Pay it forward

In search of Sita

Pay it forward2

I am a reader, collector, follower on anything about Ramayana. I have been fascinated about the epic and its characters since childhood. My personal favourites among all the movers and shakers of Ramayana is Hanuman. But Sita’s character always fascinated me. The Indian society has always wanted their daughters to be like Sita. What makes her so special in comparison to other women like Draupadi or Radha? But is she really the demure husband worshipping girl that she is normally portrayed to be?

“In Search of Sita” is a collection of essays, conversations, folk songs centred around Sita. The contributors include Lord Meghnad Desai, Ranga Rao, Namita Gokhale, Sonal Mansingh, Devdutt Pattanaik, Madhu Kishwar and others.

I particularly loved the translations of folk songs from Telugu by Ranga Rao. In earlier times, Telugu women from the same neighbourhood would gather around and would sing folk songs about Sita. These songs were laden with sadness and melancholy. But it was not just Sita’s story, it was theirs too; their travails, lack of love, absence of freedom and being trapped in a household dominated by men.

I decided to gift this book. Same script like before; write a note and leave it at cafe for a stranger to pick it up. Amethyst in Chennai is an oasis. One of my all time favourite cafes in the whole country. I have so many fond memories of my meetings with fabulous people at this cafe.

So stranger, even if you are not a Ramayana fan you will love it!

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Stories from far and near

Rama’s anquish

Rama was looking at the direction of Ayodhya. Seated on a rock, near a stream, his eyes were moist. It was only a couple of days, after Bharat had announced that his father had passed away. Half-dozen scenes raced through his mind, scenes that featured the King of Ayodhya; as victor, ruler, avenger, warrior, husband, lover, father. A sparrow landed next to him distracting his thought stream. The sparrow looked at him, while making sharp head turns. “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me,” Rama told himself.

He had spent many days by himself and Sita mindful of his need to be alone, allowed him to grieve. Sita was saddened by the look on Rama’s face, when he reached their dwelling. Rama’s body was bathed in perspiration from the long walk from the brook, as well as the heat of the late afternoon. He had been there for some hours. At the sight of Rama’s sweat-wreathed face, Lakshman began to untie his ang-vastra, but Sita waved him away. She gently used the corner of her saree to wipe the sweat off Rama’s chest and shoulders. When she had finished, she gave him water. He drank mechanically, but spilled some on his chest. After that he sat silently for a long time. His eyes were gazing at some distant horizon within the landscape of his memory, some place she could neither visit nor visualise. Sita waited patiently until she could take Rama’s silence no more.

“It’s time to move on Rama,” she said “it is several weeks now.”

Rama pulled himself from his deep thought, and looked at her with distant eyes.

He nodded in agreement, and moved slowly to sit near the steps next to the door. He seemed to grow more remote.

“I still remember how Bharat mentioned of my father’s last words.” “Rama I am sorry”. Sita was equally shaken when she had heard those words. She had hated her father-in-law for forcing them to the forest, over a promise he had given to his lover.

“My father had suffered from the pain of attachment, memory, and guilt”, he sighed and buried his face in his hands. “I have always been pained at leaving my mother for Kaikeyi ma, but he had always been a great father and a mentor. Sometimes it seems to me, that the only end of men is a sad and tragic end. Guilt, regret, resentment, pain…are these the only rewards that lie ahead of us?”

Sita had never seen Rama speak like this before. The words shocked and frightened her. “Of course not,” she said with more vehemence than she intended. “Well it is very sad and disturbing, what happened to your father. Are you not forgetting what he has got us into? For no fault of us? I strongly believe that life is a celebration and death is part of the journey. It is men who want a tomb-stone with their achievements written on it after death. We are happy, sad, afraid, elated and one day we die. Please don’t generalize Rama.”

“Yes, yes,” Rama said. “You are right, of course. I know these as well as you do. It just seems, so cruel. Must the Gods make us suffer even after we repent? Is there no forgiveness, no heed paid to good intentions?”

“You know there is Rama. You have yourself said it many times. Why do you speak so morosely today? Why do you lose hope all of a sudden?” she was concerned.

He looked up to her, “my faith is not shaken, Sita. I miss him and the times that I have been around him. His affection, care and love for me and everyone whom he cared. I only speak these thoughts aloud to help me understand the way of things. Sometimes the minds of Gods are difficult to fathom. I am only a man. Forgive me if I falter from time to time or show a moment of weakness.”

She caressed his arm. “There is nothing to forgive my love. I can truly empathise with your grief. Whatever has happened to us, he might have been careless, but he would have never desired even in his wildest dreams. You are now going through an emotional upheaval Rama, but please share it with me. You will definitely feel better. I never doubt that you will find your way to your rightful place, Rama.”

He smiled and kissed her hand. “With you beside me, even in my darkest hour, your presence lights up my world.”

That evening, they sat quietly, comfortable in one another’s silence. The sounds of the jungle began to vary with the passing of every day.

“Rama?”

“Yes, my love?”

“I wish to have children.”

“We will definitely have them.”

“I wish to have them as soon as possible.”

“Very well, my jaan.”

“But not here, not in the jungle. I want our children to be born in Ayodhya, in the comfort they deserve.”

“It shall be as you say.”

“They shall be princes. Or princesses. I do not mind either. Do you?”

“They are our children and I will love them dearly.”

“And someday, we shall tell them of years in the forest.”

“We should.”

“And whatever happens, we shall never let them suffer the same fate. Our children will never be exiled like us, live like hermits, searching for food, battling demons and wearing torn cloths.”

Rama was silent.

“Promise me, Rama.”

“Promise me that our children will never be exiled as we were.”

He looked at her surprised, “do you think I would let that ever happen?”

She averted his eyes. “No. But even your father never dreamt of sending his much loved son to the forest. Yet he did so of a promise that he had made to Kaikeyi.”

He smiled. “Do I have to be worried about what promises that I should be making later after this? I hear that the princess of Nagas is a beauty and the King wants me to marry her.” He laughed with a roar.

“If you ever dare to even contemplate such a thing, I would put her eyes out and you will have to do with a blind second wife.” She ignored his laughter. “I want you to promise me that you will never do anything that will subject our children to our fate.”

He controlled his laughter with some difficulty. “So be it.”

“Say it!”

“I promise.”

“What do you promise?”

“That I will not banish my own children to the forest or would subject them to any hardship or suffering. Or you happy now?”

“No matter what?”

“No matter what.”

She kissed him on his cheek and sighed in relief. He wrapped her around him, while both of them looked at the dark bluish sky, eagerly waiting for the dawn.

This story is part of the series titled, “Stories from far and near” that includes adaptations from Indian folktales, classical poetry and mythology. Copyright © 2012 Sriram V. Ayer. This story may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Stories from far and near

No strings attached

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“You are really stupid and have no culture”, Rani Kunjamma was furious. Raja Kodachayan was wringing his hands with a very troubled face. He knew his wife had a bad temper, but today, she had hit the roof. Raja’s ancestors once controlled over 1000 villages and administered under the Tanjore Nayaks. The rule had crumbled after Raja Kodachayan took over. After 50 years of rule, rather misrule, he controlled less than 18 villages. He was short, stout and with a big paunch. He had absolutely no interest in governance or even the vices of kings. He loved to eat, sleep and play kabbadi with the stable boys. It was Rani Kunjamma who was holding the fort, last couple of years.

Earlier, Rani had invited some pundits, poets and musicians to be state guests for the Tamil New Year celebrations. She believed that their chants, music and poetry would change the kingdom’s misfortunes. However our Raja had other plans. He along with little boys tied chameleons to their kudumi (tuft of hair) while they were sleeping. The learned men were so frightened and angry after the incident that they vowed, never to return to their land.

Raja, his eccentricities aside, still loved and respected his wife immensely; but, he had to find a way to win her trust and make her believe that he was cultured and artsy. He summoned his minister for counsel. “Let us call a famous musician to perform at the sabha, and you would enjoy his music, comment wisely and award him gifts. Rani would then realize that you’ve become cultured”, he ended it with a wicked smile. “I do not know anything about music?” Raja intervened.

“I have a plan. I will find a learned music critic, who would sit behind your throne. A string would be attached to your ‘kudumi’. He would pull the string every time the singer needs to be appreciated. And that’s your cue”. Raja knew that this was a devious plan, but he was used to being puppet.

On the day of the concert, the sabha hall was decorated with flowers, lamps and designer curtains, specially organized by the minister from faraway lands. Rani has always been a champion of the arts, so she hid her differences and agreed to attend. She had also invited her friends from other kingdoms. “I am hoping, you and your king are not playing some funny tricks?” Minister shook his head sideways, while his eyes slowly wandered behind the throne.

The singer was a very famous person and had a large fan following. He brought with him a large entourage of musicians. The minister had to pay a hefty sum to make him agree. The critic was brought from Mysore so that no one would recognize him. He was a short and lean middle-aged man, just the right size to hide behind the throne. The critic gave Raja a list of expressions that he could use, when he pulled the string. The minister made sure all the arrangements were in order. Rani Kunjamma and her friends were seated in a way that they would not be able spot the critic.

After the opening remarks and salutations, Raja raised his hand to signal, that the concert may begin. The singer had a quick chat with his musicians to check the order of songs. Sooner the tampura player began, Raja exclaimed, “Besh besh”. The critic had tightened the string and Raja mistook that as his cue. The singer was confused at the sudden and unexpected appreciation.

“Ninnu kori…”, singer was off to a flying start. There was pin-drop silence in the ‘sabha’. At the right moment the critic pulled the string and Raja was quick with his response, “ada ada”, while swaying his right hand. Everyone in the audience was surprised and delighted at the sudden change in Raja’s demeanor.

Rani Kunjamma, was a little circumspect initially, however felt happy that her husband had changed for the best.

The singer was at his best, and the minister was increasingly becoming confident that his mission would be successful.

After the initial ‘kritis’, the singer started his main piece, ‘Sri Kamalamba’ in Sahana Raaga with gusto. The critic pulled the string, at right intervals and Raja was acting to the script, with the right expressions, hand swaying and head shakes.

The singer was very excited at the response from the Raja that he decided to indulge a bit during the ‘Alaap’. He waited for Raja’s “besh besh” and “ada ada” during various points, but surprisingly Raja remained still and quiet. He grew worried, if he had done anything inauspicious that would have upset the Raja.

In the mean time, the critic was still tightening and pulling the string at the best parts and was also surprised at the lack of response. The minister who seated himself at a strategic location so that he could monitor the critic and Raja was now confident that something had gone wrong.

Raja Kodachayan though looked confident and composed all while, was now shivering. He was getting impatient and worried if the mission would succeed. He was determined to win her acceptance.

Suddenly a honey bee entered the sabha hall and went buzzing around the ears of the council of ministers, the princesses and then came on to the Raja. Raja quickly caught the bee in his right hand. He has always been good at catching insects, lizards and chameleons. A skill, he had learnt from the stable boys. Unmindful of the concert and the sudden excitement of having caught the bee, he stood up to show his capture to the audience. At this moment both the minister and the critic realized that the string had been cut.

The singer still continued singing with a confused expression on his face.

Raja regained his stance and realized that the string had been cut-off. He was afraid that Rani would think of him as culture-less because he had not appreciated the singer for over half hour now. “Vidvan stop stop.” Everyone including the singer was shaken up, as to what has come about.

“Minister why don’t you tie the string again, so that the man behind can continue pulling and I can appreciate?”

While the minister was embarrassed, and Rani was teething with anger, our beloved Raja Kodachayyan was merry looking at the bee through his fingers.

Some people just don’t grow up.

This story is part of the series titled, “Stories from far and near” that includes adaptations from Indian folktales, classical poetry and mythology. Copyright © 2012 Sriram V. Ayer. This story may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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