Kaikeyi, wife of Dasaratha, was sitting amidst her numerous ornament boxes spread wide open on the courtyard of her palace in Ayodhya, the kingdom where kings of the Suryavamsa were born, brought up and thrived. She was engaged in sorting out the ornaments she would wear on the occasion of Ram’s coronation. The other queens including Kausalya Devi usually entrusted their maids with the job of choosing the right jewels and decking them. However, Kaikeyi was one who insisted on deciding for herself what suited her best. Especially on this auspicious occasion when Ram was to be crowned the king of Ayodhya. The diamond studs had to be necessarily accompanied by diamond ear-rings and diamond studded hip-chain. But she knew that Ram detested the diamond studded hip chain. She had worn that particular hip-chain for young Shatrughna’s birthday celebrations. When the crowd had dispersed, Ram approached her and said, “Mother, this hip-chain does not suit you in the least. Why did you wear this one?”
She was surprised that Ram noticed how everyone was dressed and decked. Why, he even spotted the grey in the hair of Manthara, her foster-mother who used to come from Keka. Manthara on that occasion had whispered philosophically, “What is there on this earth that Lord Ram cannot see ? His vision is as wide as his wide, well-spaced eyes.”
Kaikeyi went on opening and closing her jewel boxes. Today she definitely should wear ornaments to Ram’s liking. Blue had always been Ram’s favourite colour.
“Why this partiality for this colour ?” she had asked once.
“Don’t you know mother, blue is suggestive of depth.”
Words of deep intensity indeed !
The hustle had increased outside. Ayodhya was decking itself with special decorative attires. The hurried activity of cleaning up the roads and market places. The commotion of preparing decorations. The unending sound of the rolling chariot wheels. The chariots were running to collect water for the coronation from the Seven Seas. Joy was bubbling forth everywhere. Enthusiasm was on the rise in Kaikeyi’s heart too— Ram was to be crowned tomorrow. Ram himself, accompanied by Sita had come to her on foot to convey the news. She had especially watched Ram speaking of the coronation. He just said that he was obeying his father’s orders. There was no great show of happiness or anxiety. Having said all that was to be conveyed, both of them had bowed before her.
“Mother please bless …..”
Only after coming here did Ram and Sita go to Kausalya’s palace. That had always been Ram’s practice. Getting out for padavandana in the mornings, he would first pay respect at her feet.
“Why so ? Isn’t it at your own mother’s feet that you should pay respect first ?” She almost asked this question one day. He hardly allowed her to finish the sentence. Interrupting her midway, Ram asked a counter question.
“ Mother, is it necessary to have these petty differences here as well?” That itself was suggestive of Ram’s greatness. A feeling of kinship with each and all. Today when there chanced to be more talk of the coronation, Ram seemed sad on one count.
“This coronation is at a time when Bharat and Shatrughna are away.”
“What of that ? Won’t they be overjoyed to see their elder brother crowned when they return ?” She had consoled him.
The general opinion is that Ram is more fond of Lakshman. But I know that he has an equal love for Bharat as well. Ram had been heard retorting to those who eulogized him :
“You see, my strength rests on having procured such a just brother. The kingdom actually waits for Bharat.”
Any opinion of Ram has an air of calm about it. It carries weight as well. The Aswamedha was held here at a time when there existed a slight tiff with the kingdom Kekaya. Ram was a little child then. The royal relatives were invited one by one according to the king’s order. It came to be known that the king of Kekaya was not among the invitees. I did not respond. Who am I to preach propriety to the Maharaja ? Nothing shall be obstructed here if elder brother or father did not come from Kekaya. I stayed silent with guarded self-respect. Then one day, without any provocation the Maharaja asked,
“Tomorrow a person is being sent to Kekaya for inviting them. Ram says that he shall not partake in any celebration which sets apart one’s near and dear.”
Ram’s philosophy is that the indiscretion in battling rivalry with rivalry brings about all catastrophes.
Even last time when Manthara came she said, “This Ayodhya is blessed since Ram was born here ! I remember Lord Ram’s words whenever I am worried. Only then do I find some relief.”
Manthara seems to possess a hundred thousand tongues when she starts talking of Ram. She is overcome by a tremendous enthusiasm. She becomes immersed in it, often forgetting the circumstances. Ram’s love, courage, righteousness, selflessness— why, where else can one find that beauty and charm?
At times Manthara secretly looks at and worships Kausalya Devi, saying that was she not the mother who have birth to Lord Ram.
“What all are you doing ,Manthara ?” I once asked her jokingly. Then Manthara said—:” Great queen, look into Sri Ram’s eyes. You will see in them the kindness required for the whole world. Have you observed his feet ? They bear the signs of the shangh, chakra, kulisa and matsya. Those feet display signs of the great devas including Indra having prostrated at his feet, touching them with their foreheads.”
Since then, I too happen to look at those feet first. Then I feel some power turning my heart tender. I feel as if Ram has entered into my heart. I forget everything at that time. I forget this Ayodhya, even Kekaya where I was born and brought up. I forget even the Maharaja, the lord of my heart. I even forget that Ram is my son. I remember only one aspect— the beautiful feet of Ram.
The memory of those feet made the great queen infatuated again. She sat with closed eyes for sometime. Then when she opened her eyes— who was that at the door ? the maid? No, it wasn’t. Isn’t it Manthara—
She stood up and walked quickly to the door.
“Manthara, why do you stand there itself ? Why is your face dim ? Is it that you are tired by the journey ?”
Manthara still remained silent. She was suppressing something as if a single word from her mouth would result in an outburst. Her face seemed taut and strained. Her eyes were sleepy. For a few moments Kaikeyi stood looking intently at her. Then she led her in forcibly.
“What is this, Manthara ? Why do you seem so troubled at this moment when I feel most happy and enthusiastic ? Why, did something untoward occur on the way ?”
“Not on the way. The untoward incident is in this kingdom itself.”
Kaikeyi was puzzled. Who was there in this country unacquainted with Manthara ? Not only because she was the foster mother of Dasaratha’s favourite queen. Something untoward to happen here to Manthara who charmed everyone with her personality !
“Well, let me know what has happened.” Manthara said, “I came via the secret way yesterday. It was quite late. I thought of reaching here fast. When I reached the courtyard of the small council chamber, I sensed something wrong. It was as if the air was weighed down by some secret. On the courtyard sand there were only the foot prints of Dasaratha and Sumantra. The guards were very watchful. Escaping their sight, I reached the other side. This is what I gathered.”
Manthara cleared her throat and proceeded again to elaborate.
“The king had seen a disturbing dream. Exactly at the fourth hour past midnight. Sumantra was referring to his having found the portents of that dream.
|“What are the consequences to be ?” Kaikeyi hastily interrupted her.
“Approaching death for the ruler of Ayodhya.”
“What ?“ Kaikeyi steadied herself against the wall with an anguished cry.
“Sumantra has however found a way out.”
“What is that ?”
“Crown Sri Ramachandra as the young king.”
“How dare Sumantra say a thing like that ?”
“Isn’t Sumantra’s love and devotion for Dasaratha well-known ?”
“What did the Maharaja say ?”
“The king at first was extremely shocked. He said that he did not wish for a life without Ram.
“But wasn’t the news of Ram’s coronation proclaimed by the Maharaja’s orders?”
“Great Queen, man holds his own life dear whatever else he may preach. The Maharaja too is not beyond that. There is only one person in this entire world who transcends that.”
“That is my Lord Ram. However much it was tried to keep the news of the dream a secret, somehow or other Ramachandra came to know of it. He entered the council chamber in great haste and said decidedly— I accept this catastrophe that has come upon Ayodhya. I shall become the Raja here solely to prolong my father’s life.”
The Maharaja pleaded with his son a number of times— to withdraw this resolution. But it turned out to be futile. Was there any need to teach the duty of a son to Sri Ram ?
“But Ram did not breathe a word of this to me. Why ? The Maharaja, who even describes how he hunts down the deer, did not say anything.”
“How can it be said? Ramachandra has sworn that he shall not disclose the news of the dream to anyone. How can an occasion be created when people start teasing the great Emperor Dasaratha on account of a silly dream ?”
Both of them were silent for a while. Then jumping up, Kaikeyi started shaking Manthara as if possessed.
“What should I do, Manthara ? Why should we live after giving up Ram to Death ? O God ! What kind of a trial is this ? If something untoward happens to the Maharaja, then ……………..”
That wife of Dasaratha sat supporting her head with her two hands.
“I see a way out.” Manthara was speaking slowly in a calm voice.
“Crown young prince Bharata.”
“Manthara ……” Kaikeyi screamed like a lunatic. “Are you asking me to sacrifice my Bharata ?”
“There is no other alternative.”
Manthara seemed to be least perturbed. She did not even care to glance at Kaikeyi’s face. Like one whose reasoning faculties had deserted her, Kaikeyi sat with her face towards the doors.
Manthara, utilizing her experiences of a life time as well as her intellect, sympathized to herself— alas— even his own mother fails to comprehend the greatness of Bharata. She is a fool to believe even for a moment that Bharata would accept the kingdom belonging to his elder brother. However vast an empire it may be, young Bharata shall neither desire anything that he does not deserve nor accept it. I know that very well. I firmly believe it. Then, the impending widowhood for the Maharani ? The inevitable cannot be avoided. Who can captivate Time ? Let destiny take its course.
She narrowed her eyes, grimaced and moved her shoulders.
When Kaikeyi turned her face to look at her, Manthara spoke again –
“The duration of the events portended by the dream is fourteen years. Ramachandra should not be anywhere in Ayodhya until that time lapses. Sri Ramachandra’s life is what is important to us.”
“Where shall Ram go then ?”
“Let him go to the forest.”
“To the forest ? Have you lost your senses, Manthara ?”
“Not at all. Lord Ramachandra must necessarily proceed to the forest.”
There was silence between them again for a little while. Then holding her face close, Manthara asked secretly, “Maharani, do you recall the two boons that the Raja had given you a long time ago ?”
“Years ago when the screw fastening Dasaratha’s chariot-wheel came off, you had saved him using your finger in place of the screw, suffering pain, the pleased Raja …………..”
“You should demand those boons now. One, Sri Ramachandra should spend fourteen years in the forest. Two, prince Bharata should be proclaimed king. Have you forgotten what your father declared on your wedding day ? He said that he would give his daughter in marriage to Dasaratha only if he promises to make his grandson King. We had all heard the Maharaja consent to this condition.”
“Manthara, do you think that the Maharaja will be ready to send Ram to the forest ? “
Kaikeyi’s face grew dark with sorrow and anxiety. Her voice broke as if she was on the verge of tears.
“Maharani, you should act stubborn. It would be a breach of promise if the Raja refuses to grant the boon after offering it. The Maharaja shall never break his promise.”
Kaikeyi did not utter a single word. Manthara perceived that her heart was bursting. That foster mother also knew that her thoughts were on Bharata. Who has as much close knowledge regarding Kaikeyi’sfarsight as Manthara ? That foster mother suppressed her own heart, refusing it to be stirred. She moved a bit closer to the Queen and in a soft voice consoled her.
“Maharani, our aim is to save the righteous and the virtuous Sri Ramachandra. Haven’t you yourself admitted that any sorrow can be borne if Ram is near ? And that if Ram isn’t there, then no one is of any avail.”
There was no response to that from Kaikeyi. She stared at something far away.
Manthara became restless. Time was receding faster and faster. She stood up and looked out from the terrace— O, it was almost time for the king’s arrival here. Before that ……
Manthara persuaded Kaikeyi again –
“The dream may materialize any moment, Maharani.”
“There is no time to be wasted on thoughts. Sri Ramachandra should leave Ayodhya tomorrow itself. Lie down pretending displeasure. Insist that you won’t drink water until you are granted that boon. Lord Ramachandra’s life is more important to us than anything else.”
Kaikeyi turned to look at her, filling her two eyes with tears, she begged– “How can I survive for fourteen years without Ram ?”
“Suppose he deserts us and goes away for ever ? Suppose the dream comes true ? “
“O! No, no, no, no.”
“That is why I say that Sri Ramachandra should not be in Ayodhya for the next fourteen years. The word given by the Maharaja to the ruler of Kekaya has to be kept as well. This is the only solution I see.”
Manthara was as firm as a rock.
“Manthara, don’t you realize that the human race as a whole shall curse us for this ?”
“I know. I do realize that we shall be blamed forever as long as there are the moon and the stars. But Lord Ramachandra’s life is much more valuable to us than all those abuses and curses. So I shall not grieve, not in the least, even if I have to spend a hundred lives in hell for that cause.”
Again, for some time Manthara sat with pursed lips. Then she started speaking slowly in a firm voice.
“Truth is a luminous object. That which cannot be tarnished by time. At some time or other, maybe after many centuries, some seeker of the Truth may understand this.”
Listening to some sound, Manthara trembled a bit. Then she said in a rush –
“There, the Maharaja has arrived. Sounds of people being asked to make way can be heard. Hmm ….. go quickly and do the needful. Somehow or other secure those boons.”
Manthara forced Kaikeyi to her feet, oblivious of the time or place. She pushed her forward. Kaikeyi, like a corpse, stumbled on the spread-out jewel boxes and entered the krothalaya.
(Translated from Malayalam by Jayasree Ramakrishnan)
Padavandana – practice of paying respect at the feet of elders.
Aswamedha — an ancient mode of sacrifice.
Sangha, chakra, kulisa and matsya – the signs of the conch, discus, and fish which were symbolic of different deities.
Krodhalaya – a room in the palace into which one could retire, in order to express displeasure and anger.
K.B.SRIDEVI. Rereputed novelist and short story writer in Malayalam. Well
versed in Sanskrit. Recipient of prestigious awards for her outstanding works.
Her work is characterized by its originality. Deals with native themes and ideals
in her novels and short stories. Lives in Trichur.