A novella based on the Ramayana and S R D Prasad's Bharatakaandam in Malayalam; continued from last week
C K Kerala Varma
My father Dasaratha had been an heir-less king for long. His three wives Kausalya, Sumitra and my mother Kaikeyi bore him no child. Was it due to the curse of the blind Brahmin couple whose only child my father had killed by accident? No, it can’t be. The curse was that Dasaratha would die due to intense grief caused by his son. He must have hoped that he would certainly beget a son, if only to cause his death by grief later as cursed by the blind Brahmin sage.
After years of fruitless wait he offered prayers and sacrifices seeking divine intervention to make his wives conceive. The sacrificial fire brought forth god’s gift to the queens in the form of a sweet. Why did Dasaratha give half of it to Kausalya, two parts of the rest to Sumitra and the smallest potion to my mother? Maybe, after Sumitra gave birth to twins, people would have assumed that the king had given her the nectar of fertility twice! He must have wanted his heir from the eldest queen to be as great as his famed ancestors like Dileepa, Bhageeratha, Raghu and Aja. He would have foreseen a possible rift among equal brothers that might weaken the state. The heir-apparent should be a stronger and a more complete person than his siblings. Was it not his duty as the king to look ahead at the future of the kingdom?
Rama grew up to be a peerless archer and a fearless warrior amidst the myth of divinity surrounding his birth. I remember the visit of Sage Viswamitra to the palace when we were just about sixteen. Our father went out of his way to welcome the great sage, taking care not to offend him even in the slightest way. He was prone to destructive anger.
My father had heard about his fight with the saintly Vasishtha over the latter’s favourite cow Kamadhenu, which he had tried to take away by force from its owner. Viswamitra had once tried to build a paradise outside heaven for his protégé Trishanku, one of our ancestors. He had even demanded that Brahma make him a brahmarshi, though he was not a Brahmin. The irony of Viswamitra finally seeking the help of Vasishtha to get brahminhood and the title of brahmarshi amuses me now. The story was a lesson in humility. I wonder if Viswamitra had learnt his lesson. Wise, learned and powerful he certainly was; so was he imperious and arrogant.
Viswamitra wanted Rama to go with him to drive away the demons that had been attacking his place of meditation. My father was not sure if the young Rama was fully trained in warfare. The king offered to lead an army himself for the protection of the sage and his hermitage. Maybe it was just a father’s boundless love and anxiety for a young son. Viswamitra, perhaps sensing the potential of Rama as an invincible warrior, took only Rama and Lakshmana with him.
Rama was young and fresh. Yet he was equal to the task. On the way the sage taught Rama advanced archery and techniques to overcome hunger and thirst during war. He killed or drove away all the mischievous demons. Rama’s first victim was Tadaka, a female demon. He killed her reluctantly. No man would want to kill a woman in battle. Rama was probably ashamed of the fact that he began his illustrious record of successful battles by killing a woman. I have heard that he had even wanted to do a penance for this unmanly and inauspicious act.
Shatrugna and I stayed back in Ayodhya. We missed Rama and Lakshmana badly. Our daily lessons in statecraft and warfare also seemed to miss the star student. Little did I realise that this short period of lull was just a prelude to interesting happenings in our lives.
A great wave of excitement washed ashore with the arrival of galloping ministers sent by King Janaka of Videha. After my brothers had succeeded in their mission, Sage Viswamitra had taken them to Janaka’s palace at Mithila. The king was instantly struck by the radiance that exuded from the young princes. He wished to marry his daughter Sita to Rama and his niece Urmila, daughter of his younger brother Kushadwaja, to Lakshmana. He requested the sage to allow Rama to try his hand on the huge and heavy bow that no archer could draw till date as a test of strength and archery to win the hand of the virtuous and beautiful Sita.
Rama lifted the enormous bow with effortless ease and drew the string in a swift mighty move that broke the bow in two. The joy of the king found a match in the ecstasy of the coy princess.
The royal envoys carried an invitation to Dasaratha to go over to the palace of Janaka to accept the young brides. Viswamitra must have taken the detour to Mithila on purpose. A welcome and useful purpose, I should say!
Shatrugna and I accompanied our father to Mithila. My heartbeats of joy became distinctly palpable when Sage Viswamitra proposed that Shatrugna and I marry Urmila’s sisters Shrutikirti and Mandvi. The reunion with my brothers and the wedding of all of us together were probably the happiest time in our lives.
Looking back now, I am sure the shy and pretty brides getting married to the brightest princes of the time would not have bargained for the testing times ahead. Sita’s brush with a series of misfortunes is legion. We can blame Ravana for the first instance of her separation from Rama. Who’s to blame for the second and the final instances? My wife Mandvi did not have it as bad as Sita or even Urmila. But, have I given her the life that she deserved? A life that a wife expects from a scion of Ayodhya, a son of Dasaratha? The monkeys of Kishkindha and the demons of Lanka must have given their wives a better quality of family life.
We went back to Ayodhya after the wedding for a season of bliss and sensuous mirth. My mother’s brother Yudhajit came to visit us and to take Mandvi and me to his father’s palace at Rajagriha in Kekaya. His father Aswapati, the king of Kekaya wanted us to spend some time with him. Shatrugna and Shrutikirti came with us for a quiet holiday away from the bustle of Ayodhya. We, the two young couples, could not have asked for a better get-away to nights of delight and days of daze.
[C K Kerala Varma, a friend of mine, is a senior officer in the State Bank of India. I am honoured to publish his novella and I thank him for allowing me to do so. What you have read here are the second and third chapters of his novella based on the Ramayana. Please go back in this blog if you missed the first instalment. Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri]