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Authors: Vayu Naidu

Sita's Ascent

VAYU NAIDU
Sita’s Ascent

PENGUIN BOOKS

Contents

About the Author

Dedication

Ramayana

Sita

Urmilla

Rama

Valmiki

Lava

Mandodari

Soorpanakka

Lakshmana

Hanuman

Ashwamedha

A Note

Acknowledgements

Copyright Page

PENGUIN BOOKS

SITA’S ASCENT

Dr Vayu Naidu brought her research and performance of oral traditions into the British academy, and created new works with composers and orchestras and for theatre and radio drama. This is her debut novel. The Vayu Naidu Storytelling Company is based in London.

For Chris Banfield and Lakshmi Holmström and
my father, Major General Aban Naidu, who revealed the
epic in life

Ramayana

Rama is to be crowned King of Ayodhya.
His wife is to be the queen. The coronation is interrupted. His father’s
favourite wife, Queen Kaikeyi, exiles Rama to the forests for fourteen years where
he must roam unrecognizable as a royal. Sita is determined to accompany him and
Rama’s brother Lakshmana will not be left behind. During their time in the
forests they encounter sages, rakshasas, ferrymen, tribals, hunters, spirits and the
common folk.

In the thirteenth year of exile Sita is
enchanted by a golden deer and pleads with Rama to catch it so she can return to
Ayodhya after the exile with the creature as a reminder of their time in the
forests. When Rama leaves, only because he sees Sita distressed on losing sight of
the deer, Sita hears Rama’s voice crying for help. Lakshmana
is unable to convince her that it is a rakshasa’s
trick. She hurls at him a fatal remark that makes Lakshmana depart hastily in search
of Rama. Left unguarded, except by a protective line drawn on the earth by
Lakshmana, Sita is abducted by the machinations of the emperor Ravana and held
captive in his kingdom.

The search for Sita on the
princes’ return to their forest dwelling begins with their meeting
Hanuman, the chief minister to the exiled King Sugriva. Hanuman, with his special
powers and wisdom, is able to find Sita. When she tells him of her trials he urges
her to return with him. But she does not wish to return by stealth; she feels a
world order needs to be changed from might to right, from darkness to light.

A war is waged, and Ravana is killed by
Rama. When Sita appears before Rama after the great war, he informs her in public
hearing that she is free from captivity. Sita is incensed that she should have to
prove her ‘purity’ so she orders Lakshmana to light a fire. As
she walks through the fire, that is, undergoes an agnipariksha, Agni, the god of
fire, appeals to Rama about Sita’s unparalleled and uncorrupted love for
her husband.

Fourteen years have passed and Sita and
Rama, with Lakshmana and Hanuman, return to Ayodhya. Rama is crowned king. Sita is
expecting their child and our story begins from here.

Sita

When the shock subsided she could hear
again. The sound of the wheels grinding recklessly on the stony track faded into the
distance. Her grip on her left hand tightened. Her bangle twisted and snapped. She
gasped to discover her feet rooted to the spot while her heart pounded, making her
body twitch. White lips, dry mouth, white light. Like a primeval beginning, there
was a sound and a string of images in her head, without meaning. Where words once
flowed with lightness from the heart, there was now a forest fire. ‘When
… did all this happen?’ she asked herself.

They had been driving in the chariot for
at least two hours. The paved roads gave way to rougher bypasses and then
slip roads west of the capital to tracks in the forest. The
breeze from the speed of the open vehicle tousled her hair. She didn’t
care. She was so happy recounting: ‘That first time Urmilla and I walked
through here, we heard the drums at the palace announcing our arrival. Do you
remember?’

No response from the driver. He cracked
the whip and the horses charged like lightning. Parrots flew past, shrieking in
their rice-field-green plumage lined with pomegranate pink. ‘Our hearts
were beating fast as the dancers seemed to leap down from the trees to welcome us.
As young brides, we thought this was the gateway to the world of our
husbands!’ The same happiness flooded her now, so she could override his
silence. Her hand cupped her pregnant belly; she was six months past.
‘When we took our vows we circled Agni seven times, and,’ she
continued, half laughing to herself, ‘over the years, we’ve all
travelled seven worlds of wonder, joy, fear, anger, even courage, with fire
… wouldn’t you say, Lakshmana?’ Sita looked at him,
and he steadily faced the path ahead of him, looking above the white rumps of the
speeding horses and their red reins as the chariot drove on.

‘I sent a message to
Valmiki,’ was Lakshmana’s reply. Teasingly she said,
‘I hope you didn’t give too much away. I want to test his
memory!’ Lakshmana smiled in spite of himself. Yes, she was referring to
the great storyteller
who chronicled events of mythological
proportions. He remembered beyond memory, and now Sita was going to playfully
challenge him. Lakshmana slowed the chariot down, as this part of the forest had
low-lying boughs and the pathway meandered into shrubs. The hermitage also had
protected deer roaming nearby. The dwellings were camouflaged. This encouraged deer,
peacocks and wild cats to come and feed there, trusting the few male and female
ascetics who lived in the huts.

Lakshmana brought the chariot to a halt
a few yards from the clearing where the huts stood. Each hut sloped or stood
straight depending on the length of the branches that had been cut to build it.
Crowned with a thatch of dried leaves, each hut was lined with mud. The aroma of the
sap from the freshly cut branches hung in the midday air. Lakshmana and Sita took a
deep breath. Smell: the essence of memory. The smell of the past with associations
recalling personal worlds. This smell evoked a memory of comfort. Even Lakshmana
relaxed his tense muscles as he removed the harness from the horses and gave them
water. ‘I am here, and this is now,’ he told himself. Swiftly,
he went to Sita’s side as she held her belly and stepped out of the
chariot. ‘Amma,’ she uttered with relief as her feet touched the
ground. He watched as she took in her surroundings. Then she began to hand him the
various earthen vessels covered with plantain leaves containing
gifts for Valmiki and fellow ascetics. First were the gifts of food. She steadied
herself and pulled the sari pallu over her shoulder as she walked towards the
clearing with one ceremonial vessel for Valmiki. Lakshmana, cradling the other
vessels in his arms, followed her.

‘Aaaarrh!’ came a
squealing grunt of welcome from Valmiki as he emerged from his hut. He stretched his
arms and interlocked his palms skyward to make a stupa over his head. He did not
look much like a wise, aging sage. His creativity swirled all around him, in little
atoms of cheer. His upper body was bare with matted hair covering his back and
chest. His quick, shuffling stride revealed he was simultaneously embarrassed and
proud of his sizeable belly. Valmiki smelt of wood smoke, bark and ghee. These were
the auspicious ingredients for sacred fires, around which he often sat, chuckling
merrily as he taught, or gazing silently as he composed. His laughter, which was a
cross between a donkey braying and a heralding trumpet, resounded through the
forest. The birds of the forest fluttered down to complete the reception for Sita,
who was paying a visit nearly two years after returning to Ayodhya and the
coronation.

Valmiki approached her with his
broken-toothed smile. ‘How long has it been, Sita?’

‘Too long, Maharaj,’
Sita said as she started to bend to touch his feet. He had earned the appellation
‘Maharaj’ as
he was celebrated as the king
of all known and unknown storytellers. ‘Now, now, none of that,’
said Valmiki. ‘It is awkward for you, not only because you are a queen but
because you have a belly too!’ He cackled. Lakshmana shook with laughter
as he set the vessels down and seamlessly stretched himself on the ground to touch
the old sage’s feet and seek his blessings. Sita knelt. ‘And
Rama?’ Valmiki inquired.

‘Rama sends you his deepest
love, Maharaj. He knew I wanted to monopolize this time with you!’ Sita
said, her eyes shining.

‘It is a time of transition,
Maharaj … too many demands on his time. Bharata’s administration
is flawless. It is the ruling on domestic statutes that’s pressing and
Rama wanted to attend to them personally,’ Lakshmana offered.

Valmiki caught the hint of an apology
and responded with the deftness of a diplomat. ‘Fourteen years is a long
time to be away … not to say you all haven’t been busy; but
it’s that shift from the individual to the state—every decision
is slower because you have to take a whole lot of people into consideration,
isn’t it?’

Valmiki could sense
Lakshmana’s unease. Lakshmana knew of his ruler’s difficult
position, where taking decisions meant consultation with ministers, which at the
best of times was time-consuming, and at worst, unwieldy in matters of urgency.

Valmiki cheerfully beckoned one of the
ascetics who served Sita a leaf cup of goat’s milk mixed with honey. Smell
and taste: they immediately conjured up days in the forest and hospitality at
hermitages. Sita couldn’t help herself and said, ‘I’ve
added to this recipe, you know. A dust of cardamom with some crushed pistachio makes
it a royal drink for regal hermits!’ Valmiki understood her well and burst
into his high-pitched laughter. ‘Pista, ah yes. Now that is something I
would have to spend a lot of time shelling. I don’t have the patience of
Sabari.’

‘Is that why you wrote her
in?’ asked Lakshmana cautiously. Valmiki’s gaze steadied beyond
Lakshmana’s face. ‘She was real. How else can anyone comprehend
that degree of devotion?’

‘Did it not contradict our
entire system about maintaining purity when you made her taste every single fruit
she offered Rama?’

‘But it’s her love,
Lakshmana, which went beyond all that,’ said Sita. ‘You see, I
wouldn’t think twice about what I cooked and fed my friends—only
because I would be making it with love.’ How could anyone argue with that.
The banter continued and gradually the other ascetics joined them, giving news about
how the forest spring had widened and changed its course.

After lunch Valmiki insisted Sita have
the customary nap inside the hut. Lakshmana unloaded Sita’s luggage. Since
returning to the palace the same day was impossible, it had
been decided that Lakshmana would return to escort her home. Rama was particular
about these arrangements. Sita had instructed her maids on cooking and cleaning the
inner apartments for the few days until her return. Coming to the forest to spend
time with Valmiki was almost like going to her mother’s home.
Sita’s mother had died a few years ago when she got news that her daughter
had been abducted by a shape-shifting king and was being held hostage in Lanka. The
thought of contamination by strangers’ touch and her daughter’s
life in danger made her wither into a skeleton. Her last words were: ‘What
will people say?’

Sita’s mind began to wander as
she came out of a restful doze, woken by the murmur of distant bees. The afternoon
sun filtered through the slatted window as the trees cast long shadows across the
clearing. Sita sat up. Valmiki stood with his hands on his hips, watching Lakshmana
pile wood to start the fire for cooking the evening meal. Sita was offered hot tea
made with ginger, cloves and cinnamon. It got her circulation going. Lakshmana tied
a knot with dried blades of grass and set the wood down. Picking two flints, he
struck them decisively. He set the spark near the knot of grass and blew on it.
‘Not too big a flame, Lakshmana!’ cautioned Valmiki.
Lakshmana’s face reddened with pain and rage. ‘Too much water
under the bridge,’ thought Sita as she saw him wince.

She knew what Lakshmana was thinking. It
wasn’t that long ago when everyone had stood around—the
victorious and the defeated. Nothing had been conquered. Sita was called to prove
that she was worthy of all the lives that had been lost in the war at Lanka. Is she
‘pure’, they wanted to know. ‘After all, her captor
and host Ravana was deeply and madly in love with her,’ whispered the
columns of soldiers who had survived the war. Sita stood beleaguered watching the
scene unfold before her eyes. She had been in captivity for thirteen months with no
human contact. Her desolation vanished in an instant, a wave of relief surging over
her, when she saw Rama tending to a wounded soldier. And when Rama looked up, the
flame in her glowed with joy. It was him. He, who had vanquished the darkness that
was eroding the world. He was the one for whom she had waited and waited.

Rama stood before the columns of the
depleted army and their malicious murmurs, and the words he uttered she first heard
in slow motion. When she could made sense of them, everything dissolved into
disbelief. The flame within her burst into a rage. Somewhere deep inside she knew
that all of those who stood there, grieving the loss of their dear ones, wanted in
exchange for the cost of flesh something invaluable—moral fibre. If the
dead could not return, then those left behind wanted purity as the price of blood.
Rama said to Sita, ‘Ravana is dead. You are free to
go
now.’ Was it Rama speaking or their spokesman? ‘Light a fire,
Lakshmana!’ she commanded. ‘Let the flame burn
brighter!’ she hissed. Lakshmana was stunned. Her eyes were ablaze, her
voice was fire as he struck the flint and it sparked. In the here and now of this
hermitage, Sita could see Lakshmana had not forgotten that moment, and she comforted
him in her thoughts: ‘It will all come to pass. We live in a different
time now.’

Lakshmana neatly stacked in
Sita’s dwelling the supply of vegetables, rice, grain, utensils and palm
leaves for writing—gifts for everyone at the hermitage. Next to these was
a modest trunk with Sita’s clothes. Sita made a mental inventory of all
the things that had to be unloaded from the chariot as she had instructed their
packing. Lakshmana headed towards the horses and harnessed them. They were calm and
ready to be driven. Valmiki followed Sita as she bade Lakshmana goodbye:
‘Please tell Rama not to work too late. See that he drinks enough
watermelon juice during the day; the circles under his eyes have grown very dark.
Oh! Tell Urmilla everything is just as I expected it to be here, in fact, even
better. Next time she must come too. Go carefully, Lakshmana, and I’ll see
you on Dasami. I’ll be waiting.’

‘No, Sita,’ was what
she first heard him say. This time he looked straight at her, as if to bridle the
pain he was wrestling with as he said these words. ‘Rama …
instructed
me … I am to leave you here. You are not to
return. Those were Rama’s words.’

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