Authors: Bani Basu
Each of them reacted differently to their tour of Ajanta. No one had paid any attention to Bikram throughout. Not even Seema, who seemed to have gathered new strength and stood in Bikram’s path like a challenge. Bikram hadn’t realized this clearly. But he had experienced a certain discomfort with Seema from the time of their trip to Ellora and Ajanta. Seema seemed to have become someone, a positive person with a distinctive personality.
The dark-eyed, cry baby whom he had eloped with from her Chunchura home fifteen years ago, who had taken a lot out of him over these past fifteen years while he had tried to rid her of her pouting and weeping, whom he now considered little more important than the bronze figure in the landing of his house in Thane, that very same Seema was now reprimanding him with polished language and subtle gestures, without sounding as though she was nagging him. Seema was speaking. Esha had turned towards her with wonder in her eyes. Mahanam, Dr Mahanam Roy, was talking to her as an equal, as though she was a fellow-speaker at a conference. Aritra Chowdhury had placed his hand on Seema’s shoulders delicately, as though they were fragile and valuable. Like the panels at Ajanta, a sequence of these images appeared before Bikram’s eyes like a living fresco. He was not the painter, in fact he was not even being accorded any importance as a viewer. The images were actions and reactions to one another. Bikram’s 500-watt eyes had no effect on them, they were illuminated by some other source of light. Bikram could not understand this fresco. While the figures on the Ajanta panels were virtually unclothed, the characters in this living fresco were covered with some fine transparent muslin over their regular clothes, which made the familiar appear half-familiar, and the half-familiar, completely unfamiliar. He could not recognize Seema clearly. Aritra Chowdhury was now a total stranger.
Only in one of the caves had Bikram had the opportunity for receiving public acknowledgement. The guide said, ‘This cave was probably used as a lecture hall. Stand at the centre, one of you, and say or sing something. The rest of you will hear it as you would on loudspeakers, complete with the echo.’
‘Why don’t you go, Bikram-babu,’ Esha said.
Bikram had forgotten his music these days. He remembered only a few favourites that he had sung many times. In a deliberate attempt to vent his anger, he started singing a self-composed parody:
‘Poor woman, you lurk behind the sage as his partner
You dangle from the langur’s hands like a grape Why can’t you be the sweet and sour pickle with my bread
The notes spread to every corner of the cave. How amazing this auditorium made by the Buddhists was. Bikram felt very self-satisfied under the impression that, after all these years, he had finally injected some life into a place where the sages must once have bored young apprentice monks with a stream of instructions. Seema said, ‘I want to sing a song too, may I?’ ‘Of course,’ said the guide. Seema took a position within the circle of attention of her audience, and sang a few lines from Rabindranath’s ‘Chandalika’.
Then, kneeling suddenly, she sang in a high voice and a different scale, ‘
Buddhang saranang gachhami, Sanghang saranang gachhami, Dhammang saranang gachhami
.’ I turn to Buddha for sanctuary. I turn to the Sangha for sanctuary. I turn to Dhamma for sanctuary.
A tall, plump foreigner with an innocent face drew a cross on her breast, raising her blue eyes to the ceiling. The two Japanese young men knelt, joined their palms, and softly uttered a prayer in their own language. ‘Would anyone else like to sing?’ asked the guide. The first song that Bikram had sung had put him in the mood for a ghazal, but Seema had sprinkled holy water and dampened the atmosphere. Realizing that his singing wouldn’t be received well, he walked out glumly.
The Buddhist workers had filled one cave after another with nude paintings. There was no doubt that these works of art were the result of suppressed libido from the succession of days spent in these caves without women for company after renunciating the world. As was the case with Khajuraho or Konark or the Jagannath temple. Their mentors, the Arhats, used to live in great happiness watching all these blue films, which Bikram had absolutely no objection to. But why not call a blue film a blue film! Who’s protesting! If you dress it up in the garb of religious wisdom, though, that’s another matter. Just like the alcohol-drinking tantrics and the bhairavi chakra of women and sexuality. But the images were not sufficiently arousing sexually. Unlike the sixty-four yoginis at Khajuraho, who made you break out in a sweat. These were dull, no spice, like Rabindra-Nritya in comparison to Kathak or Mohiniattam. Unless it was a hot mutton do-piyaza or murgh musallam, or at least beef kababs, Bikram couldn’t savour it. And then half the colours had worn off, the plaster was peeling, why would anyone waste an entire day on all this unless they were absolutely mad?
The gigantic sculpture of Buddhadeva’s Mahaparinirvana —his death, the release of the already released—had overwhelmed Neelam. A sal tree on either side, his disciples kneeling near his feet, the abandoned begging bowl in Ananda’s hand. Kushinagar. The architecture had captivated her more than the paintings, the sculpture more than the architecture. The Neelam who had climbed up the hundred steps to the Ajanta hill was not the same one who had climbed down the same hundred steps. Someone addressed her from behind the chaityas in a sweet, sonorous voice: ‘
Samma-ditthi, samma-sankappa, samma-vaca, samma-kammanta, samma-ajiva, sammavayama, samma-sati, samma-samadhi.’ The right view, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. Not once, but again and again.
Sarnath. Siddhartha seated with his hands in the Dharmachakra Mudra gesture. He had just attained the status of Buddha, and was saying, ‘O five sages, comprehend the fundamental reason for the agony of our earthly ties. Longing and desire are the root causes. The longing for sensual pleasure, the desire for satisfying oneself. How can these be uprooted? Forsaking longing and desire without leaving a trace is the real way.’
Indeed, what have you done all your life besides travelling from one longing to another desire? How turbulent youth had been, how tumultuous. Enriched—or was it besmeared—by hundreds of hunting expeditions. It was terrifying now to even recall all those devoted, lusting expressions. Someone had watched over Neelam from concealment to ensure that her sexual indulgence did not take her too far on the road to perdition. He had done what he had to. Neelam began to pray ritually after this. Only, what was it but a prayer to desire? A demand for compensation—or a plea to get back what she had lost—was woven into her sacred offerings of flowers and fruit. This form of worship was not genuine. It was self-deception, cheating too. See what a devoted disciple I am, I don’t even drink a glass of water before offering it to the gods. Having walked around the ten caves at Ajanta, Neelam had understood what worship really meant.
The devotion, offerings, chanting, resolve, meditation and self-sacrifice of a multitude of devotees had been frozen in stone by the lines and the flow of the works of art here. Their sharp intensity had remained alive for more than thirteen hundred years—
samma-ditthi, samma-sankappa, samma-vaca. Om namah, Buddha dibakaray, gotam chandimay, sakyanandanay, nama namah
Buddhadeva had given householders the right to be Buddhists too. They would follow the eightfold path. It wasn’t important whether you were a Buddhist or not. It didn’t make any difference whether you followed a specific religion or not. But with this gigantic sculpture of Buddha’s Mahaparinirvana before her, would Neelam be returning to the same home? How constricted it was, how impure its décor. What a strong smell of desire pervaded every corner—cigarette packets, beer bottles, meat, onion, garlic, envy, suspicion, rage, adultery. How would the great one enter there? He might be able to shrink his body, but how would he minimize his soul? Neelam said in her head—you have done me a favour by visiting my house, Esha. The glittering curtain in front of my eyes has been lifted. This is what they mean when they say
hiranmayena patrena satyasyapihitam mukham—
My Lord, Sustainer of Lives, your dazzling effulgence covers your face. A veil of false lustre is drawn over our eyes. We see it whenever we look, we think we are happy. We live in a fool’s paradise. The truth will not be visible till this veil falls. I give Aritra to you, Esha. One day I had snatched him from your hands. I had felt great pride, huge self-satisfaction, a tremendous sense of victory that the brightest object of women’s desire in the College Street area had left you for me. How selfish that pride was. I can feel in my bones now how wrong it was, how childish. I am returning Aritra to you. I give Mahanam to you too. Once I had deceived, yes, deceived, Mahanam. He did not punish me, demanded no compensation. But if he wants, if he really wants, I’ll give Pupu to him too. When I go back I will reveal the truth to Pupu. I will not increase the burden of my sin by hiding from her the identity of the great man whose child she is. Pupu is quite calm and mature, if I explain to her properly she will definitely take it well. And if she didn’t, if she forsook Neelam out of hatred and hurt, Neelam would bear that too. Her heart would break but she would bear it. She had got so much in life without paying for it. Pay now, Neelam Joshi, pay with your own hands, and then you can reach out to what is valuable, what is priceless. Neelam had effectively transformed herself into Rati, Mara’s daughter. She kept thinking of what Mahanam had said, ‘They’ve come to disrupt his meditation, but they might end up joining it themselves.’ If it was possible for Mara’s daughter herself to begin the act of devotion, would it be absolutely impossible for Neelam Joshi Chowdhury to purify her entire life up to now?
Aritra was so sunk in his own thoughts that he had not remotely realized the change in Neelam’s. All of Ajanta was imbued with Esha for him. Every beloved, every princess, every woman was Esha-Presha. Why had the artists painted these beautiful women all over the caves with such dark skins? They had insight, they were farsighted too. Mahanam had said, ‘Sakas, Huns, Pathans, Moghuls . . . many tribes and many invaders have been to India, but none of them succeeded in influencing or distorting our aesthetics the way the British did. It was only after the advent of the British that we began to consider fair skin, and only fair skin, as a characteristic of beauty. A fair skin excuses all flaws. We had a more subtle vision earlier. Look at all these women painted here, the fair-skinned among them are handmaidens, friends, unimportant figures. Shireen, the queen of Persia, is fair-skinned as a tribute to fact, but all the women famed for their beauty are brown-skinned, some are quite dark. None of the beautiful women whom the Buddhist workers saw everywhere was fair-skinned in the European sense, a reality which they did not ignore.’
But Aritra was thinking of something else. Thirteen hundred years after its creation, a work of art no longer belonged to the artist. Its value lay in its message to the viewer, who was not concerned with the reality of the artist’s world. He felt that his eternal love had receded into the shadows because she had not got him. Hence her melancholic form. Through the cave paintings of Ajanta she had come to convey her pain to him subtly, very subtly. Every sorrowful dark-skinned woman he stood in front of made his heart twist with pain. ‘Poor woman of the shadows,’ he said in his head.
What had Esha thought the day she had seen him with Neelam, when she had realized how intimate their relationship was? How terrible the pain must have been— even thinking of it made Aritra feel his heart being pierced by needles. Oh, how could he have been so cruel? Even after that, Esha had proposed marriage, despite being a woman, and what had Ari done? What could it be called but rejection under the garb of artificial words. And then? Then the tender young girl of nineteen, who thought of herself as mature and wise, that same Esha-Presha, had disappeared. She had vanished into thin air like a bubble. Only a notebook of poems had remained. Could a book match up to a person? He was looking at the faded painting of the dying princess Janapadakalyani in the seventeenth cave. His heart crumpled in agony. He discovered Esha standing motionless in front of the painting. There were several characters in the frame, the messenger of defeat stood with a crown in his hand, Kalyani was in her female companions’ arms, Esha was busy looking at every small detail. Aritra found Neelam standing at a distance, looking at Esha. He decided that if Esha wanted, he would ask Neelam for a divorce. He had ensured that there was plenty of property registered in her name. She should have no difficulties. His life was supposed to have been divided between Neelam and Esha. Neelam had got his best years. The rest would be Esha’s. But Pupu? Would he lose her? No, he wouldn’t lose anyone. Not even Neelam. All of them had reached an age where changing one’s partner should no longer be considered a reason for upheaval in the pattern of life. Pupu had grown up. Things would have to be explained to her. Neelam would live with Pupu as she did now. The truth was that her relationship with Aritra was like one between friends now, between brother and sister. What could come in the way, then? But it would not be possible in Pune. He could not take public criticism at this age. He would seek a transfer to Bombay. It wouldn’t be a problem. Neatly distributing the problems of his life and his own wishes, Aritra was now recovering mentally. The restlessness that had pursued him once gradually disappeared. He kept stealing glances at Esha. As dark-skinned as a young sal tree, graceful, but the cleft in her chin alone was enough to madden him. As he watched Esha, he was certain that this was what she wanted too, not expressing it only because Pupu and Neelam would be hurt. When two trains moving at the same speed towards different destinations come side by side, each one feels the other isn’t moving. Aritra had no idea that Esha’s destination was different, he assumed that she had stopped. By his side. That he could touch her just by reaching out.