Kāthā: Unheard Female Voices from Ramayana

 

This is the final installment of a trilogy composed by Somrita Mishra, Aishwarya Dasgupta and Susmita Paul, with illustration from Subarnarekha Pal, who have come together to revive some previously unheard female voices from the Ramayana. Read them, hear them, re-think with them.

katha title illustratiion

Vaidehi

Susmita Paul

They are undecided about the way in which the fire will be lit. Some suggest that a pyre be built. Then they can look up to me as I stand tall on the pedestal of the pyre. Some suggest that there should be a sitting arrangement in the middle, so that the fire can surround me. It would look poetic, says the court poet. Whatever may be the fire arrangement, the washer man wants it to be telecast across the three worlds. “Then the milk will become separate from the water!” he had said, informed Urmila. Since the building of the pyre has started, no one has seen his wife anywhere. I overheard the maids whispering, “She feared being thrown into the pyre by her husband! What a shame!” Amidst all this commotion, he has not come across the guest quarters where I have been shifted since the last court meeting.

My first maid is of the opinion that this is a conspiracy that is being hatched against me. I yawn. She continues dusting. With her back turned to me, she says, “Which sane husband will put his wife in fire because of a stupid washer man’s comment? I say, memsahib, there is plenty of dirt in this curry!” I leap out of my bed as I remembered that I have left the curry uncovered. I planned to send it to him for lunch. I arrange the cushions and sink into them. No point in rushing to the kitchen now. The cat will have a good lunch today. “…and then there is also the question of an heir.”

O, I am getting so forgetful!

I need to send that letter to him. That is why I had planned to cook the curry. Without the curry, a letter will seem too intimate. Now what? May be it’s better to wait a couple more days till all this fetish over proving purity is over.

Gosh! I do not understand what these men want. That dupe wanted flesh but didn’t force himself upon me. And my husband wants to be a good king. He wants to put my flesh to test  so that there is no riot in the kingdom.

The grapes look luscious.

I pick one and put it in my mouth. I ask the maid to leave. She looks at me deeply and says in a ghoulish voice, “If only women could be left to themselves.”

As the clicking of her bangles cross the door, pass through the corridor and chime past the guarded entrance, I suddenly remembered the beautiful fish shaped eyes looking at us from behind the bushes. I  look vaguely at the grapes.

***

I look vaguely at the grapes as Lava and Kusha compete against each other over who could eat more. It has been years and yet no one called to check on me. No one. Not even the pigeon in my courtyard that used to follow me everywhere.

It is a pity.

Life in this hermitage is pretty peaceful. Well, for the most part I am allowed to be myself. I remember my childhood days in my father’s palace- carefree and self-absorbed.

I remember clearly it was the eighth day of the month of Ashwin.1. We were running around in the garden, competing against each other to see who can pluck the most fruits from the trees. Clambering up and down the trees, everyone was hoarding plenty. I stood in front of the grape vines for some time. It was virtually impossible to pluck grapes without someone’s assistance or breaking them completely.

I looked around.

My sisters were at the other corner of the garden. I burrowed my feet in the ground. I could feel roots growing out of them. I closed my eyes and focussed on my breathing. I could see a burning white light between my brows furrowing through the air. As I dropped to the ground, I held a bunch of the most luscious grapes that I had ever seen.

I felt a gaze.

Urmila’s voice pierced through, “Vai-de-hi, Vai-de-hi… where are you?”

I jumped across the fence and into the courtyard.

I ran straight into my father’s chamber across the hall.

There was no secure place where I could hide these.

I turned around and ran towards the official courtroom. I knew a place where no one would find these grapes.

I held the table with the bow carefully with one hand and hid the grapes underneath it.

I felt that gaze again.

I quietly turned around and met it.

My father was standing at the corner, looking at me. I could see that he was trying to appear only amused. I couldn’t understand what else he had in that smile.

Urmila’s voice, “Vai-de-hi…” snapped me out of further thought.

I put my finger on my lips as I smiled at my father and ran out of the room with a spring in my steps.

***

Lava and Kusha immediately spoke in protest.

“She is not only our mother, but also our Guru. You cannot challenge her without confronting us!”

“Guru?”, he asked surprised.

“Yes. Though we have been largely trained by Sage Valmiki in our military powers, it was Ma who first made bows and arrows from sticks in the woods and taught us how to focus and hit grapes ten feet away.”

“She is our first Guru. She taught us how to meditate and levitate.”

Ma helped us learn how to pronounce ‘Om’”.

Quietly I said, “Stop Lava and Kusha.”

Lava and Kusha looked at me in disbelief.

Having taught them to stand up for what is right all my life, I shouldn’t have stopped them. Having taught them to stand by what is right all my life, I needed to stop them.

I could feel the roots growing from the underground. I could feel it.

“It is time”, I said.

 

—————————–

1 In the myth of the Akal-bodhon (literally translates as untimely awakening), Ram prays to Goddess Durga to help him defeat Ravana in the inauspicious month of Ashwin in the Lunar Calendar (India). On the eighth day of Ashwin, Goddess Durga appeared in front of Rama, pleased by his devotion.

Susmita writes in English and Bengali. Her works in English are upcoming/published from/in Indie Blu(e) Press, “Headline Poetry and Press”, “Montauk”, “Learning and Creativity” and Plato’s Caves Online. Her published books are Poetry in Pieces (2018) and Himabaho Kotha Bole (When Glaciers Speak) (2019). She is the Founding Editor-in-Chief of The Pine Cone Review. Her personal website is www.susmitapaul.org 

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