Book Excerpt: Krishna's Meeting With Krishnaa In 'The Dharma Forest'
A newly-married Draupadi, in awe of her husbands, and overwhelmed by them, finds an emotional anchor in Krishna.
An exclusive excerpt from Keerthik Sasidharan's 'The Dharma Forest', selected by the author himself.
The Dharma Forest. Keerthik Sasidharan. Penguin. 400 pages. Rs 408.
Her mind wandered back to the early days with the Pandava brothers. Back then, after a few days of marriage to five men—each of them prolific in their passions and profound in their ways of being in the world—she discovered that her own self was overwhelmed by the imperious presences of these men. As a young bride, despite being famous for her independent spirit and outspokenness, she found herself yield to their imperatives, for they were heroic figures in her young imagination. Amid her five husbands, she found her own thoughts and voice cede ground to them, vanish and re-emerge in ways she understood was alien and strange. It was, as if, she was beginning to forget what she believed in, who she was, and any view she may have had. It was during the last days of their stay in the village of Ekachakra, when Krishna had come to visit the newly-wed Pandava brothers and her, their new bride. That she was also called Krishnaa, the dark one, amused all, but Arjuna most of all, who in their eagerly snatched moments of intimacy stressed that ‘a’, creating an elongated echo, as lovely as her oval, young face. After one of their meals together, Krishna whispered to her and asked, ‘Do you think of home?’
She smiled weakly, and before a word could emerge from her, tears welled up and trickled down easily, as they often do in young married women. She wiped them, only to smudge the kohl. The more it spread, the more she tried to wipe it clean, only to worsen it. Krishna laughed, gently, at her growing discomfiture. His compassionate smile suddenly made her recognize the absurdity of crying for no real reason except perhaps the recognition of being in Krishna’s presence. Earlier that day, Arjuna had whispered to her that it was from Krishna that worlds began and ended. His statement made no sense to her, but now, in his presence, with tears and laughter emerging easily from her, she was reluctant to dismiss Arjuna’s claim. The five Pandava brothers were in hiding those days. They lived in a small rental house along with Draupadi and their mother, Kunti, amid leaky roofs, the scuffle of rats in the rafters and the constant rattle of the northern winds. Amid those visibly dilapidated quarters, Arjuna’s claims about Krishna’s cosmic presence seemed like a mockery, a taunt about secrets of which she knew nothing. When she asked how he knew as much about Krishna, Arjuna smiled, tapped her forehead playfully and walked away. She neither understood the import of Arjuna’s words, nor could she imagine that this Krishna who stood by her in the corridor, with a gentle smile that came over easily, his curly hair, a hint of double chin and complexion as dark as clouds, darker than herself, could be all that which Arjuna described him to be. Right there, Krishna seemed no different than the other men who had come for her wedding, but in his presence, unlike those others, she felt a comfort, a natural intimacy that was different from what she felt in the company of Dhrishtadhyumna, her brother, or Arjuna, her dearest husband. She was neither Krishna’s sister nor an old lover, yet she intuited that they were bound by some ancient call of togetherness, manifested in this life in ways she didn’t understand. There, under the rain-soaked roofs of the long corridor, they were to become friends yoked together to the history of Aryavarta, thanks to their bonds with the Pandava brothers. So, when she managed to hold back her tears, with a touch of familiarity, she began to reply to Krishna, ‘My dear sir . . .’
‘Call me son of Devaki, nothing more.’
‘Well, son of our dear aunt Devaki, my tears speak of my happiness due to this marriage . . .’
Ah, Krishna noted: ‘our’ aunt. He was, of course, related to the Pandava brothers on their mother’s side, but not to her. But she, with the charming slyness of young wives eager to lay claim on their husbands every which way possible, had chosen to appropriate their other relationships too. He smiled, let that observation pass and continued, ‘And?’
She kept quiet, her heavy eyes glanced at him, hoping he would simply read her mind and spare her the need to speak but he, a touch playfully, insisted, ‘And so what bothers you, my dear Krishnaa . . .’
Struggling to keep her voice’s timber, she began to talk defensively, hesitantly, ‘Everything is good. Please don’t read into my tears. I am fortunate to marry five great men. They make great efforts to keep me happy.’
Krishna smiled, as if he understood her reluctance. She shyly looked down. They both knew nothing need be said to outsiders on the algorithms of happiness between wives and husbands. Instead of prodding, Krishna let her be. What followed was silence as he watched her try to make a start, to speak, to catch herself midway, and begin anew. Then, as if spurred by her own meanderings, she began: ‘I don’t know how to say it but I find myself vanishing with each passing day. I am surrounded by men who have conquered kingdoms, who have killed demons, who have no hesitation in speaking their minds. Yet I find myself struggling to speak my own words. They are like the moon and stars, while I feel like a frog who stares at them. When Arjuna speaks, I watch his mouth move but my thoughts on what I think of him begin to vanish. I can’t get enough of them—as a woman, as their wife, as their friend—but I also can’t breathe in their presence. I begin to think twice of what I say, I wonder if I am thinking the right thoughts, if I can measure up to them. It was never like this. I was a happy, stubborn girl in my father’s courts. I could walk into any gathering and speak my mind on matters I knew, and even on matters I knew little about. There, in my father’s court, I felt tied down, as if I had been anchored too long to a port and I longed to row away from. Now that I am free, I am the arbiter of how this household is to be run, whether windows must be open, the doors closed, whether the sages from venerable Dhaumya’s entourage are to be fed cooked grain or merely gifted wealth, whether I can wear my red tunic or blue. Yet now, I long to be moored to that ancient port in which I grew, to return to that old quarters in my father’s home, where I had little say, where I was—not that I am not aware—merely a nightingale they loved, a caged bird that amused them. But now, surrounded by my husbands—each both tender and fierce—I feel like a fisherwoman on the high seas, far from the shores, who has forgotten how to swim. I can’t cry for help, for my husbands don’t understand confusion or, even worse, such inbetweenness.’
She paused, looked away from Krishna and, knowing that his gaze followed hers, she said, ‘I don’t know why I am telling you all this. I don’t know if I make any sense.’
Then there was silence. The echo of her muffled words drifted and buzzed like dragonflies in summer heat.
Krishna wistfully looked around, perhaps to let the echoes attenuate entirely, and then after a moment’s quiet, he spoke to Draupadi. His voice alternated between faux sternness, as if he were talking to his truant playing younger sister Subhadra, and with gentleness, as if he were talking to his beloved wife Rukmini, ‘My dear, this adriftness is inevitable. For a few days, if not months. Being married to five god-like men who are very much of this world and its troubles is hard. They are difficult men and I say this as their friend. I can barely imagine what it must be to be married to them!’
She watched him speak, his efforts to find words to empathize with her. It wasn’t that he was lying about her husbands being difficult—they would burn the worlds for him—but rather, he was speaking of them in ways she would recognize. That, she realized, was Krishna’s talent unlike any other. The ability to put himself in another’s stead.
As if anticipating her thoughts, his voice turned a touch sterner, ‘You must work to rein in your dissipating self in their presence. You are to be their guide, when they stray, and their provocateur, when they are lulled into comfort. But to do all this, you are to be yourself first. Grow from this weary young woman to someone else in the future . . .’
‘Who is this someone else?’
Krishna smiled. ‘We all have to slowly discover our future selves. They await us, like evenings await the morning skies.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Your one self is contained in the other; our only responsibility is to be true to that which is expressed today. You may be a queen of all Aryavarta, a homeless vagrant, an exile in the forest, a servant girl in a foreign court, a tactician at war, a breastfeeding mother and a story-telling grandmother—while your life traverses each of these selves, you must reflect upon she who is in all of them and yet beyond them. Find her. And she will still your anxieties. The awe and fear that your husbands inspire, as they go through life, will yield to something more interesting. To friendship, to duty, to Dharma.’
‘I am listening, but I don’t know what I am hearing.’
Krishna smiled and then said, ‘Here is a prayer.’ With that, Krishna whispered her a formula in her ear.
Then he continued, ‘Meditate on it—think of nothing else but the sounds that come off your lips. Let those words emerge slowly. Draw in your wandering thoughts. Guide them by hand, like you would lead a child to sit still. Then hear your own voice crack open the silence. Recognize the absurdity of the sounds that come from your lips. Let your mind simmer, settle. A quiet will then reveal.’
She smiled and then teasingly laughed, ‘Son of Devaki, are you making a monk out of me?’
He paused, his face bled away all the lightness, and in its stead came over a luminous gravitas, ‘It is celibates who must fear you. It is kings who must tremble in your presence.’
She looked at him. Her almond shaped eyes with a smudge of wet blackness seemed to awaken, as if a peapod in another world had burst open and had begun to scatter its contents. Krishna—like her father, Drupada, many years ago—saw in her, a shard of Sri, the Divine Mother, who in this present incarnate had become her, a polyandrous wife married into a kingdom in Aryavarta. She could be as playful, anxious and hopeful as any other young girl but she was also to become more.
Krishna smiled knowingly; his face began to abandon that fleeting graveness.
She began to walk away from Krishna, and then suddenly, turning back, her voice a touch happier, she said, ‘Now I know why Arjuna likes you.’
‘Why is that?’
‘You are like a magician for our hearts. You enthral, yet don’t disclose your secret.’
Krishna laughed and hollered back as she walked away into the courtyard, ‘Don’t forget the prayers.’
‘I won’t. Will my life let me forget?
Krishna stood there, like a dark cloud above the plains, pondering over what lay in the days ahead. Then, he said, ‘Consider those words as me by your side.’
Draupadi, stopped in her stride, bowed to him and said with a seriousness beyond her ears, ‘I know we’ll meet again. But I’ll say the prayers every day. Please think of me, bless us.’ And as she walked away, in a voice half mockingly, mimicking Krishna, and yet half hopefully, she whispered to herself, ‘It is kings who must tremble in your presence.’ A reluctant smile came over her face.
Keerthik Sasidharan was born in Palakkad, Kerala, and was trained as an economist. His writings have appeared in various publications. He lives in New York City.
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