C K Kerala Varma
[A novella based on the Ramayana and S R D Prasad's Bharatakaandam in Malayalam; continued from the previous post]
An introduction by the author: The genesis of this book was a long walk my friend Prasad and I took on a beautiful stretch of beach near our village Chirakkal in March 2008. We must have walked about 20 kilometres that day, discussing Ramayana and how Bharata, like Bhishma in Mahabharata, had led a selfless life devoid of any personal ambition for the sake of his family, country and people. We decided to rewrite the epic from Bharata's perspective, he in Malayalam and me in English. I then read and reread an excellent translation in verse of Valmikiramayana by Griffith (1870 or thereabout). Prasad based his on a Malayalam verse translation by Vallathol Narayana Menon, a leading Malayalam poet in the mid-twentieth century and Adhyatma-ramayanam by Ezhuthachan, who was one of the first poets in Malayalam. We exchanged our drafts and drew on each other.
The honeymoon did not last long. The first indication of bad tidings came to me in a terrible dream that I had one night in my grandfather’s palace. The dream was too gory for comfort. The moon fell off from the sky shattering the earth into pieces separated by deep craters and split mountains. There were no trees, no greenery, no flowers and no animals. The land and the sea got mixed up. I could see only mud, blood, slush and rocks in darkness and smoke. Suddenly my father fell down from a high cliff into a sea of dirt and blood. Then a monstrous woman in red cackling like a hyena and jeering at him and the world took him away in a donkey-drawn cart amidst fire and leaping flames. I woke up bathed in sweat from this intriguing nightmare. It seemed to tell me of an imminent death and disgrace in the family.
I had barely finished describing the bad dream to Mandvi, sweating profusely in the process and making delirious statements that something terrible was going to happen and me or Lakshmana or Rama or my father would surely die, when along the road that led to the palace came messengers of doom riding horses of speed and ferocity, with deep shades of gloom painted on their faces or so it seemed to me shaken out of my composure by recurring images from the inexplicable dream.
The messengers carried summons from Ayodhya for our urgent return. We rushed back not knowing what was in store. The seven days of journey was a long torture of suspense to my anxious mind. I became restless when I found the streets of Ayodhya devoid of the usual gaiety and joy. The eerie silence and the absence of joyful life on the wide roads of the city I knew so well made my heart gallop faster than my horses. Where had all the familiar sounds of Ayodhya gone? There was no neigh of horses, no ringing of the archer’s bow and no seductive song of the enchantress, her ample breasts heaving by the beats of a gentle drum and her hands weaving music on her lute and her sensuous lips leaving her flute breathless in desire. The trees that lined the streets grieved and shed leaves of sorrow. Birds sang no more. Beasts stood still and dull. Men and women made no merry. A mist of melancholy had enveloped the palace. I did not find my father in his court or quarter. All I met was the silent stare from the courtiers and guards. Perplexed and fearing the worst, I rushed to my mother. What she told me hit me like a lightning that turned the clouds of sorrow into a thunderstorm of shock, anger and then remorse.
“Your father is no more, my son,” she said softly. “We have been waiting for you to do the last rites. His body is waiting in a boat of oil.”
“Why, Rama and Lakshmana could have done that in good time,” I managed to mutter, the words choking in my throat.
“The king had sent them and Sita on exile,” said she haltingly in a matter-of-fact tone. I was both shocked and confused. An exile would normally be a punishment for theft, adultery or abortion. How could they ever deserve a penalty of exile?
“Did Rama grab the house or wealth of another? Did he kill or harm an innocent? Did he eye another’s wife?” I asked feebly of my mother in trembling words that seemed to pause hesitatingly on my tongue, “Did Sita kill an unborn child?” The memory of the dreaded dream that I had in Rajagriha haunted me and made me weak in my knees.
“No, my dear,” she hastened to say, “Rama has done no crime. He who is full of virtue and compassion would never steal or kill or look at another’s wife. When your father wanted to make Rama the heir, I claimed the throne for you. I made him promise that he would banish Rama for fourteen years. Sita and Lakshmana, his ever doting wife and brother also went on exile with Rama.”
I could scarcely believe what she told me. “Your father kept his word given to me and asked Rama to go on exile. Rama said yes, for he was a noble prince and a dutiful son. He lost no time in leaving for the forest along with his wife and brother. But the king kept pining for his favourite son. He became weak and sick and died of grief and remorse.”
She sounded ecstatic when she reasoned that I would straight away be crowned the king, now that Dasaratha was gone and Rama was on exile, “Go ahead and do the funeral rites of your late father, my son, and then you’ll be the new king.”
She also confided in me with no little pride that she had stopped Dasaratha from sending the entire granary, gold and wealth with Rama to the forest. She had thought that I would not be interested in taking over an impoverished kingdom!
She saw that I was not looking very pleased. She tried to put me at ease. She said Rama had readily agreed to carry out her wish. “My kingdom, my wealth, my life, my wife ... all will be Bharata’s, if that’s my father’s wish,” Rama had said.
I exploded into a thunder of anger that took my mother by anguished surprise. My rage at her despicable scheming was overshadowed by my anguish at my mother’s lack of understanding of my character. How could she have assumed that I would ever agree to upstage Rama or any other brother of mine to capture the crown? I did not have to think twice before declaring that my first task, after my father’s funeral, would be to bring Rama back to his rightful place.
My anguish grew more when I later fell at the feet of Kausalya. She was like a mother to me. She pushed me away saying with unconcealed scorn that I had won the kingdom without a battle. Lying distraught on the cold floor of sorrow and distress, with no care for hair or dress, she wept her heart out to me, “Please banish me also to the forest so I’ll spend my last days with my luckless child.”
“Your wail of blame pains me, mother. You’ve loved me like a son. I’ve loved you and Rama equally well. I’ve but no love lost for those who sent Rama away. My mother has become my enemy by killing my father and getting my brothers exiled. Please don’t despise me. Give me strength instead so I’ll go get Rama back and undo the injustice done unto him,” I cried out to Kausalya.
It broke my heart to see that my three mothers had been seeing me in this light, a light darker than darkness. The world around me went black; darkness surrounded me. I do not know how long I remained unconscious.
Kausalya’s tears falling on my face woke me up. She had rested my head on her lap. Her tears washed my fears away. She bode me no ill. I felt my honour had been restored. If Rama’s mother could forgive me, I need fear nothing. I could feel the ground giving way under my feet when I heard her telling me, “Before leaving Rama told me, ‘I’m leaving behind my father and mothers with no anxiety and sorrow because the virtuous and courageous Bharata will look after them.’” I assured her that I would win Rama back at any cost.
I remained firm in my resolve to not usurp the throne that was legitimately Rama’s. My mother had by now become quite meek and remorseful. My outburst on hearing what she foolishly thought would please me must have been the final verdict on her scheming misadventure. Earlier, Siddhartha, one of my father’s venerable advisors, had reminded her about our ancestor Sagara who had banished his wicked son Asamanj from the kingdom as a punishment for killing children for pleasure. Who would now deserve a sentence of banishment? The selfless Rama without a fault or the wicked Kaikeyi of enormous sin?
Kausalya, while weeping over the dead body of Dasaratha, had abused my mother as her husband’s killer.
Even Vasishtha, the embodiment of quiet dignity and humility, had come down heavily on my mother’s wickedness when he set his eyes on Sita ready for her life in the forest in a simple cloth made of bark. He was the only person who seemed to have read me correctly, for he had warned my mother that I would rather follow Rama to the forest than agree to be a part of her scheme. I wonder how my mother had taken his words of reproach. His was generally the last word in history, morality and conduct. For he was so ancient that he used to be the teacher of my father's ancestors of at least three generations. He continued to be the mentor and teacher of the highest reverence for my father and us as well.
My mother no longer tried to change my mind by pointing out the great fortune that had come my way on a platter. She did not try to convince me with the same arguments she had used with my father. She seemed happy to see my resolve to make amends for her sinful act.
I felt remorse at having treated her in a way a son should never do his mother. She probably had done it at a moment of weakness, carried away by a mother’s selfish love for her child. What made her do it? Was it her desire for power? Was it to strengthen her position as the favourite queen of the king? She was the youngest and the prettiest of Dasaratha’s wives. She was also the most accomplished. She had been trained in horse riding and basic warfare. That was how she had once accompanied him in his battle against the demon-king Shambara. My father believed that it was only due to her being with him during the equal and fierce battle that he could defeat the enemy. He had at that time agreed to fulfill her fondest wishes.
I did not know that my father had promised her father that her son would be made the heir. Manthara, the personal maid of my mother, had used exactly these stories to convince her that she should stop Dasaratha in his plan to crown Rama as the heir. She, at her devious best, had won my mother over by insinuating that Dasaratha had deliberately chosen a time when I was away to announce Rama as the heir. He had also decided against telling Kaikeyi or her father about it.
Shatrugna was as upset as I. He just could not stand the sight of the bejewelled Manthara wearing the very ornaments gifted by my mother as a reward for her role in the misadventure. He dragged her down by her hair and drew out his sword in a fit of anger. It took me quite an effort to calm him down and prevent him from the unbecoming act of slaying a woman.
[C K Kerala Varma is a friend of mine and a senior officer in the State Bank of India. When I read his version of the Ramayana in English, I was moved by the poetry of his language. We do not come across prose of such exquisite beauty often. I am honoured to publish his novella and I thank him for allowing me to do so. This is the fourth chapter. Please go back in this blog if you wish to read the previous chapters. Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri]