone, after all, missed Krishna and his band of gopas had disbanded when he and Ram had left Gokul to answer summons from the Mathura court. Festivals felt paler and the gypsy cowherds missed their beloved mischief maker. Radhika’s forlorn figure embodied this grief like nothing else did, as she haunted the groves and mango orchards, as she sat on Yashoda Rani’s threshold silently for a spell and walked away without reporting any complaints. Vraj held its breath, watching her torn self, waiting for her heart to understand and reconcile with what her mind, the breeze, the very land was telling her.
Padmavati’s eyes refused to stop raining and she saw her grandsons through a haze of tears. Devaki steadied her mother’s hand as it sketched circumambulations around Ram and Krishna, who stood at the threshold, waiting to be welcomed to step in.
Devaki herself was beside herself and alternated between offering the boys food, then asking if they wished for a bath, or if they’d preferred to rest. In fact so distracted was she, that she forgot her daily ablutions to her six stones. Vasudeva noted this and exchanged a meaningful look with Somaraj, who also seemed to have problems keeping his eyes from watering.
King Kans was no more; Krishna and Ram, having defeated the wrestling champions, had accepted Kans’ challenge and in the fray with Krishna, Kans had chosen to fight to death, which seemed to be lurking along the corners of the maidan, waiting for just such a summons. Krishna had raised the fallen crown high, to show the maddeningly cheering mob, and walked to Ugrasena, offered it to him.
Devaki and Vasudeva, unbelieving of what they had watched, felt the fetters of their prison fall away at last. Devaki had hurried on to the palace, to prepare for the boys’ welcome.
Now, she stood before her sons, celebrating their life, something she had never imagined doing. The boys waited for the women to strew rice and marigold petals over their heads, bowed to receive the crimson tilak of welcome. They bowed lower to touch Devaki’s feet.
“Bless us, Mother, that we may protect the throne of Mathura and dutifully serve the illustrious Yadu line,” Krishna said, addressing Devaki with the honorific Jee.
“Why the formality, my son?” Devaki smiled warmly at him, “You may call me just Maa!”
Krishna smiled back with equal warmth and replied, “If you are Maa, then how shall I call out to Yashoda Maa? Mother?”
Everyone laughed. Devaki said, “You may call me whatever you wish! I would not compete with your Maa!”
Ram, as was his wont, had let Krishna smooth this wrinkle for him. Now, he touched Devaki’s feet, “Blessings, Mother!” He grinned when he felt her hand on his hair.
Inevitably, one day, when she returned from the groves, only Radhika came back to Barsana. Radha Rani, increasingly, had refused to move away from the bower in the groves. To save herself, Radhika had to snatch her mortal self away from the groves, and when it finally came, Radhika welcomed this split with relief.
What she remembered most from that year is the extreme thirst. She would visit the village well right after the noon meal for an extra pot of water. Jati Ma would just purse her lips at this extra guzzling, but in her manner, refrained from comment as long as Radhika was willing to make the extra trip to the well to replace the water.
The second thing that Radhika remembered from that year was the need for sleep. She wasn’t ever tired as such, but she was always ready to nod off. It seemed that there wasn’t enough sleep in the world for her, that the day should be longer that she may nap more. And she remembered the dreams; and such dreams! Those were not the raas lila dreams of moonlit groves. These were undefined kaleidoscopes: vivid, colorful, texture laden, dizzyingly solid, so strong that they wouldn’t let go even when she opened her eyes.
Dreams notwithstanding, Jati Ma found her daughter-in-law more efficient in her chores; Abhimanyu found his wife more attentive and less distracted by a music that called only to her. Radhika began to wear her odhni more modestly and took care not to fall down too much or bruise. Her mirror showed her nothing more than Radhika, her Bapu’s treasured child, daughter-in-law of Jati Ma’s house, an agreeable, sociable girl, the kind who gets along with everyone, a normal, girl, with muted laughter, surrounded by a bevy of friends.
Jati Ma tried to teach Radhika to be a biddable daughter-in-law and a good wife to Abhimanyu. Radhika learned how to make the best ghee from fresh cow milk; fresh ghee translates to best motichoor laddoos, Abhimanyu’s favorite, and a taste he’d acquired at the court. On his last visit home, he talked of a sitting down game played with stones with dots. Abhimanyu got really excited about it, calling it a wagering power game and Radhika listened dutifully, just like she listened when Jati Ma taught her how to make laddoos.
Radhika tried to be a better daughter-in-law: she learned to keep her head cloth on by squeezing one edge between her teeth, leaving both hands free to churn butter; she tried to be more diligent about re-surfacing the threshold of her husband’s home with cow dung; she paid attention to the aesthetic in the rice flour and lime paste etchings adorning the walls; she swept the inner courtyard twice a day, cooling it with water to settle the dirt once the afternoon is past, so that her father-in-law may spread his cot and sit a while with his pipe when her returned from his day’s labors. She could be seen at the threshold of Jati Ma’s house, freshening the etchings that adorned the entrance walls, etchings in rice flour, telling tales of women’s chores and ordinary village life. But her fingers seemed to keep time with old raas lilas playing in an endless, soundless roundel, so that her chores, instead of seeming disjointed, acquired a cadence and a rhythm.
If her sakhis complained that she was less animated, she just smiled patiently, as though waiting for them to grow up with her. Radha Rani had loved the entire range of blues and had accrued quite a collection of blue waist bands and saris, of bangles and nose rings, all reflecting the range of hues of a peacock feather. Radhika, now, gravitated towards muted shades: cloud blues and gray odhnis matched with practical black Ghaghra skirts. With silver anklets and bracelets, her sakhis told her that she looked like the monsoon.
“Really? Like the rain mountain cloud that towers over the earth?” Radhika responded with her faraway look, reaching beyond the horizon, “Perhaps when Kanha looks up, he will see me!”
But the sakhis told her that she wore the blue differently now. They told her that this blue was the hue of longing, the shade of remembered desire, the blinding, unforgiving, stark sky rather than the cool, velvet, and luminous midnight.
“He might not recognize this thunderhead!” The sakhis gently teased her, “When eyes are closed, no matter how distinctive the kohl, they cannot be recognized!” and she smiled in agreement.
Radhika’s sakhis colored her palms with henna when she let them, and then, Jati Ma called her Griha Lachhmi (goddess of hearth and prosperity). Kutila also noticed the mantle of quiet that enveloped Radhika like a cloud and her taunting commentary became more habit than malice, repetitious, de-venomed, like an aged, toothless cobra who hisses because his nature bids him, not to strike.
Radhika seemed grateful and content with her new found mortality, almost as though she had tried on the eternal and had not found it to her liking.
The village, seeing her domesticated and recognizable, soon gathered her within its wrinkles and creases, its dust and hills, its busy forgettable routines.
But when monsoon clouds rumble around the moon, Radhika cannot asleep. She sits at her window; she doesn’t quite trust the lightening or the moonlight. The shadows bring half-forgotten fragrances and the flittering moths bring the buzzing of bees to her mind. She hears things folded in the moonlight, like strains of a distant flute, the urgent longing in Koel song, the skittering pebbles on the garden path behind the house, all hollow sounds because they do not call to her. She looks to the groves.
In the grove, Radha Rani listens to the same music weaving through the night air and smiles, as she knots another lotus blossom to a garland she has been working on. She waits, for that is what she believes her destiny is. Her waiting has become her being and she remembers no existence beyond her waiting, her bower, and river bank. The moon always shines full and luminous and the tiny jasmine flowers on her bower seem to glow. When she is done with the garland, she fingers the one-stringed Veena with the opening chords of Ragini Todi; pair of deer stop by to investigate, and understanding the language of music, the buck whispers to the doe and the doe nods; two swans descend on river shallows.
In Barsana, Radhika stands by the window, watching the monsoon sky. She listens to the night storm brewing; with a blink, she folds it into her wooden box for later use, but she does not stir.
“I have to say Radhika wins this contest,” Kitty said with tears in her eyes. This time, she did not have any lumps in her throat. All her feeling seemed to want to gush out of her eyes.
Devaki’s voice, a little faded now, spoke with scorn, “The young, you know, they always cleave to each other. We wise have no say in this!”
“Oh Radhika!” Kitty repeated with feeling. She knew to never take the portraits of Radha-Krishna dancing around in the moonlight for granted; they would mean completely different things now. Now, Kitty would see shadows in the trees shining in moonlight, hiding beneath ripples on silver waters, a different kind of manipulation in the fingers on the flute, a deeper submission in the leaning posture of Radha.
“I think I understand love now,” Kitty sighed and murmured, “There can be no love greater than yours!”
“Hmmph! She says understands love!” A new voice, more mature than Radhika’s, more melodious than Devaki’s drifted towards Kitty.
“What? Who?” Kitty said, turning around.
The voice seemed to beckon her back towards the Anasuya end of the Corridor. Kitty began walking towards it. A painting in the way seemed to reach out like a vine and stop her.
“You say you understand love?” The voice enquired.
“Yes! Radhika . . .” Kitty began to explain.
“. . . and her divine lover! What about human love?”
“What do you mean?”
“It is most difficult. So many variables, differences!” the voice sighed.
“Oh? And madness? Like there is nothing to do but to give in, against all reason? No logic can work? Isn’t that what love is?” Kitty said. She, after all, had not been born today! She knew what people said about love.
“Madness? No reason? No logic? I am not sure. When the couple is involved, you want the love that makes families, not madness and loneliness!” The voice said, in reasonable tones. “After all, have you not wondered why your mother does not want you to have a boyfriend? What she wants for your life? Do you think that she does not want love for you? Do you think she wants madness for you?”
“I suppose that makes sense,” Kitty conceded. “But what does that have to do with the myths? Aren’t they supposed to make you more holy, bring you nearer to the Gods?” She asked.
“I don’t know,” the voice said frankly, “But maybe my story will help you understand something about the way human husbands and wives deal with each other?”
“Is your story about being a perfect, ideal wife?” Kitty asked warily, “If so, don’t bother. I already have my ideals and don’t need any more!” She didn’t want to share how affected she had been by Sita and Anasuya.
“Look at the portrait! Does it look like a perfect anything?” the voice said, with a hint of amusement.
Kitty came nearer to the portrait before her and saw the girl in the center. She was shorter than the other two who flanked her, her skin more the color of mud than anything else, her features rounded and unremarkable. Yet there was a grace in her aspect, in the tilt of her neck, the singular crook of her arm around a deer, and the curve of her other arm as she held up a garland of flowers.
“That is my daughter,” The voice said, “And that person spying on her from behind the shrubs is her boyfriend, I suppose you’d call him. He will be her husband.”
“Oh,” Kitty said in surprise. This voice seemed to belong to a queen’s mother, not the queen!
“So your story ends with how she marries her boyfriend, your daughter?” Kitty asked the voice.
“You decide where it ends,” the voice countered.
“Hmm,” Kitty murmured as she drew closer to the painting, peering at the title. “Shakuntala,” it proclaimed.
“Yes,” the voice said ruminatively, “Shakuntala, my daughter, my child!”
“Are you this, this woman looking down from the clouds?” Kitty asked, examining the painting.
“You found me!” the voice trilled delightedly.
“You look younger than her!” Kitty exclaimed.
“Well, she is human and humans, you know . . . “The voice said, airily. Kitty felt the voice fade away as though the speaker’s attention wandered because of the boring nature of the conversation.
“Hmm,” Kitty murmured uncertainly, still peering at the painting, trying to understand the story depicted.
The voice made a noise like a “humph” and Kitty heard a furious sort of fluttering, as though a bird’s feathers were unpleasantly ruffled, and she turned around away from the painting to face the story.
A King’s Token
A sudden fluttering and Vishwamitra opened his eyes without breaking meditation. A swan seemed caught in a thrush, thrashing around to shake off the branches. Vishwamitra rushed to help the poor trapped creature; he could not countenance the senseless, unjust violence that was the norm in all natural events. As always, his corporeal eyes opened several beats before his extra perception caught up with his mortal senses. When it did, his steps faltered. The scene unfolding before him snared him the way no other nets or strategies had. He saw what appeared to be a swan was actually an apasara, a celestial nymph. If he remembered his nymphs, this one was Menaka, the accomplished dancer of heavenly courts. It seemed that she was passing by when the wind, in sport, disrobed her white body, divesting it of white garments, and the annoyed Menaka was trying to catch and control the flapping clothes. What surprised Vishwamitra was not that Menaka was persuaded to enact this tableau before him; what surprised him was his own response to it. By the time he realized that he was caught, his meditation had broken without his noticing it. He did not miss Menaka’s almost predatory gleaming eye at his reaction, but he did miss the innocuous-looking parrot watching from the branch above his head. The parrot caught Menaka’s eye, gave a reassuring nod, and took care to fly well beyond the clouds before regaining his immortal form. Menaka, in an inviting mock-alarm, fled into the thicket; Vishwamitra, not caring that he was the quarry, obligingly gave chase.
The fawn had escaped into the herb gardens and the usually quiet ashram was all in a bustle. Gautami, the old healer, the warden of the herb gardens, ran after the young fawn on her thin, bowed legs, brandishing a dried branch. The fawn, unconcerned about his pursuer, loped about the fragrant herbs, sampling as he frolicked, much to Gautami’s alarm.
“Oh you creature! Oh you careless thing! Don’t eat that! I need it for the healing rooms! Oh the months I spent!” She scolded as she ran.
Sarangarva and Saradwata, the two mishras who took care of the ashram’s upkeep, ran around the periphery of the healing gardens, along the cottages that encircled the gardens, hallooing at the fawn, waving arms, jumping and feinting. But Sarangarva and Saradwata had grown up in the ashram and only one entity frightened them, Gautami defending her healing herbs. So they avoided stepping into the gardens, having received many a tongue lashing from the old healer all through their boyhood.
Shakuntala, catching sight of the mayhem in the herb gardens, rushed to the river bank. She was a squat girl, with skin the hue of the jungle mud on which perched the ashram that was home to her. She nodded at no one in particular as she stood solidly on thick legs, her broad brow and wide chin scrunched in a frown. She turned on her heel, her movements surprisingly economic for someone of a short, heavy-set structure. Soon she returned with some fresh Kush grass. Instead of running after the fawn, she walked towards him, so he could clearly see her.
The fawn froze. Shakuntala froze as well. After several breaths, he twitched his ear; Shakuntala slowly lowered to her haunches, her movement so understated that she seemed to sink into the earth until her eyes were on level with his. She concentrated on expanding the sense of comfort in her middle of her being until it reached her eyes. She widened her eyes to let the fawn examine her intent.
Then, from deep within her throat, she began to make reassuring clucks, just noise, really, an old healer’s technique that worked on all who needed healing. As the fawn let his hurt reflect in his eyes, Shakuntala began to murmur, “Tch Tch! See? Tch Tch! Shh. See? Here, come . . .” Ever so slowly, she unfurled an arm with a bunch of soft Kush grass. She brought it close enough to the fawn so he could smell it. Balancing on her haunches, she advanced slowly towards the fawn, keeping his interest with the fragrance of Kush and her murmuring, “Tch tch! Sweet, sweet, see? Tcha! Come come! You don’t want . . .” She continued urging the fawn, weaving the Kush gently around his nose. Every time he neared, she would retreat just a little step; the fawn stepped slowly to follow the comfort in her eyes as much as to follow the fragrant grass.
Beguiled, the fawn, his head weaving in tandem with the Kush, followed Shakuntala out of the garden and into a pen. Once in, she finally let the fawn have his fill of the Kush, as she petted him and scratched him gently, talking in a quiet monotone all the while. When he finished the grass, he reached behind and sampled the lotus blossom braided into her hair.
Shakuntala unwove the lotus and offered it to the fawn, who lost interest in it after chewing on it a bit. The doe limped over to her son, sniffing him for damage as she licked his speckled coat. Shakuntala trampled over to the doe and again, sinking to her haunches, checked the bandage on her leg. She dipped her fingers in a little pot she carried around her waist and refreshed the healing ointment. Then getting up, she patted the doe’s flank in approval and trampled out of the pen.
Shakuntala had shown aptitude in brewing healing unguents at a young age. Gautami had promptly taken her under her wing and by the time she was 16, Shakuntala could coax any creature into agreeing to submit to a healing. She could be seen all around the ashram at various times of the day and night, plodding on her solid legs, uncaring of the smells and messes that always accompanied healing huts. Her brow would usually be scrunched over her rather wide face as she usually wondered about combining new permutations of healing potions that would elevate fevers and infections, as well as reduce pain. Her brown, broad fingers and palms were never empty; she was always crushing, mixing, pinching herbs from Gautami’s herb gardens and examining textures and smells that resulted.
Two bees, busily humming over the Madhavi blossoms were much amused at the bustle and settled on a leaf to watch the fuss. “Lady Menaka, your daughter has her father’s concern for the hooved and feathered,” Chitrasen teased Menaka, who was watching Shakuntala with a concerned eye.
“Musician, the hooved and feathered recognize the father in the daughter. But do you think an apsara’s daughter should be a healer? I was hoping for a more polished princess, but she seems a rustic child after all!” Then, as though having made a decision, Menaka shook her bee wings and took off. Circling around the herb garden, the bees flew higher and higher. Soon they had parted the monsoon clouds and disappeared beyond.
Below them was the fragrance of wet earth. Visitors were expected at the ashram, and Sage Kanva was busy directing all arrangements from his cottage. Sarangarva and Saradwata ran around, shouting at everyone, ensuring his commands were carried out. Shakuntala escaped the bustle and ran out towards the lush woods. She passed by the women who wound their way around the pond, carrying baskets of lotus blossoms and stems between them. Priya caught up to her and greeted her with a playful blow on her shoulder, “Running away? Can I come?”
Shakuntala shrugged and frowned deeper, “Hmph. I don’t like . . . . Not enough potion if . . . and a royal . . . How will . . .?”
Anu caught up on Shakuntala’s other side and dismissed her concerns, “You worry so much! It’s because you are a healer.”
Priya agreed, “That Gautami Maa! Tcha! Poor Shaku never had a chance!”
“Tcha!” Shakuntala dismissed them both, “Going to woods there . . . wild mint on that . . .”
“Let us go get your wild mint from the glade. We can help.” The three ashram girls disappeared into the jungle.
The two parrots watching the girls sat quietly for a while. Then the female narrowed her eyes and said, “No. This will not do. She is a jungle lass, a healer! I don’t think there will be anything left if we take the healer away! Something must be done.”
The male ruffled his feathers and shut his eyes before replying, “Undoubtedly, Lady, something must be done. And I have a thought if you would indulge me.”
“Make it worth my time, musician,” the female retorted.
“Well, see, the healer lass seems especially good at healing fawns and does. So why don’t we use that?”
A speculative gleam brightened the female’s red eye as she listened to Chitrasen’s plan.
The afternoon stretched as the ashram girls gathered the herbs they has set out for. They had wandered into the forest and rested in a glade a little way from the ashram, their heavy baskets beside them. Soon, the light began to mellow as afternoon clouds gathered. The girls began gathering themselves up, when Shakunatala, squatting to pick up her basket, dropped her jaw when she saw a stag staring at her.
“Sh!” she shushed the others as she crept towards the stag, who watched her with quiet eyes.
“Pretty, pretty . . . See? Nice. . .” She cooed as she advanced, fearing the stag would bolt. However, as she neared, she saw the arrow buried in his haunch and hurried her advance. Anu soon reached the buck and petted his face, while Priya stood alert for the hunter. Shakuntala walked up and parted the thickest vegetation, when she felt her arm grasped, too strongly for a creeper or branch, too human for a trunk or paw. She was too surprised to even gasp. Her breath hitched and tangled in the hunter’s suddenly-there eyes; he, being gently bred, held it, steadied it, and returned her vagrant breath to her chest after a moment, reminding Shakuntala to exhale.
She knew her world had tilted on its axis, but had no idea how to steady it.
The humming bird resisted an urge to spill golden pollen on the lovers, to mark the occasion with a little drama, but the stag’s stare stopped her.
Priya shook her friend and Shakuntala blushed and sputtered out an excuse as she left the clearing.
Priya and Anu stood uncomfortably, shuffling, commenting on the sultriness of the weather, a wish for a cooling breeze, excusing their friend’s hasty departure.
Soon, however, Shakuntala returned with a few fruit for the visitor. The king considered the fruit and looked up inquiringly at her.
“Apologies, Kshatriya. Please refresh yourself with this.” Priya supplied, as Shakuntala seemed incapable of speech.
“No apologies needed, lady,” The king solemnly replied.
Anu nudged Shakunatala, who, as though waking from some reverie, mumbled, “No, no, Sir, . . . I mean. . .” before sinking back into her silence.
Priya took over and asked, “Sir, you seem to be no hunter; whom do we have the pleasure . . .”
“Forgive me, ladies. I have been amiss. I am King Dushyant and I was hoping to carry my hunt as a guest offering to Sage Kanva, who expects me.”
They looked around but the stag seemed to have limped away. The king looked as though he wished he to pursue it. But he chose diplomacy for the moment.
With a slightly concerned glance at Shakuntala’s shocked face, he graciously said, “My sudden appearance seems to have bothered your friend. My apologies for that.”
Anu hastened to dismiss his attention from the sudden strangeness that seemed to have gripped her friend, “Oh her! Never mind her. She is thinking of her herbs. She is often like this.”
This, apparently, was the company that Sage Kanva’s ashram had been all astir over. Priya and Anu’s conversation seemed to have dismissed Shakunatala from the visitor’s mind as the three of them made their way to the ashram.
Shakuntala stood in the middle of the glade, her short chin and broad brow deep in a frown, her squat legs a little apart to balance her, and her fingers constantly rubbing, moving, as she tried to understand what had happened.
Her hands stopped their fussing and came to rest at her throat, coaxing the words out of her reluctant lips. Shakuntala looked yearningly after the king as she sighed, “I wish . . .”
The humming bird finally emerged from the hibiscus blossom and fluttered over her head, spilling pollen. Shakuntala’s frown softened. It felt like a promise.
Chitrasen, the vain peacock unfurled his impressive tail and danced around the pen, attracting interested glances from not a few peahens perched around the rafters. Beside him, Menaka stood displeased with her drab peahen garb. The peacock was engaged in a victory dance, a celebration at a task achieved, and he sang at the peahen, “My lady, we did it! The blossom has reached the feet of Kama Deva!”
“Stop this show, musician!” The peahen admonished, “She is caught. But you know the greater work remains!”
The peacock squawked in mock alarm, “What? More arrows for my poor haunches? These, I would have my lady know, are not make of flowers and bumblebees! These arrows hurt!”
“You will have to take no more arrows into your stag haunches, musician,” She replied, “Although all your squawking and fussing might remind the cooks how much a royal visitor might appreciate a peacock for a welcome meal!”
At this, the peacock screeched and flew away from the pen, followed by the peahen. They took their breath on an especially accommodating cloud and began planning.
Later, Menaka waited with uncharacteristic patience, a butterfly still on a twig. Chitrasena was a parrot, perched a few heads above the butterfly. Shakuntala plodded into the herb garden, collecting thyme and mint with absent minded fingers. She wondered yet again how to make herself winsome for the king, to catch his regard. Her fingers almost plucked the butterfly, but Menaka swished away from the dried twig and landed on a mogra blossom, glaring at a couple of bees drunk on its fragrance. Shakuntala looked up curiously at the butterfly and stretch out a finger. Menaka obliged and Shakuntala found herself looking at a little woman perched on her finger. Something about the way the woman perched and looked reminded Shakuntala of mentor; unconsciously, the girl straightened her gait to receive instruction.
Menaka smiled, bowing her head and looking up from beneath her lashes, the tiny gesture making her earrings dance just so.
“Now you try that, child,” Menaka instructed.
Shakuntala dropped her head low and raised her head sideways, attempted a smile, but could only manage a grimace, her thick legs and short stature contributing to the awkwardness. Her flower earrings swung madly.
Menaka’s laugh was a tinkling harmony that rode a passing breeze.
Shakuntala just stared, “Devi, I cannot ever. . . these, these. . . so much grace! Take years!”
“I am your Lady Mother, child.”
“Lady Mother.” Shakuntala repeated. Then the import of her words dawned on her and she asked, “Are you really my . . .?”
Menaka swirled down from the mogra blossom, taking her full form. Her eyes reminded Shakuntala of unimaginable places, but when Menaka took her hand, she knew a kinship and smiled at her mother.
“Yes, child. I am. I left you with the good sage and he has done well by you. But today, you will begin learning of things he cannot teach you. Actually, no one here can! Will you learn the ways of the apsaras, your mother’s people?”
Shakuntala nodded with excitement and desperation. She wanted to tell her mother about the king and began, “Oh yes, my Lady Mother! You see, there is, see? A stag in the glade. . . a royal person that . . .”
Menaka tilted her head and smiled encouragingly for her to go on.
“Well, see,” Shakuntala went on, “And I don’t know how to . . .”
Menaka’s smile deepened as she said, “That’s what I can teach you! We apsaras are masters of the art of attracting.” Then, sternly, she went on, “But these lessons are no different than your other lessons. You must pay attention and follow directions exactly, if we are to make any progress. Are you prepared?”
Shakuntala looked at Menaka and said solemnly, “I am, Lady Mother. I thank you. . . I AM!”
“Good. Now notice the world around you. Notice the curve of that creeper, the sway of this branch, the precise dance of the hibiscus blossom, so different from the mogra’s!”
Shakuntala looked around obediently, but could only see her familiar world.
“Lady Mother, I don’t quite . . .”
“Pay attention, child! Now. Sketch the exact curve of this branch using your arm and hand.”
Shakuntala curved her arm and hand to indicate the movement of the creeper, her hip unconsciously arranging itself for better balance. She examined the precise angle of her fingers and stole a surreptitious glance at Menaka.
“That’s the look, child! You want to work on that. Now. Once more. And this time, achieve the look and the posture in a single movement.”
“Lady Mother, I don’t know if . . .”
“Don’t think or know! Study the creeper and be it!”
“I will try, let’s see . . .”
“And that’s another thing we will work on. You must work on choosing where and how you let your words float away. There is a difference between being coy and diffident, and remember, Shakuntala, apsaras are never diffident!”
Shakuntala’s eyes shone as she repeated, “Apsaras are never diffident!” Then, with greater confidence, “Never diffident.” Her tone shone with her eyes and thereafter, Shakuntala moved with the ease of one who has found her footing on a twirling earth.
“My Lady Mother!” She exclaimed as she impetuously hugged a startled Menaka, declaring, “I am so glad!”
“There, there, now child. Do collect yourself. You are no jungle lass!”
Shakuntala nodded solemnly, and after a heartbeat, exploded into her characteristic victory whoop.
The parrot squawked like an alarm and Menaka detached herself from the clinging girl as gently as a creeper unfurling from a branch. “I must leave now, child” she said. “But I will be back to check on your progress every day, so mind that you practice well.”
“Oh I will, Lady Mother! And you will be so proud . . .” Shakuntala fervently promised.
Menaka and Chitrasena watched with amusement as Shakuntala turned on her heel to return to the ashram, murmuring, “Never diffident!” A few steps later, she skipped and whooped in pure joy. Menaka shrugged one elegant shoulder and rippled the movement through her arm. Chitrasena chuckled and said, “Your daughter, though undeniably apsara in her aspect, has a rather large jungle lass haunting her! One wonders how much the situation can be helped.”
Menaka withered a look at him as she retorted, “You are right, Gandharva. She is my daughter. Perhaps you should wonder how much your wit is becoming tiresome.”
Chitrasen whooped teasingly and followed Menaka above the clouds.
* * * *
Dushyant wandered through the herb garden, glad of escaping the smoky huts of ashram. The inhabitants obviously had grown used to the constant soot that covered their upper walls and inner roofs, but he was not used to inhaling the offensive stink. Vidushak, trying to be kind, had called the ubiquitous ashram smell “earthy,” but he was not taken in; he was diplomat enough to avail himself of these people’s hospitality, but his diplomatic skills do not extend to offensive smells. He took every opportunity to get to the gardens; the herb gardens especially were constantly fragrant with mint, lavender and a mixture of other welcome inhalants.
He had refused the attendance of a young ashramite holding an umbrella to keep him from the fury of the noon sun; after the morning’s tour of the ashram, which mainly included walking from hovel to hovel, the open air felt very welcome. The herb garden ended in what looked like a clearing, and beyond that lay the forest. He thought he saw something move in the glade beyond the garden and made his way towards it, stilling his breaths, controlling his feet, and taking care not to disturb the air, in case it was his escaped prey, or another animal in distress; perhaps he could coax it the way the jungle lass had talked to the wounded stag that had brought him to the ashram.
When he reached the creepers and trunks that hid the clearing from the garden, he stopped and began registering, a seasoned hunter’s instinct. What he saw completely amazed him.
In the clearing an apsara stood facing a creeper and tree trunk that hung heavily with boughs and blossoms. She had her back to him. She was short, but the way she held her spine and balanced her gait on heel indicated that there was something more than mere human about her. Her body exactly mirrored the curves of the foliage before her. He could not believe that such a creature would visit the ashram and wondered what she did here, so close to a human settlement. She held the pose for long enough for him to think that she might be a statue of an apsara. But then, a movement shivered around her; it began on her shoulder that seemed to rotate as gracefully as though its joints were oiled, and this rotation seemed to elongate and dance down her arm, all the way to the ends of her fingers, which had arranged themselves in the exact shape of a half-open mogra blossom before her.
And so it continued. The apsara’s movements were seamless, beyond anything he had seen a human achieve, and for lack of a better epithet, she flowed! She did not move from the spot whereon she stood, but she swayed, dipped, twirled, modulated, and bent her body in rhythm with an unheard beat, some music heard only by her and the foliage around her. When the breeze swayed a blossom, her body copied the movement; her arms rose to emulate the trunk and her wrists twirled to match the blooms. A hummingbird emerged from within a flower, and her hip twitched to reflect the lightened bough.
He could not have said how long he stood there, how long her dance lasted. He did not dare breathe, did not dare exhale for fear of frightening her off to her heavenly abode where he would never see her dance. He dared believe that it was to watch this celestial maid that he had been dragged to the ashram. She reminded me of someone but he could not imagine whom.
Recognition smashed into him when the apsara, having apparently finished her dance, gave an un-apsara-like whoop of victory.
The apsara was suddenly the ashram lass, the healer of fawns!
Dushyant wondered if he had slept in the glade, if he had but dreamt the apsara dance.
Shakuntala, unknowing of his presence, swung on her heavy heel and plodded away, absently crushing a leaf within her fingers, sniffing it for pungency, her mind already on a series of healing potions that needed to be potted, awaiting her in the kitchens.
Dushyant found the girl squatting over a boiling pot in the kitchens. A vile smell, lined vaguely with eucalyptus, emerged from the pot that she kept stirring.
“Lady?” He commanded.
But she did not seem to have heard. She dropped a bit of the unguent on her wrist and touched it with her fingers, sniffing as she frowned over the pot.
So he sat down and lightly touched her arm.
Her stirring spoon clattered to the floor and she looked up at him in sudden alarm, her eyes darting when she saw who it was.
He smiled slightly to reassure her, sighing inwardly. He would have to relate to her as though she were a skittish, hurt animal. But then he remembered the apsara in the forest and knew that he had to talk to her. He deepened his smile conspiratorially and said softly, “I saw you in the forest!”
The apsara was suddenly before him. She glanced half coyly, half invitingly at him and lowered her eyes before saying guilelessly, “hmm. I collect herbs.”
“Is that what you call that dance? Collecting herbs?” he teased her.
A giggle rippled through her and she glanced up again at him, teasingly this time, and said, “If Majesty prefers . . . “
“So,” Dushyant said solemnly, “What is your schedule for –ahem- collecting herbs? I would not want to miss . . .”
Her quiet chuckle reminded him of a gurgling wave, as she tossed a final glance at him and got up to plod away.
Dushyant realized he was enjoying himself, flirting with this creature, this half bumpkin, half apsara. He thought her an incredible being. She seemed to transform from one to the other seamlessly, as occasion and company demanded. At the same time, both hidden selves peeked from behind whoever she was; the bumpkin stammered as the apsara flirted, and the apsara twinkled as the bumpkin plodded on her thick frame. Her control over both these beings impressed him. He wished that he could split and control himself so that he could be simply Dushyant sometimes, and the king at others. He wished he could will these two selves the way Shakuntala commanded her different natures.
That summer changed everything. The king proposed that Shakuntala marry him right away. Shakuntala, in her direct way, confessed that she would like that, but protested that her father was away.
Dushyant protested, “But lady, we can marry according to Gandharva rights, which are just as legal and binding as any other wedding conducted with pomp and ceremony.”
She begged for time to think over the situation and he had no choice but to agree.
Later, Shakuntala sat with Menaka in the glade which had become their special meeting place. This is where Menaka had tutored Shakuntala in ways of her people; this was where Shakuntala had confessed her intense liking for the king. Now, she squatted on a low trunk, while Menaka, who never quite figured exactly how to stand on ground, floated before her.
“I don’t see a problem, child!” Menaka said serenely. “After all, a Gandharva wedding is the norm for our people.”
Chitrasen nodded rigorously in agreement, shivering the mogra blossom he was crouched in as a wasp.
“But, but my father . . .? Blessings are needed!” Shakuntala pointed out.
“Child! You shall have your Lady Mother in attendance if a parent is necessary for you!” Menaka said. Then, gently, she went on, “Shakuntala, you are fortunate that you do not have to marry where you are commanded! You have caught the love of the best of men, a king, and an apsara deserves nothing less!”
Shakuntala nodded and began to say, “But love . . . that is never . . .”
Menaka looked up and spoke sternly, “Never think that, child. Men do not have long memories. If your king leaves the forest without you, he may not remember!”
“What?” Shakuntala looked at Menaka in alarm, “But my Lady Mother . . .”
Menaka shuffled her diaphanous garments about her and shook her head. She said firmly, “I suggest you agree, Child. There is no time to lose!”
Spurred on by an urgency Shakuntala did not quite understand, she agreed to marry the king on the banks of the river, in the clearing between the ashram and the forest, under the amra trees, next to the creeper where she had practiced the ways of her mother’s people.
The next day, she met Dushyant in the glade. She plodded up to him, and looked up frankly into his eyes, trying to keep the apsara at bay. “My king,” She said, “My father is not . . .”
Dushyant caught her hand and pressed it in reassurance, “Shh. A parent’s presence is not necessary in a Gandharva wedding!”
Shakuntala glanced at the Madhavi creeper that seemed to have blossomed only for this day. She shuffled closer to the creeper so that it appeared to have its arm around her.
Dushyant saw the frightened, clumsy ashram girl, leaning with unconscious grace on the creeper, its blossoms arranged to show off the girl to her advantage. He was amazed anew at this unlikely combination between an ungainly mortal and an elegant immortal.
“Shakuntala, I really . . . “ he began, but stopped to swallow.
She nodded solemnly and deliberately. “Yes. Yes, I too really . . .”
“Then why waste this precious, precious day, my sweet?”
Shakuntala blushed and lowered her head to smile secretly. The dappled sunlight seemed to throw a gold veil over her bowed head. A few mogra blossoms fell from high, with a quiver, catching in her hair, looking as though they were woven into her veil.
“My queen!” Dushyant exclaimed, “You need no bridal adornment at this moment!”
Shakuntala looked up with all she felt in her eyes, feeling vulnerable and powerful at the same time.
His wide smile and sincere eyes comforted and pleased her. She did not know what the future held, but today, at this moment, he was as much hers as she his.
Shakuntala was ready.
Priya and Anu had woven garlands with lotus blooms and left them in the hollow of a nearby amra tree.
With her sure, thick step, Shakuntala fetched them. More mogra blossoms shivered down at the couple, and butterflies and humming birds of many colors fluttered around as the couple exchanged garlands and their faith with each other.
Dushyant felt overwhelmed and exclaimed, “My love and my queen!”
Shakuntala murmured, “My lord, my . . .”
Dushyant waited as the silence stretched. Then he spoke, “Say it, my sweet. Say what you would say!”
Shakuntala trembled a little as he steadied her, and said, “My king a-and M-my hu-husband!’
He laughed in pure joy and drew her close.
Shakuntlata smiled and thought she would never feel happier.
But then, he caught her hand and steadying her finger, slid a strange, heavy ring on her ring finger. It had a sun burst with a face in the middle. The eyes of the face seemed to burn and he said that those stones were rubies. The large ones around the flower were emeralds. The flower petals were topaz. Shakuntala repeated the names of each stone slowly, annunciating clearly, trying to fix everything in her memory. She barely blinked, her wide eyes trying to gather all aspects of the day to her breast for safe-keeping. She followed where he drew her, for once, not plodding but stepping as lightly as a ray of sunlight on an unfurling leaf.
As he identified each stone on the ring, he led her gently to an alcove hidden by a curtain of willow branches. By the time she had repeated all the metals and stones that were contained in the ring, they were sitting behind the curtain, beginning their life as man and wife.
Later, he watched her come awake and smiled into her eyes, promising, “I will not forget!”
“Never!” she echoed, “We remember forever!”
The jeweled ring bit into her finger as he clasped her palms.
“Oh where is that girl?” Gautami grumbled as she called again, “Shakuntala! To the herb garden!”
“Yes, yes” Shakuntala shouted back from the kitchens. “Tcha!” she thought to herself, “Gautami maa calls as soon as I sit! I cannot get any rest!”
She ran out of the doors that led to the herb garden. Perhaps she got up too fast, perhaps she could not tolerate the breakfast, perhaps the monsoon came too soon. Whatever the reason, Shakuntala flopped down into the mud from last night’s rain. Then she promptly threw up the gruel she had forced down for breakfast.
“Clumsy, clumsy!” scolded Gautami, as she came to help Shakuntala up. “Can’t find your feet, girl?”
“Yes, sorry umm . . .” Shakuntala mumbled, trying to tidy herself.
Gautami squinted carefully at the girl. The summer was gone and with it, their royal visitor. That was a few weeks ago. Gautami, who missed little, squinted some more and wondered.
“Come, sit a while, child. Always rushing to nowhere! Those mint leaves can wait for you for a change!” Gautami clucked as she led Shakuntala to one of the unoccupied healing cottages around the garden.
A week after the pregnancy was confirmed, Shakuntala knew a new kind of exhaustion. Even daily chores tired her and morning sickness drained her all day long. She was lost in memories of the short time she had spent with her husband.
“Tired and lost!” Menaka exclaimed in surprise every time she saw Shakuntala now. Shakuntala sat hunched on the low branch in the glade, Menaka floating and shimmering with pride before her. Menaka shifted in a decisive movement. Shakuntala wanted to just nap a little. But Menaka seemed to be in a celebratory mood. “A king’s token!” she kept repeating, “You’ve won it, my child! All I wanted you to be, to have! No more just a queen, but a queen mother!”
“My Lady Mother . . .” Shakuntala spread her wide palms to explain. But Menaka cut her short, “Child, you don’t seem to realize how important this is! This is more precious than that ring! Chitrasen! I know what we’ll do! We’ll visit the king’s dream and remind him of his queen in the forest!”
This made Shakuntala nervous and she began rubbing and wringing her fingers, an unconscious apothecary’s habit that was becoming more conscious because invariably, this movement loosed the king’s ring and it fell from her fingers, requiring her to retrieve and reinstate it. Perhaps, she secretly feared as she bent down to retrieve the ring, becoming queen was not going to be as easy or comforting as marrying the king in a glade.
“What do you think you are doing, child?” demanded Menaka as she watched Shakuntala bend over. “You will hurt or lose the king’s token that way! Chitrasen tells me that human birthings are more complex and hurtful than apsara birthings. You will need to be careful! You are more fragile than we who are full apsaras!”
“Yes, My Lady Mother.”
“Look, child,” Menaka spoke with sudden seriousness, “I can remind the king of you, but it will be a fleeting memory. You must do your part as well.”
Shakuntala looked up confused, “But what can I . . .? It is so far . . .!”
“Yes. But it would not hurt to send him messages? Write on petals and leaves, with your nail, if you cannot find a quill or a feather!”
“But what. . . ?”
“Why, write about the forest. About the child. How the forest blooms. How you think of him constantly. Write about the token he left with you!”
“Yes. Yes.” Shakuntala sat more solidly with renewed resolve. “I can send . . . the mishras . . . Tonight!”
“And Shakuntala,” Menaka said, “Learn to finish your sentences. It is more becoming in a queen.”
“Yes, my Lady Mother,” Shakuntala replied with deliberation.
The monsoons were especially violent that year, and though they brought few fevers, the ashram remained occupied with re-building and repairing the huts and hovels, keeping the animals dry, and plants from drowning.
True to her word, Shakuntala sent regular messages to the king. Sage Kanva always had updates and suggestions to be sent to the king, and if the mishras, who carried the messages, noticed a few folded or rolled leaves among their scrolls, they did not mention it. Shakuntala, now obviously with child, was largely left alone, freed even from most of her healing duties. She spent her time reading out loud from her own messages, from the king’s replies (he always replied on leaves or sturdy lotus petals), from texts the ashram students were not using. Her speech slowed as her gait steadied. She spoke purposefully and coherently, attending to her syllables carefully.
As the monsoon dried and cooled into autumn, Shakuntala could finish her sentences without much thought, as though she had been doing it all her life.
“Very good, child!” Menaka would applaud her efforts, though she wrinkled her delicate nose at the grotesque figure her daughter seemed to have assumed, carrying a child within for so long.
“Human child birthings are definitely very different from ours,” She would observe. When pressed for details, she would explain, “I remember no backaches or swollen limbs when I carried you, child. And the birth? Nothing to it! I was alone, and the next moment, I held your infant self in my arms.”
“How could you leave your infant? Abandon her to strangers?” Shakuntala had asked quietly, twisting her fingers and catching the jeweled ring before it fell.
“Left? When have I left? I am here, before you!” Menaka had exclaimed in surprise.
Then, she would study her daughter and inform her, “You are shifting, child! It’s not just your sentences.”
“You’ve changed, you are changing!” Priya and Anu would also tell Shakuntala.
Shakuntala confessed to herself that something within her had shifted; it was her focus. As the pregnancy unfolded within her, she yearned for her husband. She would spend hours remembering and embroidering their time together, from the first time she looked at him across a stag’s hurt gaze, to the last sight of his retreating form as he rode away from the ashram, waving to her, promising to send for her. The gloaming, silvery days and sparkling, cool nights of early winter lent themselves to her pensive mood.
However, unlike Shakuntala, the ashram though quieter than the busy summer of the royal visit, was bustling with expectation of another visit. This time, no king was expected; they were expecting a temperamental, brilliant, astute, unpredictable wise man, Sage Durvasa. The ashram was being cleaned, repaired, and then cleaned again. The floors were swept with lavender-sprigged brooms and smeared with fresh cow dung and allowed to dry. The cots were re-woven with fresh coils. The kitchens were being re-arranged to fit the Sage’s sparse and strict dietary preferences. The students were all atwitter with excitement; they broke into frequent arguments about what the Sage might talk about, wondering about his thoughts on a variety of metaphysical and physical topics.
Shakuntala spent her days in her quarters, as though in a bubble that insulated her from the rest of the ashram. They all let her be, giving her as little to do as possible, warning her that she would have no rest once the child was born. They were also sensitive to her new introverted nature and just hoped that she would not displease the visitors if she were out of the way.
No one knew exactly when the Sage would arrive, and if he would be accompanied by an entourage or would be alone. So a set of smaller cottages were readied in case of an entourage. Sage Kanva was especially concerned about proper welcome of his much-admired colleague and everyone in the ashram had a specific job and strict instructions about how to do it. Sage Kanva himself had planned to welcome Sage Durvasa; a puja plate had been set aside for that purpose. It was refreshed every morning in anticipation of the visit.
One morning, as Sage Kanva refreshed the puja plate, a sparrow fell out of the sky, covered in blood, on his shoulder, then slid down his torso to die at his feet. Sage Kanva looked up to see a falcon who had just lost his prey, and quickly asking Gautami to see to the bird’s corpse, went to bathe and cleanse himself. On his way out, he saw Shakuntala, stirring a pot in the kitchen. As the kitchen faced the herb garden, which led to the main gate of the ashram, Sage Kanva told Shakuntala to welcome the guest.
“Yes, father,” Shakuntala said dutifully.
Sage Kanva sighed and touched her shoulder, bringing her out of her thoughts. He pointed to the refreshed puja plate, saying, “Now Shaku, do pay attention. There is the puja plate. If the Sage arrives, make sure that he is properly welcomed.”
“Yes, of course, father. I see the puja plate; I will welcome our guest. I hear and obey.” She replied, anxious to lapse back into the day dream she stirred the pot with.
However, the reverie proved more powerful than the reality stomping down towards the ashram in form of Sage Durvasa at an hour when none was left to welcome him but a dream haunted wife.
The sage was not alone. His students kept up a buzz of conversation as the group walked in through the open ashram gates. Their conversation hushed as they made their way through the fragrant herb garden. They sniffed appreciatively, and a few of them stopped by to admire the variety and health of the garden. Gautami, being a child-widow, was not allowed to be the first one that guests would look on, but she watched the visitors from her shadows and was pleased.
The group took their time to wander through the herb gardens, and finally, a few students reached the entrance of the kitchen, the first abode of the ashram. The prerogative of welcoming them belonged to the host sage and his family, in this case, Shakuntala. She sat before them, stirring a pot with a strong minty fragrance and a few students wondered in whispers if that pot contained a restorative for them. Then, the group parted to let Sage Durvasa through. They all imagined that Shakuntala was waiting for the sage himself before she began the welcome ritual.
Sage Durvasa emerged from the group and stood before Shakuntala, just outside the threshold, waiting to be welcomed within. The silence stretched beyond awkwardness and still, Shakuntala continued to stare into the pot and stir, as though an automaton. Sage Durvasa shifted on his feet to become more visible; then he cleared his throat; finally, he spoke, “Devi?”
A few students of the company glanced around nervously, wondering about the problem. Did Sage Kanva leave a deaf-mute as the entire welcoming party? How angry would that make Sage Durvasa, they wondered with rising distress. The silent eyes watching the visitors and the visitors, all waited. Sage Durvasa knocked on the kitchen door.
Then he spoke loudly enough for the ashram to hear, “Is there no one here to welcome a weary sage and his acolytes?”
Shakuntala sighed absently. The world around her waited with bated breath
This sigh proved to all that the woman in the kitchen was no deaf-mute; her eyes were open; this meant only one thing! She was so lost in an imagined world that that real world was lost to her. Sage Durvasa suddenly lost his temper: if this girl’s imagined world was so attractive, its inhabitants in the real world had no use for her! It would serve her well to disappear from the imaginations of those who inhabited her world!
He slowly thought at her, “Careless woman! You forget the basic precepts of hospitality, the very foundations of civilization! May the person you are thinking of, forget you, like you forget your duties as hostess!”
Suddenly, the world erupted with action. Sage Kanva ran along the path through the main gate, dripping from the river, followed closely by the mishras. He saw what was about to happen and hurried forward, trying to prevent something he could not imagine.
Sage Durvasa, however, was already speaking his curse, “May he whom you dream of, forget you, fail to acknowledge you, fail to honor you, as you have forgotten us, failed to acknowledge us, failed to honor us!”
Then, he waited for a breath to see if Shakuntala had understood, even recorded the curse. But she sat stirring, lost in the same trance. A few of the sage’s students began chanting the spell of peace, before the sage lost all perspective to anger and all was reduced to ashes.
The spells seemed to work, because Sage Durvasa found himself chanting the peace spell along with the group, his mouth phrasing the well-worn syllables. He found his sudden rage seeping away as the peace chant got louder and firmer. But by now, Sage Durvasa and his students were facing the main gate and they began marching through it.
Sage Kanva stood beside the path, wiping his face, his hands folded, silent, shaking his head over the situation that was beyond him to heal. Priya and Anu, accompanied by a few of Sage Kanva’s students stood before the departing Sage Durvasa with folded hands, eyes wet with regret and shame.
“Oh please, Wise Sir!” they pleaded, “Please pity the wife estranged from her loving husband! Please turn your feet around and place your benevolent palm over our friend’s head! She needs blessings at this time!”
Sage Durvasa suffered to stand and listen to what the ashramites had to say about Shakuntala’s story.
He shook his head and looked up when they were finished.
“I regret that I cannot take back my words or my steps.”
“But oh please! Only you can . . .” they still pled.
“Yes, I can, however mitigate it. If Shakuntala can show him a token or an object that he gave with a promise to remember, only then will he remember her.”
“A token, Wise Sir? Do you think her child will be enough? Is that what you mean?”
Sage Durvasa sighed, “I do not know what is meant. I have spoken. I wish your ashram peace. I must be on my way now.”
Chanting the peace spell, Sage Durvasa left with his students, leaving behind a stunned ashram.
Sage Kanva’s roaring of Shakuntala’s name woke her out of her dream.
“Oh! This is bad, my child!” Menaka said as she floated-paced around the glade. Shakuntala perched at the edge of her usual low bough, trying to take as little space as possible, trying to control the sob that kept hitching her breath.
“I do not imagine how to help this!” Menaka finally conceded, “You must heed what your foster father deems proper.”
Shakuntala nodded in agreement and got up to return to the ashram. Menaka’s delicate features were arranged in a becoming expression of melancholy as she watched her daughter retreat.
“Gandharva!” She called once Shakuntala had disappeared from view, “My daughter must not be left bereft. I must leave you here until . . .”
“Yes, my lady. Our world can await you,” Chitrasen quietly spoke right above her as he flew.
That very evening, Sage Kanva called Shakuntala to his cottage and told her that it was time for her to join her husband; after all, a king’s child should not open eyes in a humble ashram. He asked Gautami to accompany Sarangarva and Saradwata, who would escort Shakuntala to her husband’s court. The escort was instructed to leave her with her husband and return to the ashram.
The small party left the ashram. A cloud hovered and followed them, providing cool shade to the travelers, like the edge of a mother’s scarf, a maternal wish that follows her daughter as she goes to her husband’s house.
Shakuntala sank deeper into her thoughts on the journey. She had little to say, but said it clearly, as though afraid of forgetting all she had learned. She cared little for food or rest, but took care to be reasonably well-groomed. She made it a point to visit the well, the river bank, the ghat, whichever was available as the company travelled to the capital. She would wash and straighten herself before eating or resting.
She never complained, stodgily following the mishras with her plodding gait, her face sinking into a scrunched up frown, straightening when she became aware of it; her fingers constantly twirled and rubbed, as though they missed the herbs, catching the king’s ring in her palm. Once or twice, someone handed her the king’s ring which her restless fingers had dropped; she accepted it without comment, as though it mattered little. Gautami and the mishras exchanged looks and shook their heads; no one liked to remind her of the curse, and no harm was done if the ring always found itself to her; they all worried what would happen if the ring were lost. But Shakuntala refused to be drawn into any conversations, concentrating on preserving a dignified quiet that she imagined a queen commanded.
Even when Dushyant failed to remember her, Shakuntala kept her face. The little dusty party that accompanied her was amazed and impressed with her eloquence and articulation as she held her own before the court that had sought to dismiss her and invalidate her.
“My child and I trace our lineage beyond your king!” Shakuntala had told the court in a ringing voice, “We are derived from a celestial apsara, a being none of you can even imagine! “
“So she says!” the courtiers had challenged, “Show us some proof!”
“The cosmos does not heed your challenges, courtier!” Shakuntala had coldly responded, “This court is not higher than that of the gods to make such demands!”
When Gautami had prompted her to show the king the ring, she had looked at the wrinkled face and shook her head slightly; her twirling, wringing fingers had lost the ring and Shakuntala could not have said when this had happened.
She faced Dushyant and went on, “If my face and being are not proof enough for my husband of our union, then what could a ring do? Why should I have to rely on a dead object for my husband to remember me?”
She turned away from the throne and concluded, “I do not wish to be remembered for a ring! My husband will have to find me if ever he does remember me and our child.”
She held her veil and dignity in her fidgeting fingers as she turned away from the court and walked out, staring tearlessly straight ahead. Finally, the court was done. Shakuntala and the ashramites sat on a platform outside the palace gates.
Gautami said, “The king must accept you, ring or not. There must be something you can say to him that will remind him of you, child. We cannot wait. We must return to the ashram. You belong here, we do not.”
“Oh Gautami ma! What should I do here? Wretched as I am, my husband has refused me and his child! Be kind, Gautami ma! Let me come back with you, your young charge begs you,” Shakuntala pleaded.
“We are charged to leave you at your husband’s court, lady,” Gautami stonily said and turned towards the way back to the ashram.
Shakuntala followed the ashram travelers out to the street, trying to catch up with them, but they only increased their pace. The cloud that had accompanied them knew a sudden heat and Menaka flowed down from the cloud, gathered the weeping Shakuntala and began rising; soon they were airborne. Menaka laughed her tinkling laugh when she saw the unbelieving faces of the palace sentries and the few merchants who had seen her.
Shakuntala looked up in tears, “Mother? Oh take me with you! Don’t leave me here!”
“Yes, my daughter. You will come with me. All that has happened till this hour is past. Let us go to my abode. We shall talk.”
“I talked, Mother! I finished all my sentences! And yet, . . .” Shakuntala wept.
“Yes, child,” Menaka replied, waiting for Shakuntala to finish weeping; she did not feel comfortable with this Shakuntala.
In her abode, Menaka, busy with her duties, left Shakuntala to her own devices. Shakuntala, heavy with child, avoided much movement and studied the importance of being still. She unconsciously adopted some gestures and habits of the apsaras who surrounded her; she acquired a certain way of holding her neck, arranging her palm to frame her face, include her eyes in her recently acquired articulation. She promised her child that when Dushyant found them, he would lead them proudly through his arrogant court.
For she never doubted that Dushyant would find her.
Menaka just shook her head in confusion over her daughter’s insistence on preferring one man through such circumstances. She repeatedly told Shakuntala that this was not the way of apsaras. Shakuntala shook her head at her mother’s inability to understand the very human tendency to mate monogamously.
Once her son was born, Shakuntala decided to leave her mother’s abode and build her own cottage in the forest, not far from Sage Kashyap’s ashram. There, she settled down to wait for Dushyant, as she taught herself to still her fingers to hold woven grass rings for entire hours, then days, and finally months. Watching her son grow steadied her and sculpted smiles at the edge of her eyes and mouth.
When Dushyant finally remembered Shakuntala, he got up from the meal he was in the middle of. He called for his horse and he left the palace, the capital, with a short word to his ministers that he was going to fetch his family. Then he returned almost immediately, murmuring something about gifts and left again with a haphazard collection of rich fabrics, huge victuals, and an assortment of jewelry.
At Sage Kanva’s ashram, they told him all that had befallen his wife. Sage Kanva was gracious and, cordially explained away Dushyant’s failure to recognize Shakuntala by telling a story about a curse. Dushyant listened, his head bowed, understanding the tale as an effort to preserve the dignity of a son-in-law. He offered the rich gifts, a few of which were accepted, but the rest sent back, since the ashram had no use of velvets and jewelry. Dushyant left the ashram, his guilt burdened and doubled with anxiety as he learned of Shakuntala’s pregnancy.
At Sage Kashyap’s ashram, Dushyant learnt of Shakuntala’s cottage. She had insisted on being alone in the deep forest; he doubt that the child had survived (she had to be all right; she had to be; if she really has a celestial mother and a powerful father, she simply had to be, Dushyant repeatedly argued with himself). Even if the child had not survived, he hoped that Shakuntala would be waiting and willing to return with him.
If the child had survived, Dushyant hoped that it was a girl, so Shakuntala wouldn’t feel torn about stealing a kingdom from her son’s birthright and living the forest life she preferred. He had promised himself that he would be willing to spend his days in the forest, spending minimal time on State affairs. And he hoped that the girl looked just like her mother, part bumpkin, part apsara.
He was so deep in his musing that he almost stumbled over the child. Dushyant found himself in a clearing behind a waterfall, and at his feet, a boy who looked vaguely familiar, trying to convince a lion cub into opening its mouth so that he may count its teeth. It was a bit of struggle, as the cub wriggled and protested. But finally, the child finished his count and put down the cub with unconscious gentleness. The cub shook itself and stared balefully at the child. The child laughed and whooped in joy and victory.
Then his face erupted in utter disbelieving joy as recognition dawned on him.
She sits deep in the thicket, awaiting the evening. She has done all that could have been expected of her, she believes. Her tired haunches know the satisfaction of a busy life, humming a spring song absently under her breath, her mother-ears alert for soft footfalls.
It won’t be long now; he should return soon.
The heavy footfall behind her startles her and she notices a rainbow dance in the waterfall outside the cottage. She slants a welcoming glance out of the corner of her eyes without turning her head. She smiles a special smile to herself, a celebratory “Yes! Finally!” sort of a smile.
As he advances, she turns to him and holds up her palms, each finger encircled by a worn but intact grass ring. He laughs as he takes the offered hands, rings, fingers, and all, his laughter joining in the chortling of the boy, the sparkling water dancing among rainbows.
Carolyn Hahn-Re: I really liked this story! The writing was well done, and the plot was suspenseful. I couldn't stop reading chapter after chapter, on the edge of my seat! The characters were well developed, and true to form. Thank you so much for this wonderful read.
colt: i love your books! all of them! i am so happy for you! when i first read your book i thought "this seems really interesting" and i just got hooked had to have more, i wondered if you had a sequel to the first one, and you did, i was so excited that i had to start reading it. your series left me t...
Marijana1: The melancholy present throughout this story has the power to influence and etch into the minds of the readers, to stay there and refuse to leave even after they have finished reading the story. This is a deep, powerful story, making the readers wonder about everything – about love, about their e...
Lauren Suzmeyan-Raine: I'm so glad you found a place to post your stories. I was horrified when I saw yours had been taken down, they are definitely the best 'reading' stories I've ever read. And I've made it my business to read every one I can. Well done.Lauren
Elizabeth Robbins: 4.5 starsAs far as apocalypse stories go, this one took a new direction. I'm glad someone finally addressed the need for a vampire apocalypse! This is sort of a multi-genre festival of delights. With hints of forced societies, vamps, hunters, romance, apocalypse, government conspiracy, and thrill...
Alice Liu: Whoa! I've been wondering how would the Maurauders react to Harry's life and here we go! YOU ARE THE BEST! All the characters are consistent with their personalities shown in the book! I love how you compare Lily with Molly and it's definitely true for her being a mother! I wish Peter comes have ...
PaulSenkel: If you like Arthur C. Clarke's Odyssey, especially The Final Odyssey, then you will probably also enjoy this book. I definitely did.It does, however, address a more adolescent public than the above-mentioned book.I enjoyed the story and finished it in a few days. The overall situation on earth an...
Schaelz: I was intrigued from the second I started reading, and it kept my interest the whole way through. Chelsea has a way with words that will enchant you until the very end. She is very poetic with the way she mixes genres and keeps you on the edge of your seat. The main character is also very relat...
FreakyPoet: "you made me laugh, made me cry, both are hard to do. I spent most of the night reading your story, captivated. This is why you get full stars from me. Thanks for the great story!"
Sara Joy Bailey: "Full of depth and life. The plot was thrilling. The author's style flows naturally and the reader can easily slip into the pages of the story. Very well done."