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