If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The path of truth: 10

[A novella based on the Ramayana and S R D Prasad's Bharatakaandam in Malayalam; continued from the previous post]

C K Kerala Varma

XIII. The final journey

Some of our provinces on the banks of the river Sindhu were under the threat of attack. Rama asked me to drive away the invaders. I took my two sons along. It would be a good lesson in warfare for them. It was a well-fought battle that we won on the seventh day. Come to think of it, this was the only battle that I had led. After the war, I stayed on for five years training my two sons in statecraft. My elder son Taksha took over Takshasila. My second son Pushkala was given Pushkalavata. I returned to Ayodhya confident that the two boys were well settled in their new roles.

When I reached Ayodhya, Rama said it was time for the sons to take over. He agreed to my suggestion to make Lava and Kusha the rulers of the North and the South of Kosala. Mathura went to Subahu and Vaidisha to Shatrukhadi. Lakshmana’s sons Chandraketu and Angada took over two other provinces.

We had reached the end of our life’s journey. Lakshmana was the first to go. My wait on the banks of Sarayu will soon be over with the coming of Rama and Shatrugna. Am I happy that I have had a complete life? I have churned this ocean of life seeking the immortality of gyan and karma, overcoming the temptations of mohini-lust, iravat-power and lakshmi-lucre. I have been a prince; I have been a hermit. Have I led equally well my extremely austere life as an ascetic and the worldly life as a prince, a husband and a father? Did I have the inner peace of an ascetic and the bliss of a family man? Did I ever do anything that was not fair, that was not just? My mother and my brothers Rama and Lakshmana had misunderstood me. What did I do to deserve that? Let me now hope that I’ve laid at rest all such notions of my ambition. I can hear the sounds from my brothers’ procession. Louder is the call of the river, inviting me on her divine flow to the sea of truth.

[C K Kerala Varma is a friend of mine and a senior officer in the State Bank of India. This is the thriteenth and last chapter of his novella. Please go back in this blog if you wish to read the previous chapters. Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri]

Sunday, 21 March 2010

The path of truth 9

[A novella based on the Ramayana and S R D Prasad's Bharatakaandam in Malayalam; continued from the previous post]

C K Kerala Varma

XII. Sita

As years rolled on, I could sense growing uneasiness in Rama. He was getting restless about isolated incidents of robbery and killings in the kingdom. He and Lakshmana combed the country. They came across Shambuka on an extremely rigorous meditation with his body hung head down. Rama assumed that this arrogant act by the low-caste Shambuka must have been causing those incidents. He chopped off the poor ascetic’s head. There were a few sages like Dwijarshabha who had ordained that the low-caste had no right to meditate! I would not venture a guess about what Jaabaali would say on this.

To declare his pre-eminence in the country and the neighbourhood Rama decided to hold aswamedhayagna by sacrificing an all-conquering horse. Organising the yagna turned out to be a matter of relief from the routine for me. Sages and ascetics, kings and princes, actors and drummers…. The yagna would run for days. Rama was present in person every day. A gold statuette of Sita took the place of the absent queen. Could we not have brought Sita back for the yagna, reversing a definite blot on Rama’s record of fairness? The yagna was also to seek forgiveness for the mistakes made.

The visit of the poet-sage Valmiki during the yagna had in it, unknown though to us, the tidings of a great upheaval about to happen. Shortly after that, two young boys, clad in hermit clothing but luxuriously radiant like the sun, came singing. Their rhapsody about Rama’s sun-dynasty overwhelmed all those assembled with its sheer melody and poetry. Rama was so moved with their song that he asked me to give them gold in plenty.

Our admiration for these extraordinary boys grew more when they refused to accept any material reward.

Rama wanted to know more about them. They said Sage Valmiki had sent them here. He was the author of the ballad they were singing. Their mother lived in the ashram. They grew up in the hermitage tutored and mentored by the sage. They did not have anything more to say. Rama, in his sagacity, capped the volcano that had erupted within him. He just requested Lava and Kusha to come back every day and continue with their song.

I was amazed at the way Rama checked the well of emotions that were swelling within him. Each song that the boys sang would drown the father in him in intense remorse. After a few days, when the boys were nearing the end of their song of Rama, he told Valmiki that he was ready to take back Sita and his children. He was but plagued by the fear of popular opinion.

“Let her go through a final test here in front of all those assembled for the yagna,” said Rama.

Valmiki reluctantly agreed. He also had his say, “Sita is extremely virtuous and chaste. She had given birth to these twins in my ashram. May God take away my hard earned status as a sage, if she is guilty! You had sent her away knowing well that she’s pure and innocent.”

Rama listened to the learned hermit with bowed head and folded hands. He agreed with whatever Valmiki said, but signalled helplessness.

Sita was ushered in. Clad in a simple sheet of saffron hue, she stood motionless with her head bowed down. She did not betray any emotion. She seemed to seek forgiveness of everyone. She did not wait this time for her pyre of fire to be ready. Before we could fathom what was happening, she disappeared, as if drawn by the gravity of the earth, as if she was sucked back into the womb of mother earth.

Lava and Kusha grew up in the palace along with my sons and the sons of Lakshmana and Shatrugna. We brought them up as fine princes ready to succeed us whenever their time would come.

[C K Kerala Varma is a friend of mine and a senior officer in the State Bank of India. I am happy to publish his novella. Please go back in this blog if you wish to read the previous chapters. Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri]

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

The path of truth: 8

[A novella based on the Ramayana and S R D Prasad's Bharatakaandam in Malayalam; continued from the previous post]

C K Kerala Varma

XI. Rama

A person as loyal and devout as Hanuman was surprised when Rama showed no apparent eagerness to rush to Sita. Rama waited till Vibhishana was made the king after the funeral of Ravana. He then asked Hanuman to meet Sita after getting the nod from the new king. Sita was overjoyed to hear the news of Rama’s victory. She wanted to meet her husband immediately. Hanuman hastened back to Rama with her request. Rama asked Vibhishana to lead her to him after she had her bath and wore fine clothes and jewellery.

What Rama told Sita when he finally met her shocked both Hanuman and Lakshmana alike. He said that the attack on Lanka was not for her, but for the sake of justice and honour. Because of her long incarceration at Ravana’s palace, her purity was now suspect.

“You have become a blot of sin and shame on my fame”, said Rama, and added, “Go away to wherever you might choose to. I will not have anything to do with you now or in the future. You may live with my brothers or Vibhishana or Sugriva.”

It was as if his eyes were too sick to look at the bright lamp that Sita was. Sin, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder or in the mind of the perceiver.

Sita could not believe her ears. And her hurt was beyond measure. Her eyes blazed with hurt, humiliation and anger, but her voice was calm when she said, “Ravana did not dare to touch me even once. I would have killed myself if he did, or even otherwise, had Hanuman not come with the assurance of my imminent rescue.”

Then, turning suddenly towards Lakshmana, she said, “Please make a pyre of fire.”

Lakshmana reluctantly made a pyre, hoping that Rama would stop the cruel and unnecessary test. Sita announced, “I will now walk into these leaping flames to prove my innocence.”

But Rama said nothing, he stood with an impassive, mask-like face.

Hanuman’s soft voice choked when he told me that he had moved close to the fire to rescue her in case she harmed herself. He had always believed that it was only her prayers that had saved him from fire in Lanka during his first visit to find her. To everyone’s infinite relief and astonished disbelief, she came out of the fire unscathed.

But did Rama’s sense of fairness and justice come unscathed out of this test by fire?

It was celebration time for the entire kingdom when finally Rama, Sita and Lakshmana arrived in Ayodhya. Rama made me sit on his lap and held me there for long. I lost no time in bringing his sandals from his throne and offering them at his feet. With happiness and relief filling my heart and pride swelling in my being, I returned the kingdom to him. I had ruled the country the way he wanted. The fame, wealth and granary of the kingdom had increased tenfold in these fourteen years.

Lakshmana could not hide his smile when he described how a lighthearted jest by Rama had led to the abduction of Sita. Ravana’s sister Shoorpanakha happened to set her lustful eyes on the handsome Rama during their stay at Panchavati in the eleventh year of their exile. She approached Rama with eyes dripping with desire. Rama drove her away, “Look, my wife is here with me. You can try Lakshmana over there. He’s without female company.”

Lakshmana too played his part well. He told her, “I’m just a servant here. Instead of being content with serving the servant, you could as well serve the master.”

She went back to Rama. When he continued to be evasive, she went red with anger in her demonic way and tried to maul Sita in her frustration. At this point Lakshmana drew his sword out and chopped off her nose and ears.

“She ran away screaming. Ravana avenged her humiliation by abducting Sita, hoping to make her his wife. He must have reasoned that a lesser punishment would not meet the ends of justice for our irreverent and arrogant act,” chuckled Lakshmana.

His smile deserted him when he described how he had been tricked into leaving Sita unguarded in their forest hut. Ravana had organized his treachery so well that he simply had to come to Sita disguised as a hermit to grab her and lift her up with his powerful left hand and make off at lightning speed.

Ravana had first sent his magician-uncle Mareecha to lure Rama away. Mareecha created the illusion of a strange and beautiful deer by hallucination. Sita, fascinated by the deer, pleaded with Rama to fetch it for her. Rama then asked Lakshmana to not leave her alone till he came back.

After some time, worried that Rama was taking too long a time and disturbed by strange sounds, Sita asked Lakshmana to go in search of Rama. When he was reluctant to leave his position as her protector, she became so annoyed she suggested he had amorous designs on her. Stung by her insinuation he had to leave her unguarded for some time. Ravana, who must have been hiding nearby, utilised this lapse. Lakshmana could not help his sobs when he described his agitation on not finding her in the hut when they came back after slaying the sly Mareecha.

The entire chain of events leading finally to the rescue of Sita seemed to be flashing in his mind when Lakshmana narrated the incidents of those fateful days.

Peace, happiness and prosperity returned to our lives. The people of Ayodhya had not seen better times. All four of us experienced uninterrupted domestic bliss for the first time. It was too good to last.

One day Rama summoned me in a state of distress. I rushed to his chambers in the palace. Lakshmana and Shatrugna were also there. Rama’s face had turned pale. His voice lacked the usual firmness. He said in a diffident tone, “People have been uttering slander against Sita. She had the test of fire in Lanka. Yet, they have been suspecting her character. They do not want their king to live in marriage with a queen who had lived with Ravana.”

Before any of us could protest, he ordered Lakshmana to take Sita away the very next morning and abandon her in the forest near the ashram of the great sage Valmiki across the river Tamasa.

The next day Lakshmana was heart-broken when he narrated his ride with Sita to the woods. She had thought he was taking her for a visit to the sages. After crossing the river in a boat he fell at her feet and started sobbing. She was taken aback by this unexpected gesture. With his head down with shame he told her the purpose of the journey. She accepted her fate with composure and characteristic resignation, “Please go back with peace, don’t have any remorse. I was born to grieve. The abiding emotion of my life is sorrow.”

He left her wandering in the wilderness.

Lakshmana was lost in a wilderness of confusion. He remembered an incident that had happened when Rama and he had gone with Sage Viswamitra to rid his hermitage of marauding bands of demons. They saw an ancient grove near the city of Mithila. The sage told them that the grove used to be the abode of a great sage called Gautama. His fair and beautiful wife Ahalya had been disloyal to him. She, smitten by the fire of desire, had yielded to the lust of a charismatic Indra. Gautama found this out and condemned her to a long period of solitary and invisible stillness in the grove. The young Rama purified her of sin and shame. He freed her from her invisible state of stillness. He brought her back to normal life and reunited her with her husband. Now Lakshmana was at a loss to reconcile the generosity and large heartedness that Rama had shown to a sinner with what he did to his innocent wife. He had forgiven and blessed a sinner to unite her with her husband. But he would cast away his unblemished wife from himself, and condemn her to an uncertain life of rigour, solitude and danger in the deep forest.

Rama continued to reign over Ayodhya as a model ruler. He hardly ever showed any signs of his inner conflicts or pangs of sorrow tinged with guilt. His brothers were more fortunate. Our wives gifted us with two sons each. Mandvi gave me Taksha and Pushkala. Urmila gave Chandraketu and Angada to Lakshmana. Srutikirti bore Shatrugna two fine sons in Subahu and Shatrukhadi.

[C K Kerala Varma is a friend of mine and a senior officer in the State Bank of India. I am happy to publish his novella. Please go back in this blog if you wish to read the previous chapters. Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri]

Sunday, 14 March 2010

The path of truth: 7

[A novella based on the Ramayana and S R D Prasad's Bharatakaandam in Malayalam; continued from the previous post]

C K Kerala Varma

IX. Lanka

Lankalakshmi was the awesome female demon guarding the outer gate of Ravana’s capital. Hanuman knocked her down with a sleight of his left hand. He then walked stealthily into the ladies’ quarter of the palace, hoping to find Sita there. He initially mistook a lady of infinite charm lying in luxury in one of the rooms as Sita. Then he realized Sita would never have accepted such hospitality. He felt ashamed at his hasty and foolish conclusion. He later came to know that she was Mandodari, the wife of Ravana. Hanuman had a peek into a room where he found the strong and able bodied Ravana in deep slumber amidst a bevy of exceptionally beautiful maidens and great splendour.

Hanuman spent the night hiding in the palace garden. He did not notice Sita who had chosen to spend her days in captivity underneath a tree in the garden. He had never seen Sita before. It was also a dark night. Early morning he saw Ravana looking dazzling in his royal robes walking in, followed by pretty damsels holding jars of wine.

Ravana tried his best to charm Sita into agreeing to be his wife. He used in vain both enticements and threats. He finally stormed out of the garden.

Hanuman approached Sita with soft and reassuring steps, singing a hymn in praise of Rama. The sorrowful Sita brightened up when she realized who Hanuman was. He told her that Rama would soon rescue her.

He then went on a rampage of the city. The guards had a tough time overwhelming Hanuman and taking him to the court of Ravana. Hanuman matched Ravana in anger and arrogance. He threatened Ravana with immediate war if he did not send Sita back. “Set his tail on fire,” thundered Ravana, “that’ll teach this haughty monkey a good lesson.”

Hanuman used his burning tail as a tool for arson. He went around setting most of the city on fire before jumping into the ocean on his return journey.

Of all the demons of Lanka only two had won the respect of Hanuman. Ravana’s wife Mandodari by her noble bearing and charm, and his brother Vibheeshana who seemed critical of Ravana’s misdeeds. True to the early impressions that Hanuman carried, Vibheeshana defected to Rama’s camp just before Rama launched his assault on Lanka. His conduct turned out to be in sharp contrast with the way in which his brother Kumbhakarna, equally critical of Ravana’s methods, chose to fight for the king and the kingdom and would finally give up his life fighting Rama in a ferocious battle that initially would fill the monkey brigade with the fear of defeat.

X. Ravana meets his nemesis

Hanuman told Rama about Sita’s resolve to give up her life if Rama would not rescue her within a month. Rama lost no time in organizing the assault. They built a stone bridge across the sea to Lanka. They divided the army into teams led by stalwarts like Rama himself, Lakshmana, Hanuman, Sugriva, Angada and Nila. They effectively surrounded the capital of Ravana, blocking all the exits. Rama sent Angada, the son of late Bali, to Ravana as an ambassador of peace in his final attempt at reconciliation. Ravana would hear nothing about it. He threatened to kill the messenger.

Angada, slighted and angry, led the first assault. The equally strong Indrajit, one of the sons of Ravana, stopped him.

The tide soon turned in favour of the attacking army. Hanuman killed Dhumraksha, the bravest of Ravana’s warriors. He also killed Akampana, a demon highly skilled in archery. Nila killed Prahasta. Hanuman stopped Ravana in his ferocious march and engaged him in a one-to-one combat. They were surprised at each other’s invincible strength.

Later, when Ravana aloft on his chariot challenged Rama, Hanuman offered his strong shoulders as a carriage for Rama. Ravana became so tired he could no longer hold on. Rama knew he was at the threshold of victory. But his sense of fair play had the upper hand. He let Ravana go, telling him to return to his palace for rest. The arrogant and fearless demon king of Lanka must have been humiliated by Rama’s noble gesture. Rama had already won the psychological battle!

Ravana kept losing his key men. His brother Kumbhakarna was no match for Rama’s archery. So was Makaraksha. Lakshmana killed Atikaya and Indrajit. Hanuman accounted for Nikumbha. Sugriva chipped in with the brutal killing of Viroopaksha.

The final battle with Ravana turned out to be extremely strenuous for both Rama and Lakshmana. Ravana inflicted a near fatal wound on Lakshmana. The presence of mind of the wise and resourceful Hanuman, who lost no time in getting the right herbs for healing the wound, saved Lakshmana from certain death. It seemed for a while that the flag of victory was fluttering atop the magnificent chariot of Ravana. Rama had no chariot. He fought valiantly with his feet firmly on the ground. He deserved the final victory, for he was riding the chariot of strategy powered by horses of restraint. He held the reins of compassion in his hands. His coruscating pennant of truth and righteousness fluttered high atop his invisible chariot.

[C K Kerala Varma is a friend of mine and a senior officer in the State Bank of India. I am happy to publish his novella. These are the ninth and tenth chapters. Please go back in this blog if you wish to read the previous chapters. Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri]

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The path of truth: 6

[A novella based on the Ramayana and S R D Prasad's Bharatakaandam in Malayalam; continued from the previous post]

C K Kerala Varma

VII. A hermit at home

The finality of Rama’s tone settled it. There was no time to be wasted. I now had my role cut out. My commitment to the people, to the country must take precedence over every other thing. I was amazed at the speed with which my thoughts and resolve attained clarity and purpose. Rama was the king of Kosala, though he would have to spend his time of exile away from his kingdom. I would look after his duties as the king in his absence. I would place his pair of sandals on the throne as a clear signal of his authority and my humility. I would not live in the palace. I would forgo all the comforts of a prince. I would live the austere life of an ascetic in a simple dwelling, wearing what Rama, Lakshmana and Sita would wear during their exile, eating raw vegetables and fruits and roots like they would in the woods. I would rule with complete detachment and without any personal ambition. Truth, justice, fairness and the welfare of people would be my guiding principles.

The mind was clear. But the heart ached when we took leave of Rama, Lakshmana and Sita. Lakshmana clasped me close and wept. He had mistaken my intentions when he, atop a tree by their hermitage, saw me leading a large troop to Chitrakoot. He had assumed that I had decided to finish them off to safeguard my position as the king of Kosala! My own brother? Guha and Sage Bharadwaj could now be excused! How long would I have to carry this burden of blame?

Lakshmana was ashamed of himself. It was Rama who had corrected him when he had told him about his fear that I would attack them with my army and seize the kingdom forever. Rama, ever so noble in deed and right in creed, had rebuked him for thinking up such evil thoughts about their dear brother. “Bharata must have felt deep grief and intense remorse when he found out on his return to Ayodhya that we had retired to a life of denial and renouncement in the wilderness. He must be coming to meet us and persuade us to go back.”

How right Rama was! I would not blame Lakshmana for assuming the worst. Ever since that fateful day of evil scheming by Manthara and my mother, he must have been restraining his anger. Anger restrained thus is prone to leap forth unchained at the slightest provocation.

It was hard to console Kausalya and Sumitra who would not see their sons for fourteen long years. Was the sorrow of my mother any less? I glanced at her through the corner of my eyes while I was trying to take my other two mothers away from Rama and Lakshmana. She was a picture of composure with a tinge of melancholy. It was clear that she had got used to the harshness of the situation. Her remorse at having caused it was giving way to a sense of resignation and helplessness. She was now ready to accept any kind of situation, any punishment.

The journey back to Ayodhya from Chitrakoot lacked the enthusiasm that had marked our trek in search of Rama. I kept his sandals carefully bound on the head of the royal elephant. At Ayodhya I placed them on the throne. I told the elders, ministers and courtiers that I would stay in a hut in Nandigrama, a village on the outskirts. I would not have a life more luxurious than what King Rama would during his years of exile.

Every thing was in place. I had no regrets about the decisions I had taken. The venerable Vasishtha and all other elders also agreed with my decisions. Can I have the same confidence about the way Mandvi felt about it? I had taken leave of her when we had left in search of Rama. Like me she had been hoping that Rama would come back. After we came back to Ayodhya without Rama, I told her the reasons for my renouncing worldly comforts. She said she would also follow in my footsteps and stay with me outside the palace. She did not do it grudgingly. She had found my stand right and willingly followed me. This gave me a great sense of comfort. Her support made my task of management with detachment easier. Otherwise I would have been bogged down with a sense of guilt and nagging self-doubt.

VIII. Hanuman

Shatrugna and I had no way of finding out about the life of Rama during his exile, except the bits we heard from the disciples of sages that happened to pass by Ayodhya. We heard that Rama had left Chitrakoot soon after we had returned to Ayodhya. He probably did not want to risk another attempt at persuasion by us! Ten years later, when we heard that the demon king Ravana of Lanka had taken Sita away by force, I kept in readiness our army. The kings of Mithila and Kashi had offered to help. Hanuman would tell me, after the victorious return of Rama to Ayodhya, that when he had met Sita in Lanka she had asked whether I had not been ready with the army for her.

I had been waiting for the day Rama would come back after his fourteen years of exile. It was Hanuman who came first with the news of Rama’s imminent arrival. The sudden rush of joy into my head made me faint and fall onto the ground. I quickly gathered myself and hugged warmly the messenger of the great news, “Years of anxiety and uncertainty are finally over. Thank you, friend for your joyful tidings. A moment of ecstasy like this comes but in a hundred years,”

My initial amusement at the sight of this strange monkeylike person turned to adoration when I listened to his report of the exploits of Rama and the final victory over Ravana.

While talking to me, Hanuman slowly shed his initial diffidence. Rama had sent him as a pilot to find out if I were ready to welcome Rama back. Or did I want to cling to my kingdom? “Rush to Bharata with the news of our victory,” Rama had asked Hanuman. “Study keenly his expressions of happiness or disappointment. Has he become so used to the grandeur and splendour of his position that he does not want to give it up? For, if he wants to continue as the king, let him. I would gladly step aside.” I had become used to getting misunderstood. Rama was the last in a series of improbable skeptics. My mother Kaikeyi, Kausalya, Guha, Bharadwaj, Lakshmana, and now Rama himself had mistaken my intentions one time or the other.
Hanuman was the greatest find during Rama’s exile. He became my brother’s closest confidant. He could be trusted to help Rama out of any situation. In brute strength he had no equal. He was also wise and fearless. They say he had learnt his early lessons from the Sun God. Holding the book of ancient scriptures in his hands, he would walk backward reading it! He was the one who found out where Ravana had hidden Sita. He took Rama’s message to her. He assured her that they would soon attack Lanka and rescue her. That was when she suggested that I must have kept my army ready for the attack. Later on, it came as no surprise to me when, during the coronation of Rama, Sita did not hesitate to gift Hanuman the necklace Rama had tied around her neck!

His soft and modest voice could not hide his childlike excitement when he described his first meeting with his mentor Rama. Rama and Lakshmana had reached the monkey-country Kishkindha in search of Sita. Sugriva, the rebel brother of King Bali of Kishkindha, came to know about two strange persons camping near his hideout. He was afraid they were the spies of Bali out to plot his capture. He sent Hanuman disguised as a beggar to find out the truth. Hanuman realized the greatness of Rama the moment he set his eyes on him. Hanuman confessed to Rama that he was no beggar. He told him all about the predicament of Sugriva. Bali had banished him from his kingdom. Bali had also taken his wife.

Hanuman took Rama and Lakshmana to the hideout of Sugriva. Sugriva was plotting to overthrow Bali. The new alliance between him and Rama would help each other. Rama promised to kill Bali. Sugriva, Hanuman and the other monkeys would help Rama in his rescue mission for Sita.

Bali was no mean adversary. He had once defeated Ravana. He was the only person Ravana feared and respected. Rama managed to kill him by sending a fatal arrow from behind while Sugriva engaged him in a combat. Rama could not defend himself when Bali, on his deathbed, said it was a cowardly trick. When Bali realised who his killer was, he spoke his last words like a true warrior, "I would have rescued Sita in a day. I would've tied Ravana in knots and offered him at your feet." Rama stood still bowing his head. Hanuman remembered that Rama had gone pale with shame when Bali's wife Tara had accused him of killing Bali by deceit.

Sugriva became the king of Kishkindha. He deployed his full resources in the search for Sita. Prominent in the team, apart from Sugriva and Hanuman, were Jambava, Nila, Nala, Sudheeshna, Rumanwa and Bali's son Angada.

Soon after they had realised that Sita was missing, Rama and Lakshmana had come across the powerful bird Jatayu, wings clipped, lying motionless and half dead. He told them, just before breathing his last, that Ravana had taken Sita away. He had tried in vain to release her from Ravana’s clutches.

Sugriva provided the second lead. He had seen a woman in the air struggling in the arms of a ferocious looking man. She had thrown down a little cloth bundle. Sugriva had kept it safely. He now showed it to Rama. Lakshmana immediately recognised Sita's anklet in the bundle. He had always been worshipping at the feet of Sita. He could easily recognise the ornament that had been adorning her feet! They still had no clue about the place where Ravana would be holding her captive.

While wandering clueless they chanced upon an old infirm bird. He had overhead them talking about Jatayu. He said he was Sampati, the older brother of Jatayu. He knew everything about the islands in the southern ocean. He told them whatever he knew about Lanka, the island kingdom of the demon king Ravana. They hastened southward to land's end. They stood facing the vast expanse of water. Rama was at a loss to figure out how they could ever cross the ocean to rescue his wife. Everyone looked up to Hanuman. He was the only monkey powerful enough to jump across an ocean! Hanuman made one giant leap over water to land in Lanka.

[C K Kerala Varma is a friend of mine and a senior officer in the State Bank of India. I thank him for allowing me to publish his novella. These are the seventh and eighth chapters. Please go back in this blog if you wish to read the previous chapters. Incidentally, Raj Sekhar Basu, who wrote fiction under the pen name Parashurama, wrote a brilliant short story on Jaabaali in Bangla. I will try to present an English translation of the story to you in the future. Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri]

Sunday, 7 March 2010

The path of truth 5

[A novella based on the Ramayana and S R D Prasad's Bharatakaandam in Malayalam; continued from the previous post]

C K Kerala Varma

The Ascetic

As we neared the camp in the wilderness of Chitrakoot, we could see tell tale signs of human habitation. Firewood, plucked flowers, large square pieces of tree bark cleaned and hung up to dry, dung cakes dried and ready to burn, gentle smoke amongst tree leaves …. When we saw swords and arrows resting outside the hut, we knew it was no abode of sages, but a camp of warriors.

After asking the troops to wait at a distance, I quietly entered the simple dwelling followed by Shatrugna. Vasishtha and my three mothers came in much later. I saw through my eyes blurred by tears Rama austere in his coat of bark but radiant like sun. My blood rushed to my head, tears to my eyes and I passed out.

When I opened my eyes, I found both Shatrugna and me on Rama’s lap, his palms massaging us softly back to our senses. He gently scolded me for running away from my responsibilities at Ayodhya. Who would run the affairs of the state in my absence?

He showered his love equally on all the three mothers, showing not an iota of displeasure at what my mother had done to him. All three of them had tears rolling down their cheeks when their eyes rested on Rama, Sita and Lakshmana attired in extreme austerity. During his incessant inquiries on every little detail about Ayodhya, I was looking for a gap to break the news of our father’s death. Rama’s flow of words came to an abrupt end when he heard the terrible news, mumbling to himself in sobs and trembling words that he was responsible for his father’s untimely end.

He then led Sita and his three brothers to the river to offer the final prayers for our late father. Did he, the eldest son of the great king of Ayodhya, feel sorry for the impoverished way in which the last rites were carried out? He was weeping throughout, maybe out of helplessness, maybe out of sorrow. Was not the death of Dasaratha caused by his utter helplessness at the unexpected turn of events? A king should create destiny, not ride destiny. His last rites, his equally great sons shuddered to think, were an extension of the same helplessness.

My hopes of persuading Rama to come back to Ayodhya became thinner when I observed how easily he had given up all worldly comforts. He had transformed himself into a selfless acetic, sporting matted locks, wearing dried bark-peels for a cloak. I wanted him to allow me to do amends for the unjust acts of our father and my mother. I said my mother and I could get over our feelings of guilt only if he forgave us and came back to his rightful place in the palace of Ayodhya. Our late father would rest in peace only if Rama would agree to be the king.

Rama would hear nothing of it. He saw no wrong in my mother claiming the throne for me. He knew that when our childless father had sought Kaikeyi as his youngest wife so that she would beget him a worthy heir, he had promised her father, the king of Kekaya that his son born of her would be the future king. Rama also quoted Sage Narada who had once told her that her son would be a great ruler.

I was at a loss for words when I got unexpected support from the scholarly Jaabaali, an agnostic saint rooted in rationalism and one of Dasaratha’s intellectual advisors. He was pretty direct in denouncing Rama’s foolish reaction to whatever happened in Ayodhya. He appealed to Rama’s superior sense of right and wrong, “You are a prince with a noble upbringing and high learning. You shouldn’t think like the common people who are swayed by irrational faith and emotions. One comes to this world alone and dies alone. Please don’t give undue reverence to the word of honour of your father and stepmother. They did not act in an honourable way. Selfish and clever men of power framed most of our rites and rituals, which lack any sense or purpose. A man of learning and wisdom must tread the path of duty and action, not the road of rites and rituals.”

Jaabaali asked Rama to go beyond his irrational reverence for his parents and take up his responsibility as the king. “Why do you waste useful food by offering it to the dead? The dead cannot eat! Dasaratha was just a seed that created you. Please accept what is obvious and real rather than delude yourself with the unseen or vague superstitious thoughts. There is no need for a king to give up worldly pleasures and lead an austere life. What you’re doing now is not a sacrifice but an abdication of your responsibility. Please don’t shy away from enjoying the bliss that’s yours by right. To protect the earth, to nurture the country is the dharma of a king.”

Rama went red on his face, more due to the reluctant awakening of inner realization than anger. He said, “My father is the absolute truth for me. I will honour his every word. If I don’t honour his word or break the promise I made to him and Kaikeyi, I won’t deserve a place in heaven. Your advice is full of evil. If at all I’ve to fault my father, it would be for harbouring an atheist like you. A faithless infidel has no place in a wise king’s court. A sage with no beliefs is worse than a thief.” I was taken aback by the harshness of the words of the normally gentle and unflappable Rama. It was a question of right or wrong and the duty of a king rather than a matter of faith and belief.

Now Vasishtha spoke mildly to soothe the temper of the young Rama, “The learned Jaabaali knows well the ways of the world. He said his honest words to wake you up from the slumber of inactivity you have adopted in the name of truth.” Vasishtha reminded him about each of his thirty seven ancestors from Mareechi to Dasaratha, none of who had wasted their time wandering in the wilderness. “Please accept your due role as the new king, for the throne always goes to the oldest son in this dynasty”, he pleaded with Rama.

“Follow your father, your mother, your teacher. I’ve been the teacher of your father and yourself. Today if you obey the words of your mother and your teacher, you’ll serve well the cause of faith and duty. Your mother too has come here with your brother Bharata to take you back to your throne. Take the path of truth and go back to Ayodhya.”

Rama’s answer was again a simple no, “I’ll never break my father’s word of honour.”

It became clear to me that the combined efforts of all of us were coming to naught. Finding no other way out I declared to Rama, “I’ll sit here beside you without water and food and keep looking at you till you agree to our request. I’ll lie down weak, tired, starving and dying till you come back to Ayodhya.”

Rama continued to be unyielding, “My dear brother, what crime have I committed to deserve this punishment? An act of forced persuasion like this is unbecoming for a noble prince like you. Please get up and rush to your palace where your call of duty awaits you.”

I carried my campaign forward by asking everyone else why they were not forcing Rama to go back. It now seemed that they had read Rama better. They said, “Rama is firm on what his father had asked him to do. He will never agree to go back.” This was exactly what he wanted to hear. His tone, so far soft and compassionate, assumed the harshness of a command. He ordered me to rule over the kingdom for fourteen years. “Both Kaikeyi and Dasaratha had walked the right path. I will be back as the king after the period of exile is over.”

[C K Kerala Varma is a friend of mine and a senior officer in the State Bank of India. I thank him for allowing me to publish his novella. This is the sixth chapter. Please go back in this blog if you wish to read the previous chapters. Incidentally, Raj Sekhar Basu, who wrote fiction under the pen name Parashurama, wrote a brilliant short story on Jaabaali in Bangla. I will try to present an English translation of the story to you in the future. Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri]

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

In search of truth 4

[A novella based on the Ramayana and S R D Prasad's Bharatakaandam in Malayalam; continued from the previous post]

C K Kerala Varma

In search of Rama

The ministers and the elders, including the wise Vasishtha and the venerable Siddhartha, were all for carrying out the last wish of the late king, though they had been critical of the way it had come about. I knew it was not the wish of the king but the wish of his sensuous wife. I lost no time and none of my earlier firmness to declare that Rama would be the king. The tears in the eyes of all those assembled were both a sign of their love for Rama and appreciation for my conduct.

We made elaborate arrangements for our journey into the forest in search of Rama. I was keen to carry everything necessary for an emergent coronation in the forest itself. My mother, now fully repentant, accompanied Kausalya and Sumitra in our procession to the woods. Shatrugna and Vasishtha joined me in this mission that was dear to every heart. It was a long procession of hope by the people of Ayodhya. Horses, chariots, soldiers, workers and guides formed the vanguard, followed by carts full of grain and grocery, meat and milk animals and other supplies. The very thought of bringing Rama back as the king seems to have enthused the people.

I was aware that Rama had not wanted anyone to go in search of him. After he had got off the chariot that took them to the woods, he had told the charioteer to keep driving to the north for sometime before returning to Ayodhya, just to trick people onto the wrong track if they tried to follow him.

We camped for the night on the bank of Ganga. Guha, the valiant and efficient chief of the Nishada tribe responsible for keeping at bay intruders into the kingdom of Kosala from across the river, welcomed the royal guests. He offered, without much of an enthusiasm though, to host them for the night and feed the troops. I thanked him and asked him the way to the ashram of Sage Bharadwaja. I was hoping that Rama would be camping there. I was in a hurry to meet him before he moved on. The harsh and unexpected response from Guha filled me with remorse and anguish. He asked me if I was on my way to drive Rama further away and out of my way forever. When I explained to him the purpose of my journey, he brightened up. He seemed to have a thousand tongues when he lavished praise on my sense of fairness and righteousness.

Rama, Sita and Lakshmana had stopped over for a night at the same place. Guha showed me the open ground where Rama and Sita slept over a sheet of grass. Lakshmana had stood guard for the whole night. They had not asked for anything other than feed and water for their horses, Guha said amidst sobs.

Early next morning, Guha was ready with boats to ferry us across the river. Sage Bharadwaja had set up his house of meditation at the meeting place of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna. Vasishtha took me to Bharadwaja. The sage was sarcastic about my father who had abandoned righteousness for the sake of a woman. “Rama had already given up everything for your sake”, he said. “Why go hunting after him? He won’t be an impediment for you.”

Be it the illiterate forest-dweller or the wise sage, everyone would jump without an exception to the foregone conclusion of my complicity! I had taken the innuendo of Guha in my stride, but I choked visibly when explaining my predicament to the learned sage. Vasishtha also chipped in with his words of assurance that seemed to calm down the skeptic sage.

He now left his diffidence behind and went about organising, out of nothing as if by magic, a grand feast for us the two princes, our royal entourage and the troops. His ascetic students led me to a sparkling throne surrounded by dancing girls in a palace rivalling the one at Ayodhya in grandeur. I saw in hallucination my father and Rama seated on the throne. I took it easy assuming that this must be Bharadwaja’s way of testing whether I would succumb to worldly pleasures and give up my pursuit of Rama! I must have won his confidence, for he said later that my fame would last till the last drop of water in this world.

When I was taking leave of the sage, he blessed me profusely and said I should not see evil in what my mother had done. He showed us the way to Chitrakoot on the banks of Mandakini. Rama was likely to be camping there.

[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 fifth chapter. Please go back in this blog if you wish to read the previous chapters. Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri]