The Ramayana by R. K. Narayan


  “I am sorry. I was delayed. I waited because I wanted to bring you the news personally. I knew it would make you happy indeed, and wanted to have the pleasure of watching your joy.”

  Kaikeyi condescended to mutter, “I knew it, I am not so stupid or deaf or blind as not to know what is going on.”

  In that darkness and in the manner she had turned her face down, he had no means of judging the mood in which she spoke. It was difficult to be bending down so low, and he pleaded, “Why don’t you get up and sit on that couch, so that I may sit beside you comfortably and listen to you?”

  “You may seek all the comfort you want. I need none of it. Dust and rags are my lot hereafter.”

  “What makes you talk in this manner? Get up and share the happiness of the whole country. Let us drive around in your chariot and see the joy that has seized the people.”

  “I want to be dead. That’s all. If you could send me a bowl of poison, that would be more welcome to me now.” It was most awkward for him to crouch or sit on the floor trying to appease her. His joints ached and creaked. But she would not budge. It was no time to call up an attendant, and so he pushed a foot-stool beside her and lowered himself onto it. After a great deal of cajoling, she announced: “Swear to me, by all that is holy, that you will grant me what I ask for; otherwise let me die in peace.”

  “I have never said no to you. You shall have whatever you want.”

  “Will you swear by Rama?” she asked.

  He evaded a direct answer, as he felt uneasy at the mention of Rama’s name. “Tell me what you want,” he said clearly.

  “You offered me two boons long ago. You may have forgotten it, but I haven’t. May I mention it now?” Now she had sat up, and it was less irksome to communicate with her. He tried to reach out and touch her, but she pushed his hand off. “On that battlefield when you went to the rescue of Indra and fainted, do you remember who revived you?”

  “Yes,” he said. “How can I forget it? I have lived to see this day because I was revived, otherwise that evening any chariot wheel could have rolled over me.”

  “Great memory you possess. I am glad you remember that far. And do you remember also who nearly gave her life to nurse and revive you?”

  “Yes.”

  “What did you promise her in return?”

  The king remained silent a moment, then said, “I have not forgotten.”

  “Bear with me if I repeat some small details that might escape your recollection. Let me help you. You said, ‘Ask for two boons of your choice and you shall have them.’ And then what did she do?” When he failed to answer, she added, “I said I would wait to take them, and you vowed, ‘Whenever you like—even if it is a hundred years hence, you shall have whatever you ask for.’ ”

  The King, who was becoming increasingly uneasy, simply said, “I see that the time has come for you to ask.” There was no cheer in his tone. He was seized with dismal forebodings.

  “Should I speak about it or not?”

  “Get up and put on your festive clothes and jewellery so that you may shine like the resplendent star that you are. Let us go.”

  “Yes—in proper time—after you have fulfilled your promise to me.” He had completely lost all courage to let her mention them. The sound of words such as “promise,” “vow,” “fulfill,” “boon” shook his nerves. She looked up at him with tears in her eyes. He dared not look at her; he knew that he would be overwhelmed by her charms, and when she said presently, “Leave me now. Go back to your Kausalya and feast and enjoy. Leave me to myself.” It was not necessary for her to mention “bowl of poison” again. He knew she meant it, and the prospect unnerved him. He said passionately, “You know how much I love you. Please, come out of this room and this mood.”

  “You have promised me the granting of two boons, and you have sworn to it in the name of Rama—your darling son Rama. And now I’ll speak out my mind. If you reject my demand, you will be the first of the Ikshvahu race, proud descendents of the sun god himself, to go back on a promise for the sake of convenience.” She took breath and demanded, “Banish Rama to the forests for fourteen years; and crown Bharatha and celebrate his enthronement with the arrangements you have already made.”

  The King took time to understand the import of this. He got up to his feet muttering, “Are you out of your mind? Or joking or testing me?” He moved away from her in search of the couch. He felt faint and blind, and groped about for a place to rest. He reclined on the couch and shut his eyes. She went on. “Send a messenger to fetch Bharatha at once. . . . He is quite far away. Give him time to come back. Tell Rama to take himself away.”

  “You are a demon,” he whispered with his eyes still shut.

  “Don’t curse me, great King. I am not surprised that you find me less agreeable than Kausalya. Go on, go back to her and enjoy her company. I never asked you to come here and curse me. I retreated here just to avoid you.”

  The night continued in this kind of talk. Dasaratha made a last effort at compromise: “Very well, as you please. Let Bharatha be crowned. . . . But let Rama also stay here. You know him. He will hurt no one. Let Bharatha be the king by all means—he is good. But please, I’ll touch your feet—I don’t mind prostrating before you—but let Rama stay here in his own home and not go away. How can he walk those rough forest paths and go on living in the open, unsheltered . . . ?”

  “He can, he is not the soft infant you make him out to be. For fourteen years he must live away, wear the bark of trees, eat roots and leaves. . . .”

  “Do you want him to die . . . ? Ah . . .” The King screamed.

  She merely said, “Don’t create a scene. Either you keep your word or you don’t, that’s all.”

  The night spent itself in dead silence. Kaikeyi stayed where she was on the floor; the King lay on the couch. No one interrupted them. It was customary not to disturb when the King was with one of his wives. Even servants kept themselves out. For all that, it was inevitable that the King should be sought out sooner or later. There were many matters on which he had to be consulted. His chief minister was at his wit’s end. “Where is the King? Where is the King?” was the constant question.

  The assembly hall was growing crowded with distinguished guests and the public who thronged in to watch the coronation. Rama, clad in simple silk robes after several ritual baths and purification ceremonies ordained by the chief priest, was also ready, waiting for the ceremonial dress. A little before the dawn, the holy fire was lit in which offerings were to be placed to please the gods in heaven. The priestly groups were already chanting the sacred mantras in unison. Music from many sources filled the air. The babble of the crowd was continuous. But in the inner ring where the chief minister and other immediate executives were assembled, there was concern. “The King should have arrived by now. He must initiate the rites; he has to receive the rulers who will soon be arriving. . . .” The chief minister, Sumanthra, got up to find out the reason for the delay. Things had to go according to a time-table in every detail so as to synchronize with the auspicious movement of the stars. And any single item delayed would throw the entire ceremony out of gear. Sumanthra left the assembly hall and went in search of the King. He hesitated for a moment at the door of the kopa gruha, but parted the curtains, opened the door, and entered. The sight before him, naturally, startled him. “Is His Majesty unwell?” asked the minister. “Asks him yourself,” replied Kaikeyi.

  “Are you also unwell? Has some food disagreed with you both?” asked the minister anxiously. The queen gave him no answer. The minister softly approached the couch and whispered, “They are waiting for you. Are you ready to come to the assembly?” The King stirred lightly and said, “Tell them all to go back. It’s all over. I have been trapped by a demon.” Kaikeyi now interposed to explain: “The King has strained himself and has become incoherent. Go and send Rama.”

  Rama arrived, expecting his stepmother to bless him before the ceremonies. At the sight of him Dasaratha cried out: “
Rama!” and lapsed into speechlessness. His appearance and behaviour made Rama anxious. “Have I done something to upset him? Any lapse in my duties or performance?”

  Kaikeyi said, “I’ll speak on his behalf; he finds it difficult to say it. Your coronation will not take place today.” And then she specified in unambiguous terms what she expected of him. She told all about the original vow and the circumstances that led to it. “It is your duty to help your father fulfill his promise. Otherwise he will be damning himself in this and other worlds. You owe him a duty as his son.”

  Rama took in the shock, absorbed it within himself, and said, “I will carry out his wishes without question. Mother, be assured that I will not shirk. I have no interest in kingship, and no attachments to such offices, and no aversion to a forest existence.”

  “Fourteen years,” she reminded him.

  “Yes, fourteen years. My only regret is that I have not been told this by my father himself. I would have felt honoured if he had commanded me directly.”

  “Never mind, you can still please him by your action. Now leave at once, and he will feel happy that you have acted without embarrassing him.”

  “I want you to assure him that I am not in the least pained by this order. I will take your word as his.” He saw his father’s plight and moved closer.

  Kaikeyi said, “I will attend to him. Don’t waste your time. You must leave without delay. That’s his wish.”

  “Yes, yes, I’ll do so. I will send a messenger to fetch Bharatha without any delay.”

  “No, no,” said Kaikeyi. “Do not concern yourself with Bharatha. I’ll arrange everything. You make haste to depart first.” She knew Bharatha’s devotion to Rama and, uncertain as to how he would react, preferred to have Rama well out of the way before Bharatha should arrive. “I’ll take leave of my mother, Kausalya, and leave at once,” said Rama. He threw another look at his speechless father and left.

  When Rama emerged from Dasaratha’s palace, a crowd was waiting to follow him to the assembly hall. Looking at his face, they found no difference on it, but instead of ascending the chariot waiting for him, he set out on foot in the direction of his mother’s palace. They followed him.

  Rama went up to his mother, Kausalya. She was weak with her fasts and austerities undertaken for the welfare of her son. She had been expecting him to arrive in full regalia but noted the ordinary silks which he wore and asked, “Why are you not dressed yet for the coronation?”

  “My father has decided to crown Bharatha as the King,” Rama said simply.

  “Oh, no! But why?”

  Rama said, “For my own good, my father has another command; it is for my progress and spiritual welfare.”

  “What is it? What can it be?”

  “Only that for twice seven years, he wants me to go away and dwell in the forests, in the company of saints, and derive all the benefit therefrom.”

  Kausalya broke down and sobbed. She wrung her hands, she felt faint in the depth of her bowels, sighed, started out to say things but swallowed back her words. She said bitterly, “What a grand command from a father to a son!” She asked, “When do you have to go? What offence have you committed?”

  Rama lifted his mother with his hands and said, “My father’s name is renowned for the steadfastness of his words. Would you rather that he spoke false? . . . I am thrice blessed, to make my brother the King, to carry out my father’s command, and to live in the forests. Do not let your heart grieve.”

  “I cannot say, ‘Disobey your father,’ only let me go with you. I cannot live without you.”

  “Your place is beside your husband. You will have to comfort and nurse him. You must see that he is not sunk in sorrow by my exile. You cannot leave him now. Also, later, my father may want to engage himself in the performance of religious rites for his own welfare, and you will be needed at his side. After living in the forests, I will come back—after all, fourteen years could pass like as many days. If you remember, my earlier stay in the forests with Viswamithra brought me countless blessings; this could be a similar opportunity again, for me. So do not grieve.”

  Kausalya now realized that Rama could not be stopped. She thought, “Let me at least beg my husband’s help to hold him back from this resolve. . . .” However, when she reached the King’s chamber and saw his condition, she realized the hopelessness of her mission. As he lay there stunned and silent, she understood that he must be in some dreadful dilemma. Unable to bear the spectacle of an inert, lifeless husband, she uttered a loud wail. Her cries were so loud that the guests in the assembly hall were startled, and requested Sage Vasishtha to go up immediately and find out the cause. All kinds of music, chanting of hymns, prayers, laughter, and talk had filled the air; but this sudden intrusion of wailing destroyed the atmosphere of joy. Vasishtha hurried on. He found the King looking almost dead, Kaikeyi sitting apart and watching the scene unperturbed, and Kausalya in a state of complete desperation and wretchedness. He quickly tried to estimate the situation. It would be no use questioning Kausalya. He turned to the calm and firm-looking Kaikeyi. “Madam, what has happened?”

  “Nothing to warrant all this hullaballoo,” Kaikeyi said. “A situation like this ought to be ignored, a purely domestic matter. Do not be perturbed, sir. Go back to the assembly and tell them to be calm. A few changes in the arrangements, that’s all. They will be told about it soon.”

  “I want to know everything,” said Vasishtha emphatically.

  She hastened to say, “Of course, you are our spiritual mentor and guide and you have every right to demand an explanation.” While she spoke, Vasishtha saw Kausalya writhing and squirming, and Dasaratha stirring. Dasaratha was evidently aware of what was going on in the room though unable to take part in the conversation. Lest either of them should begin to say things at cross-purposes with her, Kaikeyi said, “Your wisdom sustains us, sir. You will realize that nothing untoward has happened. Before I had even spoken fully, Rama understood and agreed. It’s the others who are making all this fuss. Rama has surrendered his right to the throne in favour of Bharatha, and will stay away in the forest for fourteen years. It’s a thing that concerns primarily himself, and he has accepted it without a word, with much grace. But these others think . . .” She swept her arm to indicate several hostile persons.

  Vasishtha understood, but still asked, “What is the cause of this change?”

  Kaikeyi, whose good manners had reached their limit, now said, “If my husband will speak, he can—otherwise please wait. Just tell those assembled that there is a change in the programme.”

  “That we will see later,” said Vasishtha. “First we must revive the King.” He stooped over the King lying on the couch, gently lifted his head, and helped him to sit up. “We need you, Your Majesty. You are our lord and captain. What is to happen if you are withdrawn like this?”

  The King went on mumbling, “Kaikeyi, Kaikeyi . . .”

  Vasishtha said, “The Queen, Kaikeyi, is most considerate. She will do nothing that goes against your wishes. I am sure she will be obliging and helpful. There has been no opportunity to discuss these questions with her Majesty, our immediate concern being your welfare.” Kaikeyi listened passively to this hopeful statement by Vasishtha.

  Dasaratha, clutching at a straw of hope, asked, “Does she relent? If she does, Rama will be King; and as to my promise, let her ask for any other fulfillment she may think of. . . .”

  Relieved to find the King improving, Vasishtha turned to Kaikeyi and appealed to her with all the humility he could muster in his tone. “Everything is in your hands. . . . Please consider yourself as the benefactress of humanity. The whole world will be grateful to you for your help. Please reconsider.”

  Kaikeyi became emotional: “If one cannot depend on the promise of a famous king,” she hissed, “life is not worth living. After all, I have done nothing more than ask for the fulfillment of his own voluntary promise, and you talk as if I had committed a crime!”

  “You do not real
ize the evil consequences of your act, nor are you willing to listen and understand when we try to explain. Your obstinacy is inhuman,” said Vasishtha. When she appeared unaffected, he went on: “The King’s tongue never uttered the words of exile; you have passed this on as his own command, knowing that Rama would never question the truth of it. You have used your position as his favourite queen.”

  No matter how he argued and persuaded, Kaikeyi held her ground with cynical calm. “Oh, Guruji, you too talk like these ignorant, self-centered people who find fault with me without understanding.”

  Finally the King burst out, “Oh, devilish one, you ordered him into exile! Is he gone? In seeking you as a mate, I sought my death. Those cherry-red lips I thought sustained me, but they have only been a source of the deadliest poison to finish me off now. This sage be my witness. You are no longer my wife, and your son shall not be entitled to cremate me when I die.”

  Kausalya, when she saw her husband’s plight, was most moved and tried to comfort him in her own way. Concealing her own misery at the prospect of Rama’s exile, she told her husband clearly, “If you do not maintain the integrity and truth of your own words, and now try to hold Rama back, the world will not accept it. Try to lessen your attachment to Rama and calm yourself.”

  The King was not appeased by her advice. “The holy water from Ganga brought for ablution during the coronation will now serve me for my last drink; the holy fire raised will serve to light my funeral pyre. Rama, Rama, don’t go. I take back my word to Kaikeyi. . . . How can I bear to see you go? I will not survive your departure. If I lived after your departure, what would be the difference between me and that monster in wife’s shape—Kaikeyi?” Thus and in many other ways, Dasaratha lamented.

  Vasishtha said, “Do not grieve. . . . I will see that your son is persuaded to stay back.” Dasaratha had become so weakened in will that he clung to this hope when he saw the sage depart. Kausalya comforted the King by saying, “It is quite likely Vasishtha will come back with Rama.” She tenderly lifted him, nursed him, and stroked his head and shoulder. He kept repeating, “Will Rama come? When? How terrible that Kaikeyi, whom I loved so much, should contrive my death so that she may place Bharatha on the throne!” Silence for a while, but once again all his lamentations and fears would return redoubled.

 
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