Asoka

After a long year of suffering Sita lowered her eyes to see her body. Body! It was nothing but sand and dust devoid of form or shape having been broken and battered by snow, rain, sunlight and looks that were edged with hunger and desire! The face. The neck. The hands. The breast. The navel. The waist. The legs. The feet. The ascetics who suffered the harshest penance. The scab of tears. The wounds of insults. The strands of hair that were dragged through dust and sand and had formed elf tangles. The nails had grown long and were broken and rough. The skin had grown so dry that it was scaling.

Which of these various dirts were ordered to be removed by a good long soak in water?

Placing her hands on her lap Sita sat in the lotus pose straight backed. The women of Vibhishana announced the order of the King and stood aside in reverence.

Let Sita come after having a bath, after washing her hair!

The footstep of Vibhishana was audible beyond the leafy green creepers. Sita grew restless as she inhaled the breath of fraternal disloyalty that wafted in the air. The new ruler of Lanka stood before her trying hard to support his neck weighed down by the crown, faded and stained by the blood of brothers. There was a mixture of surprise and sorrow in the dark, broad faces of his women. Sita looked at him for a long time. Then in a softened voice, she said:

‘Asnatha drushtumichami bhartaram’ [I want to see my husband without taking bath.]

Beyond the leafy wall, Vibhishana’s head bowed down to the earth. In a low-pitched wail, he pleaded:

It is a royal command, which has to be obeyed. Please do obey it.

There was a terrible silence in the sea of Lanka. The sun poised above the sea like a cold clot of blood. The dark shadow of the poison clouds of the sky swathed Lanka. Huge vultures sat in rows gazing at the silent sea. The broken chariot of the vanquished crept forward slowly along the seashore. He lay on his face on the steps of his chariot spewing streams of blood from his wounds. Furrows were formed on the sands by his dragging arms and feet. Sita’s elflocks and the edges of her clothes were tied to the broken spokes of the chariot wheels. Sita is dragged along the sandy shores of Lanka. Her hair that is pulled at, hurt and her garments at times came loose. Occasionally conch calls penetrated the melancholy silence like the sharp edge of a sword. The silent vultures would then start and spread their wings after which they resumed their unending vigil. The silence and the sea, at times, mumbled prayers like the tired daze of a keening house of death.

Take a dip and get back with wet, bare feet!

Do not wring out your wet clothes. Do not dry your hair. Come with wet, bare feet!

The widows of Lanka issued forth from the inner courtyards of palaces after discarding their veils. They dived deep, holding to their bosoms, curses that could have ended families. Wet from their bath they circumambulated the oblation to the manes and stood with folded hands and bare feet. Water drops rained down their disordered and long tresses. The leafy undergrowth moved again!

The breathless words bearing the curse of fraternal disloyalty were heard. Sita lifted her eyes to the poison tinged skies of Lanka. Then she bent her head low to the Lankan soil that was soaked by the dark blood of her people. Taking up a fistful of sand Sita told the new monarch of Lanka:

‘Asnatha drushtumichami bhartharam….’ [I want to see my husband without taking bath.]

Sita laid her head on the bosom of the Shimshupa tree. The immovable world, which was her silent supporter and witness to everything, knew that there was something rotten in the core of the visitor’s command. Though beyond language, a solitary thing reached down to the earth. Sita was saddened when she felt the soothing hands of the green buds on her forehead. Unable to draw out the fiery arrows that had pierced her heart deeply, being consumed slowly by the fire and being transformed as slowly into ashes, Sita held on to the huge bark of the tree and slid in a dead faint to the comfortable lap of roots.

The women of Vibhishana supported her. This is not the justice meted out by us, the slavish underprivileged. This is the command of the victorious. Dropping breast milk into her tearless burning eyes they consoled her. Like a gentle lullaby they soothed the breast, which shook with suppressed whimpers. She was gathered into the lap that could house the entire universe.

This royal command, like any other, must be followed.

Vibhishana muttered. He walked away, feet apart and trying to hold high his head crushed by the weight of guilt, donning the ill-fitting crown.

Sita sat up. Hands clasped in worship, she paid obeisance to the Asoka tree standing tired and lonely amidst the felled trees, smashed flower paths, the smoking houses fashioned out of green, cool creepers and pools that were caused to dry. Then, with bent head, she followed Vibhishana’s women along the sandy shores of Lanka.

Charcoal, ashes, smouldering fires, pieces of flesh the crows honoured in the ritual obeisance to the dead and the huge shadow of the wings of the vultures were the only sights in Lanka. The sea breeze was laden with the odour of rotting and burning flesh. At times, Sita started, cowered and faltered when she saw twigs or the hands of men, monkeys or asuras pointing a finger in her direction. The silence was shattered at times by the triumphant cries of the victorious, the whimpers of the children and the loud and unceasing wails of the mothers. Pressing a hand to her chest, Sita stood — exhausted.

Who committed the sin? Is it that of the Aryan man who cut off the nose and ears of the lower class woman who had dared to plead for love or is it the justice of the lower class who in vengeance tried to snatch the woman and wealth of the master? Who is the victim?

Sita felt that the way to the sea shore of Lanka was a thousand kathoms long. The sea was still and dark – a suppressed whimper. The sun like a melting blood clot dripped drop by drop into the sea. Covering her face, Sita walked past the rows of vultures waiting to tear the flesh of the vanquished. The crows with their ash-grey necks craned their heads to see her. She stood with her head bowed amidst the women of the vanquished who were standing with clasped hands, wet from their bath. Scattered on the floor by her feet lay the karuka grass, flowers and rice used in ritual salutations to the dead.

What is your mission? In quest of its meaning, Sita grew weak. A silence that was unbreachable enveloped her.

Sita stood near Mandodari — she of the grey, pale face, the dry eyes and the long, unbound, forest-like tresses that swept the sands of the Lankan shores — who was staring vacantly into the sea. Someone started to clap her hands on her breast. The crows came in flocks with spread feathers. Sita dipped herself in the sea along with Mandodari. Lanka sank in total silence for a minute. The triumphant yells of the conqueror broke off. Then like a loud wail that accompanies the beating of breasts, the vultures rose in the air.

Take a dip and get back with bare, wet feet!

Without wringing out your garments. Without drying your hair.

With bare, wet feet – after the dip….

Sita waded out of the water after Mandodari. With bare feet and wet clothes she walked around the ball of rice offered as oblation to the manes. The blade of grass that she had thrown down between herself and the defeated lord lay there, fresh and green.

Sita closed her eyes and clasped her hands.

Vibhishana’s women pulled her forward by her hand. They dried her hair and applied the auspicious sandal paste on her. They applied tilak on her forehead and adorned her with jewels and rich garments. A fire was blazing on Sita’s chest. Her eyes burned with its heat and light. The fire scorched the figures of Vibhishana’s women who had reached forward to apply kajal on Sita’s eyes. They gazed at Sita without batting their eyelashes. Who sinned? Who is suffering because of the sin? Is it the sin of nature that filled creatures with lust? Is it the sense of justice that had caused mutilation of land and woman, which had sinned? If it was Lanka, which had caused Sita pain, they begged pardon, sitting with bowed heads by Sita’s feet. Their rough unattractive
hair fluttered untidily in the breeze of the treaty of war. Their dark, squat bodies had grown weak. Sita shuddered when she thought of their wounds and their losses. She held their calloused hands with her slender fingers. Then she leant on their strong
shoulders with shuddering sobs that arose from her belly. They tenderly led her to the dais where the ritual was to be performed — much as the sacrificial lamb is led.

The victor stood firmly atop the land that he had conquered, with anger flaming in one eye and hatred in the other. Sita moved forward slowly behind Vibhishana along the path in which demons, monkeys and bears thronged, jostling and pushing
in all directions. Sita tried to withdraw into herself, for her dream of the conqueror, flinging his bow and arrow aside to reach her side like the waters of a flash flood, was now shattered. Even now she was being brought to his presence like a criminal
rather than as a victim. She felt the weight of the insult and withdrew into herself. Her heartbeats increased in pace for she expected a face to emerge like the sun from the cover of dark clouds. However she had to struggle hard to distinguish his face
from those of the monkeys, bears and demons for it had darkened like poison and lost its radiance in dark suspicions and bottled up anger. When she recognized him Sita stood still in the crowd!

The anger of the conqueror flamed like the fire fed by ghee! She was made impure. She was looked at by accursed eyes. She had once sat on the lap of the defeated. She had slept at night in his house. Under the shadow of that face that had lost its lustre like the eclipsed sun, Sita wilted as if she were by a burning pyre.

‘Vaidehi’.

Like the very soil that trembled on hearing a war cry, Sita started. The triumphant yells of the conqueror, which frightened the inmates of the inner courtyards of the defeated, found its echo in the heart.

‘I did not win the battle to win you. The insult which had fallen on me and my race…’

On hearing this Sita slipped and fell off the steep cliff. A pair of strong, hair-roughened hands broke her fall to the depths lined with hard rocks. A voice, wet and salty, like the sea breeze spoke to her.

Everything auspicious belongs to Lanka. Lanka is the soil trampled upon by the conqueror. Sita and Lanka are one.

Rain will yet fall on Lanka.

The Asoka will yet bud.

The sour blood will dry in the fields and the shoots of life will shudder to life there.

So, with joy, step on Lanka’s chest with your small feet!

Like a fragmented, bloodstained mountain, the vanquished knelt with palms upturned in supplication. Somewhere in the depth, a stream of mercy sprouted. With pity, Sita smoothed the head of the vanquished. He was transformed into a rock and sank into the serene sleep of a thousand crore years…

‘Mythili!’ The crowd waited, with sharpened ears, to slake their thirst on the conqueror’s words. The softest of sounds shook the crowds like the hardest of blows. Sighs acquired worlds of meaning and looks sprouted heads and nails.

‘How long could he have resisted the spell of your remarkable beauty, especially when you were his captive’?

Sita knew not the words that fell like the sloughed off squama and the collective hiss that went up from the surging crowd. A crow with a wounded and useless eye, denied refuge everywhere, cried in pain as it fluttered aimlessly over Panchavadi. Beneath the flowery boughs of trees, a helpless woman ran screaming with blood streaming from her wounds. A man who had vowed never to marry more than one woman, stood with a faint smile with a halo of the strictest moral codes around him!

‘As for you, there is a huge smear of doubt on your chastity. One who has an eye affliction shuns light. Even so do I shun you! I forswear our relationship. Hence you have my leave to depart anywhere you may choose to’.

Sita was then in Mithila. She was running around with gold anklets on her fair, plump feet. The music of her anklets filled Mithila. All fields were fruitful in harvest. Above the fields showered plentiful rain and benevolent sunlight. The spring brought out multitudinous flowers. Fruits were untouched by worms and mellowed to ripeness. Streams were full of water. Birds warbled in full- throated ease and lambs grazed lazily in peaceful valleys. Janaka, with wonder and joy preserved the breast milk of the earth to feed Sita and arranged the downy bed of grass for her to lie on.

‘To wipe out the insult that had fallen on me and my race…’

In Ayodhya there were always secrets. The murky secret that everyone knew but none spoke about lay like heavy darkness in the corridors. Above Ayodhya slithered the dark shadows of curses. The hidden arrow that someone aimed, always at a wrong target disturbed the sleep…

‘You can live with Lakshmana or Bharatha or Sugreeva or Vibhishana…’

Tears lodged in Sita’s breast and she stood still for a minute! Then removing her veil she gazed at the conqueror. She saw his eyelids flicker and lower. Then like the serene peal of bells she told Lakshmana:

‘Light a pyre for me’.

The crowds surged in excitement. There was uproar. There were explanations and hair splitting analysis of justice itself. There were protests and imprecations. In the midst of seething Lanka, the earth lay without its veil.

The seashore was deserted. Mandodari alone remained there, a lone sentry for the oblation offered earlier to the manes, watching the death of the sun.

Lanka was silent. In the silence, the fire of the pyre leapt up with a crackle, building into a blaze. The eyes, the emotion and the intellect of the crowd reduced and sharpened to a single spot. With lustrous eyes, Sita looked deep into the eyes of the conqueror. She knew that the earth, which grew tender and ready at his slightest touch, like the rain-softened furrows of the earth, had dried forever. Henceforth his hands could raise no shudders of pleasure. Henceforth his kisses could not call forth from the veins of the earth, shivers of delight nor could the quivers coax from her the wild, sweet fragrance. Henceforth what would be remembered forever were the harsh words that he threw like slivers of rock at her in the midst of the crowd. These moments that shudders racked the tender flesh as it mounted the blazing pyre!

The daughter of the earth stepped into the pyre–right foot forward… I am Sita–the earth that can slake the thirst of the fire! Sita — one who bears in her belly, all the waters of rains that showered the earth from time immemorial. One who has fixed her mind on the thought of countless rains yet to come. One who bears the showers and the seed to create with fire the cooling green shoots. Around Sita, the flames danced high. Then the purified earth lay awaiting rain and seed.

Translated by Hema Nair R.

CONTRIBUTOR
SARA JOSEPH.
Established novelist and short story writer in Malayalam. She is a lecturer by profession. She has been the chief organizer and activist of the feminist movement in Kerala.

Translator:
HEMA NAIR. Teaches English at the N.S.S. College for Women, Neeramankara, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on Doris Lessing. Is a regular contributor to research journals. Interested in Women’s Studies.

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Sarah Joseph

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