A novella based on the Ramayana and S R D Prasad's Bharatakaandam in Malayalam
By C K Kerala Varma
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 Adhyatmaramayanam by Ezhuthachan, who was one of the first poets in Malayalam. We exchanged our drafts and drew on each other.
All alone on the banks of Sarayu in the evening of my life I gaze intently at the gentle soothing flow of water, crystal clear despite the sins of men she has been washing on her way. I was born on the banks of this river, I have lived all my life by her and now am I looking to her to take me in like mother-earth did to Sita? This river taught me that we must change, evolve constantly without losing our basic character. You can’t step into the same river twice. Have I evolved for the better as effortlessly as the smooth flow of Sarayu? Her serene waters seem to reflect my content at having fulfilled all my promises. I have no burden left on my shoulders. But violent waves of self-doubt do disturb the serenity of the flow in monsoons of discontent.
Rama is on his way to the river. He has just finished his farewell prayer for his country and his forefathers. Or is it a penance for the sins committed in all the great battles won? For the pain and sorrow caused for the sake of righteousness?
Sita, pure and selfless, had taken all her woes in her stride. She had never sent out the slightest signal of complaint or displeasure. She had but once offended Lakshmana during their stay in exile at Panchavati. Rama had told him to guard her when he went hunting for a beautiful deer she was pining for. She started getting worried about Rama’s safety. She even thought she had heard his wail in pain. When Lakshmana refused to leave her guard, she lost her temper. She abused him and said he would not go because he had lustful designs on her! He was taken aback by her insinuation. She had said those harsh words for the sake of Rama, to arouse anger in Lakshmana so he will go to Rama’s rescue.
During the aswamedhayagna, an elaborate month-long prayer that Rama had ordained years ago, I had found it strange, and probably an ill omen, that he had used a gold statuette of Sita to represent his wife. She was not dead. It was just that Rama had banished her from his life. He had sent her away to the wilderness of justice. True to my clairvoyant fear, by the time the yagna was over, Sita was actually no more with us on this earth.
Sage Durvasav, I remember now, had once warned our father that my brother would give up everything. His wife, his brothers, his kingdom…. He had made this prophecy in the presence of the wise Vasishtha, my father’s teacher and adviser. The worried king had decreed that the prophecy be kept a closely guarded secret.
Lakshmana is already gone. He gave himself up to River Sarayu the moment Rama wanted him to go. He walked into the welcoming arms of the river, holding his breath and keeping at bay every stream of life.
Now Rama wanted me to be the king. The dilemma revisited. I just cannot go through the same test again. Let not the past haunt me anymore.
There is no dearth of people pleading with Rama to stay back at Ayodhya and continue to rule over his kingdom of Kosala. Donning minimal clothing, wearing rings made of grass and chanting God’s praises, he is now on his way to offer himself to the river in sacrifice. Brahmin priests holding palm leaf umbrellas to keep the flame of oil lamps from getting blown out are leading the way for him. He cannot walk brusquely away. Obstructing his path are people flocking to dissuade him from going away. Rama had always been obstinately unwavering in all his decisions. And now it is unlikely that anyone would succeed in dissuading him from walking away from his world. Yes, none can change the course that Rama chooses for himself.
I have decided to follow Rama to wherever Sarayu takes us beyond this life. Downstream Sarayu will take us to Ganga, the mighty river of forgiveness and then to the deep sea of infinite mystery. I glance upstream at the beginning. The gentle breeze blowing over the water flowing down from the Himalaya would always carry the fragrance of truth.
[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 first chapter. I am going to serialise it over the next few weeks. Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri]