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