[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]