[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.
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]