Authors: V S Khandekar
I had thought she would not come to me during our halt the next night. But as on the previous night she did
trembling all over. All her subconscious fears were tormenting her like ghosts in the darkness.
That night, Alaka complained of something else; she had seen a ghost which looked like Mandar. Thinking that she was asleep, the ghost tried to kiss her but disappeared as soon as she moved.
On the third night, I asked for her bed to be made in my tent. The front flap was always left open and the sentry did his rounds in front. I could therefore see nothing wrong with the arrangement. Who could doubt anything in the circumstances?
Maybe because of implicit confidence in me or because her fears gradually lessened with the passage of time, Alaka now slept well. She was thus disturbed only four or five times during the journey! If she was trembling with fright, I would seat her on my bed and pat her on the back and reassured she would return to her bed.
I am carefully recalling all those incidents but at no time, not even when she was sitting on my bed in the dead of night, did I ever entertain any sinful thought in respect of her. More than her beauty, I valued her implicit confidence in me. The thought that she could lie down without a care, with her head in my lap, gave me pleasure of a different kind than the pleasure of kissing her.
Those days of travelling, how quickly they went by! But their lingering memory is still with me. I have no idea of what the Creator put together in creating women, but in Alaka’s presence I often felt as if a poem dripping with feeling and set to a harmonious tune was moving about in me. That poem was not a love theme but it was a beautiful blend of smiles, affection and pathos.
Those days filled with innocent happiness, selfless love passed in no time. When Hastinapur was only twenty miles away, Mandar asked for permission to go ahead so as to prepare for my welcome.
I gave him the permission but felt that a welcome other than love in Mother’s eyes and the burning lamps of affection in Alaka’s eyes was quite unnecessary.
We reached Hastinapur late in the night. I explained to Mother how I had met Alaka.
I retired to bed after dinner. I thought Mother would bring up the subject of Yati in the morning but she said nothing. She must have been very sorry that I had returned alone. In life there is no pain greater than disappointment.
The whole of the next day was busy. The Prime Minister and others called and talked about the coronation. Madhav called with his niece Taraka. I rang for Alaka to give her sweets but she did not come. I was busy all day yet called for Alaka three or four times.
At dinner I asked Mother, ‘How is it Alaka is nowhere to be seen?’
Mother almost ignored the question and said, ‘Yayu, you are now King of Hastinapur. Kings think of princesses and not of maids!’
Mother spoke without a trace of feeling. I kept quiet but all the tasty dishes in front of me turned sour and I got up from the table.
Mother beckoned me to her room and I quickly followed her. She said, ‘Alaka is counting the last few moments of her life.’
I did not know if I was awake or dreaming and said with a heavy heart, ‘What?’
‘There is only one way to be born into this world but death comes in many different ways. There is no knowing how it comes.’
‘But the royal physician ...’
‘In this there is no need for the physician. It is a question of the prestige of the royal household. That you misbehaved on your travels ...’ Mother turned fiercely on me, adding, ‘To cure you of your dangerous illness I turned Mukulika out of the Ashokavan and warned her that she stood in danger of her life if she returned to the town. If she were here today, all the symptoms of your illness ...’
I hung my head in shame. I did realise that I had behaved wantonly with Mukulika.
‘While your father was lying on his deathbed you had taken a wretched maid servant to your bed in Ashokavan ...’
That day when the Prime Minister had sent Mandar through the underground passage, at that time Mukulika was standing by my bed and I had not had the presence of mind to send her away before opening the secret door.
My head was spinning. Is Mandar so wicked? What had he gained by telling Mother?
I wished to tell Mother of all that had happened at Ashokavan without concealing a thing, but shame kept me back. However passionately I might reiterate the truth, it was unlikely that in her present mood, Mother would believe it.
As ruthlessly as one cuts through dry wood, she tore at me with reprehensive words, ‘You are not at fault. It is my fate which is to blame. It is in your blood. As a wife I suffered a lot. I was hoping that suffering would not be my lot at least as a mother. But ...’
Her words suddenly stopped. She beckoned to me and I followed. I thought there was another underground passage here. I descended behind her but I did not dare to ask where we were going. It was not far to go. At the far end, there was a cellar. There was a tall, fierce-looking sentry at the door who saluted us.
Mother turned to me. ‘Go in but you can stay there for only ten minutes. It is said that one should fulfil the last wish of a dying person. Therefore I have shown Alaka this mercy ...’ She stopped for a while and said, ‘Listen, Prince. You will be king soon. If he so wills a king can command a new beauty everyday ...’
She turned away. The sentry opened the door. I stepped inside dumbfounded. There was a low light in that small narrow room and I could not discern anything there for a few moments. I then saw Alaka squatting on the floor with her head between her knees. I went near with a heavy heart. She could not have heard me coming! I was very close to her and put my hand on her shoulder. It was only then that she slowly looked up. She simply stared at me with watery eyes. Her face had gone black. She peered at me again and again and asked, ‘Who is it?’
She could neither hear nor see. Terror struck at my heart. I shook her violently by the shoulders and screamed, ‘Alaka!’
She recognised my voice, a smile slowly spread over her face and with a heavy but caressing voice, she said, ‘Who? Prince?’
I sat close to her and putting her head on my shoulder, said, ‘What is the matter, Alaka?’
Nearby was an empty wine glass. With great difficulty she pointed to it and said, ‘Ask that cup. That ... that ... cup contained love, I ... I ... drank it.’
She could speak no more. Once she said with a heartache ‘... That ... that ... Mandar ... him ... him ... I ...’
She was getting convulsions. Suddenly in a low voice from somewhere deep down: ‘D ... d ... do ... do not forget me. M ... m ... my one ... golden hair ... keep ... Oh! Oh!’
I gently plucked a golden hair. She was now in her last few moments and all because of me! Should I not have given her as a memento, something imperishable to keep up her courage on that journey?
But in the presence of death, even a king turns a beggar. There was nothing I could give her.
Unconsciously I bent down and put my lips to her. She was probably a little conscious and struggled to turn her head away. She muttered, ‘N ... no ... p ... poison!’
But she had not the strength to draw away. I was madly kissing her.
That first kiss and this last kiss tonight! What a tragic episode life is! In trying to draw away from me, she toppled to the ground. I tried to shake her into wakefulness. The bird had flown away.
Her lifeless body was in front of me. Her soul — I wondered where her soul was —
Mother shouted for me and I returned to my room. The Prime Minister was waiting for me. He explained that he had come at that hour of the night with good tidings.
He said, ‘The war between the gods and demons has ceased. Kacha acquired the power of Sanjeevani and could revive the dead on the side of the gods. So the demons ceased fire. It is a great relief, because if the demons had won, they would have transgressed into our territory.’
Kacha had acquired Sanjeevani! The war had stopped! To me all this was utterly insignificant. I was crying out desperately to myself, ‘My Alaka, where is she? Where is the only sister of the brother hankering for affection?’
The nymphs in Indra’s heaven.
Sanjeevani was a hymn which, when recited, had the power to bring the dead back to life.
A festival at which a lady, normally a princess, chooses a husband from the assembled suitors.
Rosary made of the seeds of the
tree, having special religious significance for the Hindus.
utside, it is spring. There is a gentle breeze scented with fragrance, but I am perspiring in my bed. Outside, the moon of the fourteenth night looks like a huge white lotus in full bloom. But my heart is blighted like the withered delicate
flower. Outside, the cuckoo is singing in sweet wild notes. But in my heart, I can only hear the stifled notes of the broken reed.
Can it be true that what lingers in the mind comes back in dreams? Perhaps, perhaps not.
What a terrible dream it was! I was trembling all over when I woke up with fright.
Maybe I am angry with Kacha. Why the doubt? I am angry. I am very angry. When he rejected my love and sought to go away I pronounced the curse: ‘The power which you have acquired you will never be able to use.’ But is that any reason why in the dream I should —
For many days after Kacha had left, I was still greatly distressed and often cried bitterly and left off eating. I urged Father over and over again, ‘It does not matter if the power of Sanjeevani is now available to someone else also. You should do penance again to please Lord Shiva and get another blessing. And bring back to me that heartless, wily and ungrateful Kacha!’
I wished to punish Kacha so that he would remember it all his life. Even today I want to! He went away, disregarding my love and breaking my heart. He pronounced a cruel curse on me that no Brahmin’s son would accept my hand in marriage!
How vividly I remember every detail of the dream:
Kacha was standing shackled in the court. His eyes flashed like lightning. King Vrishaparva, the demon king, said to me, ‘The Lord Preceptor Maharishi Shukra, your father, is undergoing penance for our uplift. Before he started on it, he ordered me to see that you are always happy. We all know that Kacha has hurt you deeply. Therefore, we have brought him here from the kingdom of the gods. He is your prisoner. You pronounce the punishment and it will be instantly carried out.’
What punishment can a true lover award her love, even if he has deceived her? At most, to make him captive in her arms for all time. I did not even order that. I pleaded with the heartless one, ‘Kiss me once ... only once!’ and added, ‘You will be free from bondage if you kiss me.’
Even in the face of death, he was arrogant. He said, ‘Devayani, they cremated me and put my powdered bones into Maharishi Shukra’s wine. He drank it and I thereby got access to his heart. It was there that I learnt the Sanjeevani hymn which none else knows. But it was also because of that I am now your brother. You and I are the same flesh and blood.’
I lost my temper. I said, ‘You seem to think that Devayani is a silly woman. It needs no great intelligence to know that children grow on the flesh and blood of the mother, not of the father. I am no sister to you
and you are no brother to me. I am your lover. I beg nothing more of you. Kiss me only once and I shall issue orders to release you thereon.’
King Vrishaparva said, ‘Devayani, what shall be the punishment?’
Kacha whose ashes Father had swallowed with his wine and for whose revival, even at the price of losing Sanjeevani, I had begged Father with folded hands — such a Kacha to be punished! But how could I —?
I said to King Vrishaparva, ‘Behead Kacha and bring his head on a salver to the court. I am going to show you all what an adept danseuse I am!’
Kacha was led out of the court and beheaded. The guard brought his bloody head in. I put the salver down and danced the love theme round it. Love smiles like a blooming flower and sometimes flares like a fire. Sometimes it twinkles like a star or it strikes like lightning. It may take the form of a tame deer or a vicious cobra! It may rejuvenate or slay. I depicted all this in my dance.
I do not know how long I danced thus. I was intoxicated and could see nothing except Kacha’s head. Blood was oozing from it and I imagined it to be my lover’s head anointed with the auspicious red
. I forgot that the head was lifeless. I danced up to it, knelt down and kissed it with the words
‘Kacha dear, you did not want to kiss me, but there you are, I have you in the end.’
I am still in love with Kacha. How then could I be so cruel? Where do dreams come from? Do they not stem from the mind? Ah! I know now. A dream is like an intricate weave. How did this dream come to my mind —
Kacha used to say that a disciple must observe the vow of purity. He would gather wild flowers for me with unfailing regard but he never put them in my hair. My slightest touch was to him heavenly bliss and he used to come alive for an instant, even with a passing one. But he was constantly on the alert to avoid it.
Or is it that my foolish heart is still in love with him? And the conscious mind hates him? Love and hate. Fire and water.
When will this conflict of the conscious and subconscious end? How foolish, soft and blind is a woman’s heart! Kacha has never even enquired of me since he left. He had achieved Sanjeevani on the plea of my love for him and returned to the realm of the gods. He was hailed there as a great ascetic and hero! The mortal danger to the gods had receded because of him.
Now he can claim any celestial beauty of his choice. Why then should he remember Devayani? Men are so ungrateful! Wily, hard and heartless! Like the birds in a fable, they fly away with the net with ease. As for the women, their hearts are entangled in the invisible web of love and they sit and weep helplessly.
No, I will not sit and fret like other women. I am made of sterner stuff. God has given me beauty and Father has given me intelligence and education.
All of Father’s earlier penance has now come to nought. He is going to undertake another to acquire a different power. I am the daughter of Maharishi Shukracharya, who has risen above the world. I am going to forget Kacha.
No, I am going to banish him from my mind. He has left me with a curse. But how can a true lover curse his beloved? What does it matter if a Brahmin’s son will not marry me? Has the Creator given me all this unique beauty so that I may only bedeck myself with flowers? Is it for nothing that a beauty like Princess Sharmishtha, the King’s daughter, is always envious of me? She must be racking her head as to the clothes she must wear to look prettier than Devayani. On the first day of the spring festivities tomorrow morning, the princess and her friends are going for a picnic in the forest and then go bathing. I am also going for Father’s sake, in that beautiful sari which Kacha brought for me from heaven, when all eyes will be dazzled. I had put it away for a long time specially for these festivities. Sharmishtha probably does not even know. When she sees Devayani clad in that beautiful red sari ...
But that was given to me by Kacha. It was a present he brought when he came to stay with us. Then he was in love with me! I had also fallen in love with him. It would have been becoming if I had worn the red sari then. But to wear it now when we are no longer in love? No, if I wear it now, the dying embers of that love will flare up again in my mind. He would climb impossible hill slopes in order to collect the flowers which I fancied; he would sway like a cobra to the tune of my autumn dance; he would recite his hymns in a low voice in a bower in the far corner of the garden lest it might wake me up in the early morning. Very rarely but in such sweet words he would say, ‘You are prettier than the most beautiful damsel in heaven.’ If I countered with, ‘You are a flatterer,’ he would retort with a smile, ‘The world only worships the beautiful.’
Enough of those memories.
I am resolved to forget my love for Kacha. The sari that he presented maybe it is very pretty. But why should I wear it now? However beautiful, it should be torn to shreds. It should be used for a mop. That would be an appropriate punishment for the ungrateful wretch!
I fetched it from the pile of clothes set apart for the spring festivities. I wished to tear it up. But my hands would not move. Perhaps a man could have torn it. Almost certainly Kacha would have cut it up to bits, but I am a woman. The worship of the beautiful is our creed. Women can never destroy anything beautiful.
When I wear this tomorrow after the spring festivities, I shall look so enchanting. Sharmishtha is puffed with pride that her father is a king. Every now and then she boasts about it. I must put her to shame at the festivities tomorrow —
I shall not tear this beautiful sari. But the other things which remind me of him. I turned to the bower in the garden. This was his favourite spot. The bower must be ripped up.
It is fancied by Father also. What if he asked me in the morning about it? It will be possible to explain it away. The young calf in the cow shelter runs amuck these days. She must have broken loose at night and trampled on and ruined the bower! Some much explanation —
I headed towards the bower when I heard someone calling me, ‘Devi.’
I was pleased with the word. It was good Father had mended his habits. Upto yesterday, always even before strangers, he would without a thought call me, ‘Deva.’ As if I was a boy! When he called me thus before Kacha, I used to blush red. All great men have some queer trait. I insisted that he must never again call me Deva. He said, ‘Calling you Deva does not make you one ... you are only a Devi.’ What could you do with him? That a young maiden’s heart is like a sensitive plant and that, even little things caused embarrassment, was something which ascetics cannot realise. These men live in a world of their own all the time.
On hearing Father’s call I turned round. He slowly came forward, raised my chin, looked deep into my eyes and said, ‘You are still awake, my girl?’
‘I could not sleep, Father, so I thought, a turn in the garden ...’
He caressed my back and said, ‘I know you girl. There is nothing worse than a broken heart ...’
It was distasteful to me to dwell on Kacha anymore. In an effort to change the subject, I said, ‘Father, did my movements wake you up?’
He said no and with a gulp added, ‘My defeat is a thorn in my side, my girl. I am all the time thinking that I should again undertake long penance and acquire another unique power which will dazzle the world.’
‘Why don’t you begin then? I was small during your penance for Sanjeevani and hardly realised what a great man my father was. Now, I shall attend on you and your penance, see that the
He smiled derisively. ‘That is not possible.’ I had lost Mother in my childhood and Father brought me up like a delicate plant. Even so, why should he form such an unkind opinion of me? Why should he think that I am pleasure-loving and therefore cannot be of any service during a penance?
I was worried that Father might notice the sari but he was absorbed in his own thoughts.
He seemed to look at the glowing moonlight spread all over and said, ‘Deva ...’
‘No, Devi ...’
‘Oh yes, I forget,’ he smiled back. ‘I could renounce wine instantly, but the tongue has got used to your childhood name ...’ Later in great agony, he added, ‘When I had the Sanjeevani, the entire world trembled before me. But today, I am only one of the thousands of ascetics roaming the world. No, I cannot bear the thought. My girl why should the lion live after he has lost his teeth and claws?’
What a terrible blow Kacha had struck at my father by carrying away the power of Sanjeevani. Even after so long, the wound was bleeding. I consoled him, ‘You could acquire another equally potent power by penance, Father.’
‘I will, undoubtedly! Not one but many but it will need grave penance. Last time, you were small. Now you have come of age and must be married. I do not know for how many years the penance will last considering that Lord Shiva is a difficult, moody deity.’
‘But, Father ...’
‘You were too small even to crawl about. Since then I have been both Father and Mother to you. I found the satisfaction of both knowledge and wine in your childish behaviour and I know of no pleasure greater than these three. While I had the power of Sanjeevani with me, any rishi, king or god would have made a bid for your hand. In my zeal to see the demons win, I neglected all this. Today, my girl, the lord of the rishis, your father is a penniless beggar. I may have to fall at their feet begging that one of them accept your hand in marriage!’
I was furious with Father. It is true the power of Sanjeevani was lost. That maybe! But Devayani still had her beauty. On the strength of that alone she —
* * *
All of us girls arrived at the huge lake in the forest. The blue sky itself seemed to have descended into the lake for us to sport in the water. The trees were fanning it a little. Further away the girls were squirting water at each other. But none of them dared into deeper waters. I said to Sharmishtha with a smile, ‘Water sport is not wetting oneself from a water vessel. Let us swim out so that these girls, frightened of water, will feel reassured. Look there. Those two swans playing with the lotus. They look like two white clouds floating in the sky. We will swim out as far as there and come back. Let us see who wins.’
Sharmishtha only smiled back and we two set out. I was rapidly gaining distance and swam like a fish. When I looked back, there she was crawling like a tortoise. I was elated that today she would be put to shame. She was bound to lose in this competition. When with a small face she returns to the bank beaten to it, she will be even more furious to see me in the red sari.
I reached the lotus, leaving her way behind. But I was feeling tired. I rested for a while but when I looked back, Sharmishtha had closed in on me. I turned back quickly and made for the bank with all speed. I was swimming well but the speed had slackened considerably. I was tired. There was a gale blowing. The trees and creepers were being violently tossed about and dust filled the air, making it murky.