(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
On the day of his departure from Indraprastha, as a penance for his mind and a purgative for his heart, Arjuna looked for Draupadi. But she was nowhere to be found. Before long, so vast were the teeming masses, it seemed that the whole city had come out to bid him farewell, and in that crowd which, like a flower reaching for the sun, sought to touch him, as if Arjuna’s hands were the cure to scrofula and gout, opened itself to embrace him, to get a glimpse of their great hero-renunciate, Arjuna once again scanned for her presence. But there was no sign of her. As he was about to walk out of the north-eastern gate, after praying to Ishaana, the guardian deity, Bhima walked up to him, hugged him, and then lifted him in his arms as he used to in their childhood. And then, finally, before bidding him goodbye, he said, ‘She has given you this. Asked you to tie it around your neck’. It was a small pendant with a cover. Inside was a pinch of vermillion that in the years ahead would slowly smear over his chest as the pendant cover wore down and released its contents. He smiled as he accepted the token from Bhima. There was nothing to be said from one brother to another, except perhaps Bhima’s strident dismay about this fever of self-punishment that had come over Arjuna. But all that was the past and they were here then. In silence the brothers acknowledged that while they shared a wife, they didn’t share the same kind of love.
As he walked away, Bhima shouted at him, ‘Come back soon, you silly bastard. Don’t make me come find you!’ Arjuna smiled, and hollered back affectionately, ‘You’ll be an old man by then!’ With that Arjuna left Indraprastha on a 12-year journey to see Bharatavarsha, to follow the path of pilgrims and the penitential, to wander and see this vast quadrilateral land that lay bestride like some resplendent god resting after a night full of amorous exertions.
Three months later, two days before the full moon, Arjuna’s first letter for Draupadi arrived on a hot afternoon. The courier claimed that some of the leaves on which the mail was inscribed were lost in the rain. She didn’t get angry at him for being careless, but was grateful that it had finally reached her, that Arjuna had even bothered to write to her as he had promised. But this missive had no mention of her name, but there was a faint reference to her, a possible location from where it was written. But the fragmentary nature of the scribblings left her wondering about the entirety of the text that was now lost for all time. Irrespective, she read this missive time and again to glean for Arjuna’s voice. But she was never sure what to make of it.
‘ . . . in the Lichchavi kingdom, there is a nightly shower of comets. It is so commonplace that the natives no longer gasp in surprise, in the presence of this spectral explosion. Surrounded by forests darker than your eyes, here night falls like a leaf in autumn. Unassumingly. Without rancour.
Evening light sways in and out, giving one the impression that night is here, the night is not here. No one knows at what time night truly arrives. So, the natives divine their future entirely from the comets. If the largest visible comet at night is the shape of a lute, they believe the Gods want them to play music.
If instead the comet resembles a horse’s tail, it is a portent that the Gods expect them to sacrifice a horse. I have heard some comets look like the privates of a woman—how I long to feel your breath on my neck—in which case, they allow their women a fortnight to sleep with any man of their choosing.
At the end, the women return to their husbands and shave their heads. There is thus no deception here. At the end of this strange custom, women who wear their hair long are then seen as either virgins or those who were of little interest to men.
Both evoke a condescending and knowing laughter from the bald-headed women. Any girl child born out of this adventure is to be named on the ninth day of her birth, while a male child receives his name on the twelfth day. For all else, the children are named on the first full moon in their sixth . . .’
The words trailed and Draupadi spent days wondering if it was the sixth ‘month’, ‘year’, or ‘fortnight’.
For a few months thereafter, there were no letters from Arjuna. Slowly, she began to give up hope of ever hearing from him again. Then, unexpectedly, in the Year of the Flood, another rider appeared, carrying with him a sheaf of palm leaves with etchings. It seemed like a collection of thoughts written over a period of time, from places across his journeys. She wanted to ask the courier if he had met the writer of the letters, but the rider had already left after entrusting the inscribed leaves to the palace guards on the eastern gates. No one seemed to know from which kingdom he came. For days, she wondered whether to read them or not. Then, she noticed that the rains and humidity had begun to eat away the ends of a few leaves. The edges curdled up, and the wrinkled sheaves had begun to resemble some leprous excrudescence. She began to suspect that he no longer remembered her, even as his letters lay there unopened. She herself had difficulty remembering with clarity his face, its sallow ridges on the side, his whiskers that drooped low like some tree’s branch. Finally, unable to stand the sight of his unheard words, she decided to read it. If she couldn’t remember him intensively, she would use his words to reconstruct him in her mind. This letter too, like all before, began in the middle of a thought that contained an extraordinary statement that could only be but the truth.
‘ . . . three suns, that is what I saw the day before yesterday here. My eyes couldn’t believe that such places could exist where nights too contain a celestial orb, with a luminous corona and a dark interior, hanging alongside with the moon of our skies. I asked the good people of this land, and they laughed at me and simply dismissed this phenomenon as a “nocturnal sun”. It was not new to them. But I wondered, could a dark sun really exist? The soothsayers of this land, about whom I have written in my previous letters—do you receive them? do you not think of me? or have you given up on me?—insist that this dark sun had broken free from the heavens. In the years ahead, twenty-seven to be precise, they said it would vanish.
Children born at night—when the dark sun flares up, creating a ripple in the night-sky—are to be feared. I can’t agree with them, for children are children after all. Or is this yet another case of misplaced zeal that afflicts men who think themselves superior. Here, mothers refuse to suckle their children at night when the dark sun is out, even if the little ones cry. I tried to suggest otherwise but was told, in no uncertain terms, that my residency here was contingent on not disturbing their ways of life. But then again, it is not my place to question what has worked for them for centuries.
Or perhaps not.
Either way, the rituals of this wondrous place that we know only as . . .’
And there his words, like a suicidal leap from the heights, ended suddenly. Draupadi reread him trying to infer clues that she could present to the spy masters of the realm, who would no doubt know of such wondrous places. But that was the first of the eight fragments that had arrived. The second one was a list of peoples who lived in regions near and beyond the Dandakaranya forests. Reading it, Draupadi was in two minds. Could such people really exist? Or was Arjuna merely writing to entertain her, to wean her from her loneliness? She once tried to ask Bhima obliquely, without revealing her source, if he had heard of such people without telling him how or why the thought had come to her.
He smiled at her and said, ‘What has Arjuna now written to you?’
She laughed at how transparent her curiosities were to Bhima. Together they read his letter.
‘ . . . the Urdhvabhanga people live inside giant anthills, out of which they come to hunt only at night and return back into their huts before the sun rises. They refer to each other by the name of the last kill. So, he who killed a jackal last evening and thus goes by the name jackal-killer could, by the next night, be called the rabbit-killer. They juggle names, and in this manner, at a man’s funeral, the life of a man is recounted by all the names he had accrued. Women, among them, have no names. The Srutha tribes live on trees and do not have a language and sound like baboons, whom they mimic expertly.
Of all the people in the forest I met, they are the ones who scared me. Their willingness to live in silence . . .
. . . the Ururus live amid the tall grasslands that form the middle of the forested areas, where leopards and lions live. They neither know fear nor the anxiety of being eaten by a wild beast. Perhaps because their lives are short, they sleep together with each other and change partners every night. When children are born, no one knows who the father is. In this manner, the child belongs to all and none. Gothrahrus do not have heads on their shoulders but a beak that emerges from their belly. They make for a strange looking people but they are easy to recognize, even from a distance, by their voices which is as sweet as the best courtesan in Indraprastha. In the western edges of the forests outside Pushpapura, there is a group of people who have no name for themselves. So, I decided to call them the Swarnim, for the golden hair they possess. Their women are adventurous and often carry men on their backs, much like Bhima carried us on various occasions.
They do not eat any meat and believe that in flesh live their ancestors.
They can run faster than any horse in Indraprastha and so their women choose their husbands by picking the fastest runners. But, once they are married, the men lose their sheen, become fat, and therefore women take it upon themselves to fend for the family. Their men are great storytellers, who have fantastic tales of how the Gods fought among themselves. I have begun to understand their language, although they consider my stories of Indraprastha, of you, of my brothers, of the villains Duryodhana and Dushasana as too silly to be true. Why would anyone want what is another man’s? they ask. I have no answers to such simple questions.
Finally, unable to stand the sight of his unheard words, Draupadi decided to read his letters. If she couldn’t remember him intensively, she would use his words to reconstruct him in her mind
By the edges of the great city of Vaishali live families of men and women, who are light skinned but are smaller than a goat. Villages full of such miniature beings. Uncles, aunts, nephews, mothers, wives, daughters, fathers. They didn’t seem to notice they were different than others. I stood outside their village and watched their going abouts on my way to Kamarupa. The world is a wondrous place. As strangely wonderful as the first time I saw you . . .’
Draupadi’s reading came to an end. ‘That is it. The palm leaf breaks after that and the words go brittle . . .’
She didn’t tell Bhima about other palm leaves with his writings.
Bhima nodded and said, ‘No man would make such stories up. Far less, someone like Arjuna who is a stickler and a sceptic. But the world out there is a forest with mists rushing in. In that fog of reality, it is hard to tell where stories begin, which facts lure and what febrile fevers rise. Once, when travelling with Hidimbaa—a rakshasa woman I knew from Ekachakra days . . .’
‘Tell me more… ’ Draupadi said with a naughty glint in her eyes.
Bhima said melancholically, ‘No perhaps, some other time. I know you have more letters to read and want to be left.’ She smiled and he left her on his own accord.
Arjuna’s writings continued:
‘ . . . forests, forests! My beloved, you who are daughter of the Fires, on my journeys, I have seen nothing more than trees. If someone were to say the world is full of leaves and barks, I would have laughed. For so self-involved are we in our lives in Indraprastha, or Magadha, or Hastinapura, or Kashi, or even in the smallest huts on the beaches of Prabhasa. We quibble and fight over kingdoms and villages, but the earth itself could neither care nor worry about our fates. There are regions further south of Pataliputra where every seventy-two hours the ocean submerges land and then, like an exhausted lover, withdraws to reveal what lies below. Even those who make do on those lands, or should we call them the seas, fail to see beyond their immediate exertions. The world, like some mischievous woman, provokes and man falls for this provocation. But beyond this realm of our interests lies the vast imperium of forests and trees. Bharata Varsha is the land of banyan trees, who resist both winds and rains, who stand so stoically, so immense in their gravitas, that sometimes I am reminded of Grandfather Bhishma. In some of them, the branches have drooped so low they enter into the earth as trees of their own. There are forests all over Aryavarta, beyond the region where only the wildest animals roam and the Ganga flows majestically. To those who venture in there, passers-by warn that it is prone to earthquake. The reason for these quakes is not traceable to the anger of the Gods or the serpents in the underworld making love, but more simply that the earths tremble when the roots of these gigantic trees run into each other. The branches of these banyans are civilisations of their own—beavers, ants, eagles, deer, snakes, squirrels—with each squatting in their portions and jealously guarding them.
If trees are generous and wise, animals are like humans—capable of great cruelty. Perhaps this is why the Gods reward some of these trees with eternal life. So much so that when lightning strikes and topples these behemoths, some of them raise themselves up. I do not know how they do it, but some trees simply get up, dust themselves and continue to stand in their splendid solitudes. Then, there are trees in Vanga, where flowers that fall onto the grounds are continuously replaced.
An unknown anxiety arose in Draupadi. She had never heard of Manipura, but she knew that not only was it far from Indraprastha, rules of life in foreign lands made one’s husband, familiar faces, and permanent lovers, into something unrecognisable
Spontaneously. The forest people here refuse to call that tree by any name for that would mean turning these magical trees into something recognisable, something commonplace. So, I too have followed their custom, and refuse to call it by any name. But in my mind, because these flowers with black petals and an orange-red inside remind me of you, I refer to them as Krishnaa. Let that be between us. Once when I was near Kalinga—where the salty flavours of ocean waves is ever present on skin and tongue—I came across priests who study flowers and trees. They claim that some of the plants can help with leprous disfigurations and boils, burns and horrendous disfigurations from the pox. I invited these wise doctors to come to Indraprastha, but they say that their knowledge is incomplete and they would be of no use to us without these trees. Rarely have I seen such humility—one that is not an affectation. Perhaps it is the air of these forests, the throbbing life every which way one looks. One can never delude oneself to have known the forest in its entirety. In there, no one can think of themselves as supreme and eternal.
There is death, decay and regeneration everywhere. From my walk from Vanga to Manipura, through the ancient city of Pragjyotishapura where the great demon Naraka lived till our dear Krishna sent him away to the other worlds, I did not step on the earth. No, I have not learnt the art of flying, like the Siddhas, or even darling little Ghatotkacha. But instead, the forest grounds are filled with leaf and flower droppings and the hardened brown earth is no longer visible. Surely, snakes and others poisonous insects live here, but they go about their lives in accordance with their needs. Humans don’t figure in their calculus. I walked for hours, and then days, when I finally reached Manipura. So exhausted was my body that I fell asleep on the outskirts of the city for days, till one evening. There, I met her, Chitrangada. . .’
Arjuna’s words broke away. The palm leaf that followed was missing. An unknown anxiety arose in Draupadi. She had never heard of Manipura, but she knew that not only was it far from Indraprastha, rules of life in foreign lands made one’s husband, familiar faces, and permanent lovers, into something unrecognisable. Ask any wife whose husband or lover is in a garrison far removed from the capital. They return to each other as strangers. Reading Arjuna’s letters, despite being in Indraprastha, the epicentre of the known world inside Aryavarta, she felt as if she were a citizen of the peripheries. A provincial fool who pretended to be queen.
He had become a window into the world; his letters were becoming a narcotic to which she was slowly addicted.
But like a traveller awaiting his turn to get on a boat by the riverbanks, she was forced to wait, patiently, often without any sign of the fact that he was even thinking of her.
Suddenly, an epiphanic recognition flooded her: this is what her husbands probably go through when she leaves one of them for the other at the end of any year. They become adrift and await her return. And then, an obvious question—one that she had avoided asking herself all this while—clambered out, like some poltergeist, from the well of her subconscious and stared at her with melancholy and posed itself: who is Chitrangada?
(This is an edited excerpt from The Dharma Forest, by Keerthik Sasidharan (Penguin Press; 400 pages; Rs 499), released in December 2020. It is the first novel in a trilogy)