The Ramayana by R. K. Narayan


  When the door was shut in her face, Soorpanaka felt so distraught that she almost swooned. Recovering, she reflected, “He has spurned me in no uncertain terms and turned his back on me; he is completely infatuated with that woman.” Finding that there was nothing more for her to do there, she withdrew to her own lair beyond the woods and went to bed. She was shrivelling in the heat of passion. As it had once been for Sita, the same love-sickness proved a great torment to this monstrous woman too. Everything irritated her and aggravated her agony. When the moonlight flooded the earth, she roared at the moon and wished she could set the serpent Rahu to swallow it; when the cool breeze touched her, she howled imprecations at it, and rose as if determined to destroy the god of love himself, whose shafts were piercing her heart. Unable to stand the pain inflicted by her present surroundings, she entered a mountain cave infested with deadly serpents and shut herself in it. There she was the victim of hallucinations. Rama in his full form seemed to stand before her again and again, and she fancied she embraced him and fondled his broad shoulders and chest. When the illusion passed, she cried, “Why do you torment me in this way? Why do you refuse to unite with me, and quench the fire that’s burning me?” After the turmoil of the night, sheer exhaustion found her calmer when morning came. She decided on her strategy. “If I cannot attain him, I will not live any more. But I’ll make one more attempt. He does not care for me because of the spell cast by that woman. If I remove her from his side and put her away, he will then naturally take to me.” This gave her a fresh energy.

  Daylight in some measure lessened the pangs of love, and she came out of her cave. She went along to Panchvati and prowled around, looking for a chance. She saw Rama come out of his hut and proceed towards the banks of the Godavari for his morning bath and prayers. “Now is the time,” she said to herself. “If I miss it, I’ll lose him for ever. It’s a matter of life and death for me. After all, when he finds her gone, he’ll begin to accept me.” Though the sight of Rama had sent a tremor through her body, she restrained herself from falling at his feet and confessing her love. She watched him go, and presently Sita emerged from the hut to gather flowers. “This chance is not to be missed,” Soorpanaka told herself. Every decision seemed to her a valuable step in her pursuit of Rama. She began to stalk behind Sita cunningly like an animal following its prey. She would pounce and grab and put her away, and when Rama came back, he’d find her in Sita’s place. Excellent plan as far as the idea went, but she did not reckon there could be another outcome to it. In her concentration on the beloved image of Rama, and on the movements of Sita, she failed to notice that she was being watched. Lakshmana had posted himself, as normally he did, on an eminence shaded with trees, and was watching in all directions. When he saw Soorpanaka near the hut, he became alert; when he found her stalking Sita, he sprang down on her. She had just laid hands on Sita, when she found herself grabbed, held down by her hair, and kicked in the stomach.

  “Oh! a woman!” Lakshmana muttered, and decided to spare her life. Instead of taking out his arrow, he pulled out his sword and chopped off her nose, ears, and breasts. When his anger subsided, he let go her hair.

  When Rama returned home from the river, she was mutilated and bloody and screaming her life out. Lamenting to the skies, she called upon her powerful brothers, reciting their valour in all the worlds; repeating again and again how impossible that the sister of such eminent personages should have to suffer this mutilation and humiliation in the hands of two ordinary human beings, dressed as ascetics but carrying arms and attacking people treacherously. To think that human creatures, which served as food for her poor relations, should have dared to do this to Ravana’s sister! . . .

  Rama did not ask, “What has happened?” but “Who are you in such a bloody state? Where do you come from?”

  She replied, “Don’t you know me? Why do you pretend? We met last evening and you were so attentive to me! Ah!” she cried, her infatuation reviving.

  Rama understood. “You are the same one, are you?” he asked. He made no other comment.

  She replied, amidst her agony, “You don’t find me beautiful? No wonder! If one’s nose and ears and breasts are lopped off, will not one’s beauty suffer?”

  Rama turned to Lakshmana and asked, “What did she do?”

  Lakshmana answered, “With fire in her eyes, she was about to fall on Janaki,7 and I prevented it.”

  Soorpanaka now explained, “Naturally, it’s just and right that I hate anyone who has deprived me of my beloved’s company.” In her mind she had treated Rama as her own property. “Would it not inflame a woman’s heart to see her beloved taken away?”

  Rama said simply, “Go away before your tongue utters worse words, which may bring you more harm. Go back to your own people.”

  Soorpanaka made one last attempt to gain Rama’s love. She said, “Even now it’s not too late. My brother Ravana will pardon you for what you have done if he knows we are married; he will also make you the overlord of several worlds, placed above all the gods. It’s not too late. On the other hand, if anyone comments on my nose or ears, he will wipe them out. So, do not hesitate. No one will dare to say that I have no nose or ears or breasts. I’ve still eyes, which can feast on your broad chest and shoulders, and my arms are intact to embrace you. I love you madly. I’ll be your slave and make all rakshasas your slaves. I can’t survive without you. Have pity on me. I’ll do anything you command.” She was rolling in the dust with blood gushing, but nothing lessened her ardour. She continued, “My kinsmen are ruthless, and will be reckless when they find that I have been injured like this—they will destroy blindly, everything, including you. They will wipe out mankind. But if you take me, I can intercede on your behalf, and they will spare you and all your people. . . . You’ll be the cause of either the destruction of mankind or its survival.”

  “The longer I let you speak, the worse things you say. Now go to your own people, and bring back with you all those powerful men and more. I can meet them, one by one as they come or all together. I can deal with them. Now begone. Understand now, my mission in life is to root out the rakshasas from the face of this earth, and till I achieve it, I’ll be here.”

  Even after suffering mutilation at the hands of Lakshmana, Soorpanaka stood there and persisted in appealing to Rama to accept her, hinting that through her magical powers she could appear beautiful again. At this point Rama felt that he ought to explain to her who he was, and how he had come to be here with his wife and brother. Further, he made it plain again that his mission in life would be to wipe out the asura class. He recounted how he had destroyed Thataka and her brood.

  Far from discouraging her, this actually gave Soorpanaka another idea. “If that’s your purpose, you know, I could be your best ally—if you do not spurn me for my appearance, if you do not reject me for my enormous teeth and large mouth. If you marry me, I will teach you all the arts and tricks, magical and others, that make my people superb and invincible. I can teach you how to defeat them, but you must treat me kindly. You must accept me. . . . Even if you cannot give up your slender companion—well, don’t view me as an impossible addition. Would I be one too many? No. I’ll help you by revealing to you all the tricks and trickeries of your enemies, so that you may attain complete victory over them. ‘A serpent’s feet are known to another serpent.’ Even if your mind does not allow you to give up your wife . . . take me as a third partner, in your fight against the rakshasas, when my brother, who once kept the sun and the moon in captivity—and I’m not his inferior in valour—when he is defeated and gone, then at least let your brother Lakshmana marry me; and let me be with you when you return in triumph to Ayodhya. When we return, do not be worried that a person without a nose is accompanying you; please understand that I can create any shape for myself. If by chance, Lakshmana ever questions, “How can I live with a woman without a nose,” tell him that he can in the same way as you live with one who is without any waist.”8

  When she said this,
Lakshmana was so enraged that he declared, “Brother, have I your permission to put an end to her? Otherwise she will never leave us alone!” Rama thought it over and said, “I think so too—if she persists and will not leave, that may be the only way.” On hearing this, Soorpanaka picked herself up and left in haste. “Fools, do you think I meant what I said? Even after the loss of my features, I have stayed and spoken to you, only to understand the depth of your base mentality. I’ll go but come back soon enough, with one who will be your Yama, a being more powerful than the elements, of the name of Kara”—and she left.

  Kara, one of Ravana’s stepbrothers, a dreaded warrior-demon with fourteen chiefs under him commanding an army, protected Soorpanaka and carried out her orders. After leaving Panchvati, Soorpanaka stormed in at his court, displayed her injuries, and cried, “Two human beings who have moved into our realm have done this to me.”

  “Two human beings!”

  “Ah, wonderful sons of Dasaratha, so sagelike in appearance, but armed for the purpose of exterminating our clan. They have with them a woman of unearthly beauty; when I tried to seize her, these two humans fell on me and hacked me thus.”

  Kara looked closely at the damage done to her and thundered, “Death to those two. Not only they, but all human beings shall be stamped out.” He sprang up to go into action. Fourteen commanders at once surrounded him and said, “Does it mean that you have no confidence in us that you should start out this way yourself? Leave this task to us. We will go and settle it.”

  Kara agreed. “So be it. You are right. If I wage war on these tiny petty creatures, the gods will mock us. Go and feast on their blood, but bring back the woman carefully.”

  Carrying a variety of arms such as spears and tridents and scimitars and hatchets, the commanders, led by Soorpanaka, marched on towards Rama’s cottage. Soorpanaka stopped at a distance and pointed Rama out to them. “There he is, mark him.” The fourteen asuras muttered, “Shall we bind and take him, or toss him in the air and kill him, or use the piercing lance on him?”

  Soorpanaka said, “Bring that man alive. I will deal with him.” When he saw them approaching, Rama ordered Lakshmana, “Guard Sita. Don’t leave her side.” He took out his bow, slung his sword into position, girt himself for the fight, and emerged from his cottage with the anger of a lion. The battle began and ended quickly. Rama’s arrows knocked down the weapons the asuras bore and severed their heads. Soorpanaka fled from the field and reported to Kara the disaster that had befallen her chiefs.

  Kara sounded his tocsin and gathered an army of powerful rakshasas; they made their way to Panchvati and surrounded Rama’s ashram without any doubt that they would end the career of the two foolhardy human beings. They had plans to surround the cottage, fall on it at a given moment, and wipe out the landmark with its occupants. With shouts and screams calculated to shake the nerves of their victims, they flourished their weapons and converged on the cottage. This phase of the battle was a little more prolonged but the result was the same as before.

  Rama defeated Kara and his allies. Soorpanaka watched from afar, understood the trend of events, snatched a brief moment to approach and cry over the mangled corpses strewn around, including that of her champion and brother Kara, and decided it was time for her to leave the area. She fled to Lanka to convey the news of the disaster to her brother Ravana.

  5

  THE GRAND TORMENTOR

  Ravana, the supreme lord of this and other worlds, sat in his durbar hall, surrounded by a vast throng of courtiers and attendants. The kings of this earth whom he had reduced to vassaldom stood about with their hands upraised in an attitude of perpetual salutation, lest at any moment Ravana should turn in their direction and think that they were not sufficiently servile. Beauties gathered from all the worlds surrounded him, singing, dancing, ministering to his wants, ever ready to give him pleasure and service, with all their eyes fixed on him watching for the slightest sign of command. Every minute vast quantities of flowers were rained on him by his admirers. He had also enslaved the reigning gods and put them to perform menial tasks in his court. Among them Vayu, the god of wind, was there to blow away faded flowers and garlands, and generally sweep the hall clean. Yama, the god of death, was employed to sound the gong each hour to tell the time of day. The god of fire was in charge of all illumination and kept lamps, incense, and camphor flames alit. The Kalpataru, the magic tree that yielded any wish, taken away from Indra, was also there to serve Ravana. Sage Narada sat there gently playing his veena. The gurus—Brihaspathi, who guided the gods, and Sukracharya, who guided the asuras—men possessing the finest intellects, were also there ready to advise Ravana when asked and to act generally as soothsayers.

  Into this setting crashed Soorpanaka, screaming so loudly that all the men, women, and children of the city came rushing out of their homes and crowded the northern portal of the palace, where Soorpanaka had made her entry. She dashed up and fell before Ravana’s throne, crying, “See what has happened to me!”

  When Ravana observed her state, he thundered, “What is the meaning of this? Who has done it?”—in such a tone that all nature shrank and slunk away from the scene. Gods held their breath unable to gauge the upheaval that would follow when Ravana struck in revenge. While everyone in the assembly held his breath and waited, Ravana inquired with deliberate calmness, “Who has done this to you?”

  Soorpanaka explained in detail and concluded, referring to Rama, “Even if I had a thousand tongues, I could never fully explain his beauty and the grandeur of his personality. Even if one had a thousand eyes one could not take in the splendour of this being. His strength is unmatched. Single-handed he wiped out all our army.” She realized that she had made a blunder revealing too much of her inner feelings for Rama and corrected herself by adding, “For all his looks, what a cruel heart he has! His mission in life is to wipe out our whole family, clan, class from the face of this earth.”

  “Ah,” cried Ravana, challenged. “We will see about that. But tell me why he did this to you. How did you provoke him?”

  “He has a woman who should be yours. If you win her I fear all your present favourites will be thrown out. I also fear that you will surrender to her all your powers, valour, possessions, and conquests and make yourself her abject devotee. Her name is Sita. I was so overcome by her beauty that I waited and watched for a chance and attempted to snatch her and bring her to you as a present.”

  Ravana’s interest shifted from revenge to love and he said, “Why didn’t you?”

  “When I seized her, this man’s brother—Ah! how strong he was!—fell on me and slashed my face.”

  “Tell me all about her. . . .” Ravana commanded, ignoring all other issues.

  Soorpanaka described Sita from head to toe in minute detail. The picture she conjured up was convincing and Ravana fell madly in love with her image. He became restless and unhappy. Every syllable that Soorpanaka uttered gave him both pleasure and pain. Soorpanaka urged him to set forth and capture Sita. Finally she said, “When you have succeeded in getting that woman, keep her for yourself; but be sure to surrender the man Rama to my hands. I’ll deal with him.” She had no doubt that her strategy to separate Sita from Rama was going to succeed and then Rama would naturally turn to her for love.

  Ravana felt uneasy. He rose abruptly and left the hall, unwilling to let the assembly notice his state of mind. They rained flowers on him and uttered blessings and recited his glory as usual when he strode down the passage. His ten heads were held erect and his eyes looked straight ahead, not noticing the people standing about in respectful array; his mind was seething with ideas for the conquest of Sita. Soorpanaka’s words had lit an all-consuming flame within him. He ignored his wives, who were awaiting his favours, and passed on to his own private chamber, where he shut the door and flung himself on his luxurious bed. He lay there tossing, unable to rid his mind of the figure conjured up by Soorpanaka’s words. It was a total obsession; he felt tormented and raged against his
surroundings, which appeared to aggravate his suffering. Presently he realized that his bed and the chamber were uninhabitable. The place seemed to be scorching hot. He got up and moved out unceremoniously to the woods, leaving his attendants and aides wondering what kind of seizure was driving him hither and thither. He moved to his garden house of pure marble and gold set amidst towering palmyra and flowering trees, and lay down on a pure white satin bed. When they saw him arrive, cuckoos and parrots in the trees silenced themselves.

  The late winter with its light mist and cool wind proved uncomfortable to Ravana, who shouted at it the question, “What wretched season are you?”—whereupon the weather changed to early summer, a rather unwilling summer ushered in prematurely. One who found the wintry day too warm naturally found even the spring unbearable. Ravana cried out, “I do not want this weather. Let the monsoons come immediately.”

  The weather changed to suit his mood. On his order came the monsoon season with its cloud and damp air, but even that proved too warm for him. He shouted, “What kind of weather is this? You have brought back only the late winter, which was horrible.”

  His aides answered meekly, “Would we dare to disobey you? What we called down was really early rains, as your Lordship commanded.”

  Whereupon Ravana said, “Banish all seasons. Let them all get out of this world.” As a consequence, there was a complete standstill in time. Minute, hour, day, month, and year lost their boundaries. And mankind was lost in a seasonless confusion. In spite of all this, there was no peace for Ravana. He was still scorched by a hopeless love for Sita.

  When all measures for cooling himself had failed—such as covering his body with sandalwood paste and layers of tender leaves of a rare plant treated with essence of saffron—Ravana, who felt himself shrivelling in stature, said to those around him, “The moon is supposed to have cool moisture. Bring the moon down.”

 
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