An excerpt from my book released during the Lucknow Literature Festival in December 2013.
Eternal Women: A relook at 25 great female characters from Hindu Legends
Published by: Nageen Jain Publications, Meerut.
Sold by: Universal Book sellers, Lucknow.
I was at my divine labor, upon the rock
Swelling with Pride. From a distance,
At dawn, some bright petal came to me,
Some kiss in the night. Upon the rock,
Tenacious a madwoman, I clung to my work.
When your voice, like a sacred bell,
A celestial note with a human tremor,
Stretched its golden lasso from the edge of your mouth;
—Marvelous nest of vertigo, your mouth!
…You come to the arrogant head of the rock,
And I fall, without end, into the bloody abyss!
( Delmira Augustini, Spanish, Tu Boca/Your Mouth)
Sairandhri, look at Yamuna.
The Yamuna flows on quietly, golden skinned and shimmering with suppressed pleasure, like a lover in the throes of joy. The setting sun is casting desirous looks at her glowing beauty.
How fortunate is my sister Yamuna, reverberating to the eternal tunes of Krishna’s flute, with memories of having witnessed Radha ‘s playful gestures by the Kadamba trees in full moonlit nights. Yet, today, even she seems to have forgotten me.
Afterall, I am the unfortunate Vasavadatta, the damned Courtesan, awaiting death in this wretched graveyard- dismembered, filthy, flies screaming around me, the vultures watching from a distance.
The pangs of an unrequited love has turned my heart into a bitter, twisted poison vessel- and it has seen my fall.
Sairandhri, wave off these flies-my blood is scattered everywhere . I cannot bear the stench from my own body.
I, who used to bathe in waters perfumed with the petals of Patalapushpa, used to wipe off sweat drops with scented muslin, I have fallen so low. My silver anklets use to entrance Mathura-the same feet, compared to the blushing lotus, have been mangled by the cruel axe. The tinkle of anklets will be heard no more except in my screaming memories.
Sairandhri, I cannot breathe! Why did they have to cut off my nose and ears? As if I were Surpanakha who went to eat Sita!
My nose, how many poems had been written in the praise of the delicate structure of my nose, comparing it to the freshly blown champaka bud?
My nose ring , studded with diamonds, how many learned men had gone mad on seeing it shine bright to the silent tunes of the lingering moonlight on a Purnima?
My eyes, now streaming with tears, it was compared to those of a doe..harinakshi
My ears were adorned with sapphire and emerald studded golden earrings, my bosom heaved under the weight of the pearls and diamonds.
My arms, oh my long, beautiful arms once adorned with conch shell bracelets inset with precious jewels …now chopped off into horrendous , bloodied stubs!
I have been called Bhamini and Chandraswaroopa by my lovers- lovely and lustrous, as beautiful as the moon…
Kings were fascinated with my beauty and desired me. Sculptors sculpted my exquisite dance postures. Poets wrote verses on the way my eyelashes curled and of how peacocks in monsoon showers resembled my grace. Scholars approached me from all parts of the world- to debate with me on Science and philosophy, and ended up fascinated by my brilliance.
I was extraordinarily talented in dance and music, singing and painting, talking to parrots and pleasing men – indeed, I was a mistress of all the 64 arts mentioned in the Kamasutra and the Kalavilasa.
I was the famous Ganika, Vasavadatta of Mathura, till a few months before.
Oh, I was the very best..yet, yet, HE spurned me.
Upagupta, my desire for you, started my fall.
I saw you walk past the street, when I was resting during the hot afternoon of Grishma. The dust laden winds were merciless and the musk scented curtains were not soothing me, neither the Usira dipped handfan.
My eyes were arrested by the tall , young ascetic in yellow robes who walked by, so elegantly.
Sairandhri, you remember that I sent you to find out his name and details and invite him to visit me, since Kama’s love arrow had already struck my desirous heart.
“ It is not yet time, for Upagupta to visit Vasavadatta”.You sent her back with the enigmatic message.
Ah, you spurned the most coveted woman in the kingdom of Mathura, for whose glance of pity, young kings waited for years! Yet, that strange mystery called the human heart-it always wants, what it can never have!
Thus destiny, having broken my heart that day of Jyeshtha, struck her cruel fangs again and again into my life and turned it into a morass of conspiracy and evil which has ended here, today…All in a matter of months and days.
What can I reflect upon, now, in the last moments of my life?
It is not the murdered master sculptor that I pine over now-though they spread the lie that I conspired to kill him to keep the rich merchant happy..Oh, I had many lovers after the day my heart was broken by Upagupta..but what did I care for any of them? When a woman’s heart is lost in search of a mirage, what does she care for pining admirers? Yet they tried me so harshly and sentenced me to my cruel fate.
I might have been a selfish woman, self centered and vain about my beauty and youth. Yet, I was never a murderer.
Sairandhri, who is that radiant man who is walking towards this doomed graveyard?
There, look-by the shrivelled roots of the fallen banyan tree..can it be..Oh, it cannot be..?
Sairandhri..is it he, or is it my frenzied imagination?
Welcome Upagupta. I am Vasavadatta of Mathura.
Yes, the same woman whom you spurned heartlessly, a few months before.
Why have you come to me now? I am a wreck, I have nothing to offer you, handsome monk!
The rose flower like lips are dried up with blood..the once sweet scented body is now a mangled corpse.
Please sit down near me, if you can bear it.
Tell me, why did you choose this most woeful of hours, to honour me with your presence?
Perammomma is very upset. She never cries, at least I have never seen her tears. But her eyes are glistening today and the gleam is dipped in sorrow. Yet , she does not let the pain show in its obvious form. She is one stubborn woman.
“ Devika hanged herself”, she tells me.
Devika mami was a relative, a very dear lady.
“ I have heard the news. Very sad end. How sweet she has always been. Never could anyone even guess that she would do that”, I mutter.
“ Suffered from uterine cancer, did she not? And no one had time to take her hospital. The laundress said, she would refuse to give her the stained clothes to whiten. In spite of the pain, she went on cheerfully..till she ended it all. One little bit of rope. .”
Perammomma ‘s anger glistens her eyes again with a brush of fiery red. Yet no tear drops down her fragile face.
“ What is the use of saying one loves someone , if that love does not come in handy? If that love ignores obvious suffering?” I ask in general.
I was hinting at the sons of the dead Devika mami, who never bothered to take their mother to hospital.
“ Wasn’t her husband devoted to her? I still remember her ,feeding him boiled eggs with a red-chilly mix”, I recall from my summer vacation memories.
The obvious love and playfulness between them had been my first exposure to a warm marital relationship; in an otherwise pale and neutral emotional culture of our tharavadu.
“ He is like that Upagupta- the one who comes after the woman has fallen, spouting words of wisdom”, says Perammoomma bitterly.
“ Upagupta of the Vasavadatta story? The Buddhist monk?” I ask, slightly taken aback at the vehemence in her stony tone.
“ It is obvious that the young monk was attracted to the beautiful woman, when she invited him to her parlour. He would not have been a blood and sinewed man, other wise. He went away due to his dedication to the Tathagatha. Fair enough. But why did he time his return awaiting her horrible fall? Arms and legs chopped off, ears and nose cut off, full of wounds and covered with filth and flies- to preach to the poor woman, the need to appreciate inner beauty?”
Perammoomma stares at the blue sky.
The clouds take the form of a monk and a fallen woman. The edges blur and merge; the boundaries are difficult to distinguish from this distance.
“ But, the stories say that on hearing his words of compassion and affection, Vasavadatta attained a peaceful demise.” I defend the known tale.
Deep inside, I remain a very traditional story teller and believer.
“ Look at Vasavadatta and our Devika. In the prime of youth, worshipped by all the men near them. Adored and taken for granted. Then comes the bloody fall from grace. Punishment for a conspiracy for Vasavadatta, a painful disease for Devika. Who is there for them?” Acid drips from my Grand Aunt’s tongue.
“ For Devika struggling with incessant bleeding, only kind words from a beloved husband and devoted sons, who do not bother to take her to a hospital for an operation. Extremely divine advice from Upagupta, on the ephemeral nature of beauty ,for an agonized Vasavadatta. Both must have been relieved of pain through those nice gestures, I am very sure”, says Perammoomma.
Her lips twist in a sarcastic grin.
I do not like the cynicism that is spoiling her gracious face.
“ Devika mami never told anyone of her pain- at least that is the defence of her men folk. That she always had a smile on her face, so no one guessed. She had no daughter to confess her agony..” I start my defence speech for the men.
“ Listen, you stupid girl. Everyone knew that she was suffering from this disease. No one bothered, because it was her affair and that of her extremely protective family. Now that she has hanged herself, the farce of that self centered protection is revealed.” Perammoomma makes a formidable opponent.
“ So in your opinion, if love and care is not given at the correct time, mere words are like rubbing stinging salt onto festering wounds, eh?”
“ If I were Vasavadatta, I would have laughed at Upagupta. Listen, handsome monk. You had no use of my loveliness, when I offered it straight forward to you. Today, when I lie dying, I have no use for your advice on how I should have been humble about my beauty. Will that help me die in peace, knowing that you are pitying me? Vasavadatta’s proud spirit would have rebelled, I feel”. Perammomma shakes her head.
“ The story of Vasavadatta is all about lighting the inner lamp of understanding- of differentiating between fleeting temptations and the ultimate truth.” I argue, rather weakly.
“ Should a woman be always bleeding and mangled before she learns about the uselessness of her life-ephemeral or permanent? I believe in only one thing: kindness through action, not words at the most inopportune times”, says Perammomma firmly.
“ So what do you think Upagupta should have done then, Perammoomma? Broken his ascetic oaths for a Vaisika like Vasavadatta? Or not have visited her at all, at her death bed?”
I am angry too. I have a soft corner for Upagupta. There is something fascinating about monks and their vows.
“ If he had wanted to teach Vasavadatta about how her beauty had no attraction for a Buddhist monk like him, he should have told her so in the first instance. Instead of passing on that mysterious message. And if she had become another follower of Buddha , her terrible end could have been avoided. Maybe he was not sure that he could withstand the tremendous charms of the young woman?”
This time Perammoomma laughs.
The dark clouds lift from her face.
“ Ephemeral or fleeting, beauty is an adornment on women. An inner awareness adds to it, by the way. But when a body is hurt, no one has any inner light; the screaming pain is dark, very dark”, she concludes.
I say nothing.
An ambulance appears at a distance. Devika mami’s body is returning from the hospital.
“ I am not going to see her burn”, says Perammoomma.
I reach out and touch her arms. Perammoomma closes her eyes.
Devika mami had been a stunning beauty, I remember without any reason.
I wait for the smoke from the burning pyre to rise.