It was not yet dawn, the sky still dark and cloudless, but from the palace windows high above, Urmila could see that the streets of Ayodhya were illuminated, with people starting to throng the city, the narrow lanes filling up fast. Like her and all the others they were waiting for the ceremony to begin—they were waiting for their king. He had not yet stepped out from his chambers.
Everything was ready—the holy water in jars, the curd, honey and clarified butter in golden bowls, the aromatic fried rice, the sacred grass and flowers arranged neatly in filigreed gold plates and silver trays. Outside, there was a procession of horses, bulls, elephants and chariots with white flags accompanied by cheerful crowds walking alongside; the music of drums, cymbals and trumpets renting the early hours in erupted merriment. The palace was festooned with gaily coloured floral garlands. Flickering oil lamps, adorning every corridor and arch, added a luminous brightness to the gaiety. Hand-drawn rangolis marked each step and hallway of the palace. How she and the senior queens had managed to plan out each detail and decoration, Urmila wondered tiredly, running her hands over her burning eyes. She had not slept through the night and neither had the others.
Everyone was ready. Ram was dressed in white silk robes, looking regal and solemn. In her rich, deep turmeric silk sari, complementing the heavy gold jewellery which initially she was averse to wearing, Sita looked every inch the golden queen. Urmila looked down at herself—she had bundled herself in an onion pink embroidered silk thanks to Sumitra, who had forced her to leave Sita’s side and ordered her to dress up for the occasion.
Vasishtha had reached the palace with his procession of disciples for the maha puja, bringing with him the holy waters of all the holy rivers in golden vessels. So were the generals, ministers and noblemen of the court. Kausalya, bursting with fiery pride and unsuppressed joy, and Sumitra, sedate as always, were sitting at the yagna, waiting for the king. Both the queens were in ceremonial sparkling white and dull gold…but where was the third queen? Urmila felt a coil of uneasiness stirring within her. Kaikeyi had not yet appeared on the scene nor was Manthara to be seen anywhere. She glanced at her husband. Lakshman had barely managed to get ready but in his royal blue, he was the very prince she had fallen in love with—handsome, frowning and unsmiling. He, too, was worried as she could see. Why were the king and queen taking such a long time to make their appearance?
Ram and Sita were ready for the coronation. Kausalya was pouring ghee into the sacrificial fire, invoking blessings for her son. Vasishtha called Sumantra, the royal minister, and said, ‘The preparations are all done. The holy fire has been started. Please go and call the king. The people are waiting for him.’
Urmila and the others were surprised to see a white-faced Sumantra return quickly without the king. Instead, he had a message from the king for Ram. He had been summoned to the king’s chambers.
There was a still silence as Ram, alongside a grim-faced Lakshman, hastened after Sumantra. Everyone was wondering what was happening but none dared to voice their doubts. Sita slipped her hand into Urmila’s and they held each other tightly; both anxiously awaiting an ambiguous, unfavourable outcome. The knot of fear was getting bigger, billowing deep inside her. Urmila saw Kausalya looking worried. Sumitra was already beside her, calmly chanting the mantras.
The thickening crowd outside was also getting impatient and restless, wondering about the unusual delay. Were the rites taking longer than usual? Was the ceremony to be more elaborate than otherwise? Little did they know what was happening in the inner chambers of the palace.
Ram returned almost half an hour later. Urmila noticed immediately that he was without any of his royal insignias. The white umbrella and the retinue reserved for the yuvaraj were missing. There was a calm resoluteness on Ram’s face but his eyes looked uncharacteristically sad. Her husband, in contrast, looked white with fury. Her heart sank—the worst had happened.
Kausalya got up with unrestrained relief and led him to the seat meant for the yuvraj. He stopped short and said, his tone clear and soft, ‘That seat is too high and unmerited for me, mother. I have come back with my father’s commands that he wishes Bharat to be given the throne and that I should leave immediately for the Dandaka forest for fourteen years. I am not a crown prince, mother, but soon shall be a hermit living in exile in a forest,’ he said. ‘I came here to tell you this. Give me your blessings, mother.’
Kausalya looked dumbstruck, her face ashen. She would have crumpled in a heap had not Lakshman and Ram held her steadily. Sumitra rushed to her side as did Sita and Urmila. Lakshman politely requested the others to leave, citing a change of plan, the announcement of which would be made later.
‘What are you saying, son?’ she said weakly. ‘What is happening? How can you leave us? How shall I live without you?’
‘These are my father’s wishes, I have to obey them,’ said Ram quietly, his face stoic and expressionless. ‘And I believe that it is my dharma, my duty. How can I break my father’s word?’
Urmila could see that Ram was deliberately impassive in his manner, keeping his emotions in check. Was it to protect his mother from further anguish? He was leaving behind a mother who was old and weak and who had been living in a world of darkness for as long as Ram could recall. Her heart full of pain, frustration, fury and vengeance, she was surviving on the single hope that one day she would be the queen mother when Ram would be king. And even as Lakshman exploded in naked fury, Urmila saw Ram containing his pain and masking it with a smile.
A fourteen-year exile!’ exclaimed Lakshman furiously. ‘What crime have you committed that you have been given such an extreme punishment reserved for the most vile offence? Or is it to have you out of the way for Bharat to take the crown?’
Ram simply shook his head and tried to pacify his angry brother. But he refused to be appeased. ‘My old father has lost his head over his young wife! And only a weak-willed man could do what he has done!’ he seethed contemptuously. He turned to his mother. ‘Do you know why he has made this sudden pronouncement? Because he was forced to acquiesce to the two boons he had given to Kaikeyi when she had rescued him during the battle against Sambarasura!’
Urmila was numb. Her brain, stunned at the sudden turn of events, could scarcely unscramble the episode Lakshman was referring to. King Dashrath had offered Queen Kaikeyi two boons when she had saved his life so impressively in the aforementioned battle. She declared she would keep them for a later day. That day was today. She had asked for the impossible—a throne for her son and exile for Ram.
Lakshman was beyond seeing reason. ‘How can my father forget his dharma as a king and be just a husband listening to his wife in matters of the court? His personal decision can’t influence royal affairs of the state.’ he lashed. ‘Ram, you say you are doing your filial duty but I am questioning his role, his status and his right as a king, not as a father or a husband. On what grounds is he sending you away? You have not committed any crime; he has, by denying you your right to be crown prince and convicting an innocent man—you—to be sent on exile for fourteen years! You have no reason to be bound by the promises made by our father to his wife. As the prince of Ayodhya and the kingdom of Kosala, as the prince loved by his subjects, as one who is brave, kind and fair, you have a duty towards them. You know you can revolt and will be supported by everyone—the nobles, the ministers, the army, the people. Say it brother, and I shall do it!’
Lakshman paused, his fury unabated but his voice calm. ‘You can. But you won’t, dear brother, will you?’ he said savagely. ‘You would rather accept the injustice and go for that exile because, for you, filial obedience is above all. You would never disregard your father’s promise. It is our family tradition, right?’ he countered bitterly. ‘And they both—Kaikeyi and Bharat—know that you would not dream of disobeying Father’s wishes. That was the clever plan; and they won!’
Ram had kept silent during Lakshman’s tirade, allowing him to vent his pain and the fire raging within him. ‘You would not have been half angry or hurt if this had happened to you. Why, if I know you well, dear brother, you, too, would have quietly obeyed our father’s orders.’ asked Ram quietly. ‘This anger stems from your deep love for me. You don’t want me to suffer. Lakshman, you are my other self, my very soul in another body—how can you react differently from me? Why this senseless anger and indignation on my behalf? I have no desire for the throne or for power. I take his decision as a new opportunity for myself. If not as king, as a hermit, I shall get a chance to go to the forest and serve there.’
‘But what about all of us here—your mother, your wife, your brothers?’ interjected Kausalya, her voice choking with emotion. ‘How would we live without you? And why? Because my husband is bound by some pledge he made to his ambitious wife?’ she asked with vicious wrath. ‘I won’t allow it! I have suffered enough over the years but not anymore! I shall not part from my son! I won’t allow you to leave us…you cannot disobey your mother either!’ she sobbed, clinging to Ram in desperation. ‘Be kind, son, take pity on me… How will this old mother live without her son? Take me with you!’
It was a terrible, moving sight: the mother hugging her child, holding on to the last vestige of sentiment and sanity. Overwrought, Urmila turned to Sita. She was standing straight and motionless, her eyes dry. She kept silent, her fists clenched.
‘Mother, you have to be with your husband, my father. He needs you now more than ever, in his hour of pain and grief,’ Ram gently wiped the tears from his mother’s cheeks. ‘Be kind to him, mother, for what he did; he had no choice. I have seen him—he is helpless and lying in bed, disconsolate and moaning. He is my God, mother, and I can never disobey him. His words and commands lead me to my destiny. Oh mother, this is fate, else why would someone as loving as Mother Kaikeyi ask for those boons now? Don’t hate her either; she is doing what fate is making her do…’
‘Don’t blame it so conveniently on fate, brother!’ broke in Lakshman harshly. ‘Call it fate or Ma Kaikeyi’s folly, but are we to look on helplessly and give in to fate? Ignore and swallow the injustice? Suffering injustice is also a crime, brother. As princes and warriors, it is our dharma to remove evil and establish justice. I am going to do just that—are our shoulders meant to embellish and simply showcase the bows and arrows and swords? I would take on all those who have conspired against you! Either by taking to arms or through argument. Will no one speak to the king and the queen? Why are we accepting their unjust order?’ he asked in frustration. ‘Why doesn’t anyone say anything? Let Bharat be king if they so wish but I shall make one last attempt to persuade them to not send Ram to the forest. I shall go and beg them, implore them, grovel at their feet if need be…’
He made a move to rush out of the room before anyone could stop him. But an unusual, softly spoken request brought him to an abrupt halt
‘Would it make a difference, dear?’ asked a soft, gentle voice. It was Sumitra. ‘My son, I am proud of you. And this proud son of mine would lower his pride for his brother and beg at their feet for mercy but would they hear you? Would they listen to us? To reason? Ram is correct—this turn of event is a twist of fate. There is more to it than the pain and anger you are feeling right now for your brother. You want to fight for him, give him the justice he has been denied. Then, support him in what he wants, not what you want for him…’
She paused and Lakshman understood what she was saying even before she had finished the sentence. ‘You read my mind, mother, as you always do…’ he said softly, the anger suddenly dissipating from him. With a marked change of expression, he turned to his brother. ‘I am sorry for the words of anger and irreverence against our father but I cannot bear it when you are harmed. And now I realize, you are not hurt, you are, in fact, welcoming this opportunity to see a new world. In that case, please take me with you in this wonderful journey. We have always been together; we are, as you said, one soul in two bodies. So, do not refuse me, Ram, because I shall follow you nevertheless. You cannot stop me.’
Urmila was struck numb, the implication of his words hitting her fast. He was leaving her to go with his brother for fourteen years.
Ram was not surprised, but he did not approve of what he had heard from his brother. Frowning, he looked worriedly at his brother and then at Urmila. Lakshman did not turn around to look at her. His back was to her, straight and unrelenting. She got the message—he would go to the forest, with or without her consent.
‘No, you will not,’ countered Ram forcefully. ‘You and Sita have to look after the family when I am not here. They need you more. Your place is in the palace, not in the forest. It is my punishment which I have to bear alone.’
‘Oh the great follower of dharma, you have given a fine speech!’ Sita’s strident voice cut his sharply. ‘As a wife, let me repeat my dharma to you. I have to be where my husband is; I have a right to share your love and happiness but also your unhappiness, duties and misfortunes. I am to share everything with you—a wife is first and foremost the companion of her husband, at his side always, loving, supporting and guiding him. So, there is no room for discussion here; I will go with you to the forest. And please do not insult me by saying I am a princess and that for me my world is the luxury of the palace. The forest will be my luxury henceforth. You cannot abandon me. You cannot. I am your wife and I am with you wherever you go. Parting from you will be more cruel than death.’
There was no plea in her statement; it was articulated with a succinctness that was stinging. But Urmila was horrified. Sita in the forest? She would be an incumbent for them in their mission, and worse, she would be exposing herself to unknown danger. Urmila was about to protest but bit back her words at the last possible moment: she could not interfere between husband and wife. It was their decision. She looked at the two queens, hoping they would stop Sita. But, instead, Kausalya looked pleased with her decision. ‘Just as a good wife should be!’ she said proudly. ‘I give you my blessings, dear. Help him in his endeavour.’ How could Sita be of any help to them in the forest, wondered Urmila. Rather would she not be making herself and the brothers susceptible to harm, injury and risk?
Both Lakshman and Sita had made their intentions clear: they would be accompanying Ram and there was no room for any argument. Lakshman had forsaken her and Sita was going to leave the palace with Ram. The two persons whom she loved most had left her, without a moment’s hesitation. Suddenly, she had had enough of the scene in front of her. Her heart constricting painfully with conflicting emotions, feeling suddenly unwanted and bereft, Urmila silently slipped out of the room, but not unnoticed as she had thought she would.
Urmila’s first instinctive reaction had been a flood of hurt for being rejected by both her husband and sister, followed by a deep and bitter anger. They had not considered her at all, each intent on getting what they wanted. She felt betrayed, left out and let down. Her grievance was more against Lakshman than Sita. For Sita, there was reserved an envy—another unfamiliar feeling—that she could accompany her husband to the forest; Urmila could not. Her husband had rejected the option outright. There was the guilt for harbouring such disagreeable scepticism towards the people she treasured most; why was she thinking such terrible thoughts about them? And then came the volcano of grief, like molten lava, exploding and scalding each sense, every thought on how she would be wrenched away from the man she loved for fourteen years. A man who did not love her enough, who could betray and forsake her yet again. He did not need her, her heart wept.
‘Mila, don’t!’ she heard him say hoarsely. ‘Please don’t hate me so!’
She turned instinctively on hearing his beloved voice, unable to mask the stark despair in her eyes. He winced.
‘Don’t hate me for what I have done,’ he repeated. ‘Forgive me, if you can. I know I have failed you!’
There was a lump in her throat; she could not speak. She did not want to speak; she did not trust herself. The sight of him was so precious…soon it was going to be rare, no, absent—she would not see him for years now. She was drinking in the sight of him uninhibitedly, without anger or pride. She timidly stretched out her hand to touch him, scared he would soon disappear. She felt his smooth skin under her trembling fingers, looking straight into his eyes. They were as anguished as hers—tormented, tortured and torn between the two loves of his life. It struck her that they did not have too much time. He would be leaving soon. There was no time for anger and rancour, for pain and regret, for hatred or forgiveness. All she could do was love him.
‘I love you,’ she breathed softly. ‘Go.’
‘Yes, I have to. But not with you thinking the worst of me. Mila, I love you. But you think I don’t,’ he said, his fingers unconsciously loosening her bun at her nape, the hairpin dropping at her feet. ‘Never, Mila, never think that. I cannot prove what I feel for you but don’t condemn me. Can you feel how you fill my heart, my being, my very soul?’ he swallowed convulsively. ‘You are in me. And that’s what I shall have when I am without you for the next fourteen years.’
‘Then why can’t you take me with you?’ she asked sadly.
She said it before she could stop herself as she knew the answer. It was a futile request. Lakshman was going out of his own volition with Ram, he had not been banished. He was going with his brother as his soldier, his bodyguard, and a soldier does not take his wife to the battlefield. Urmila knew she had to harden her heart for herself—and for him. She looked at the darkening sky from her window, black and bleak, refusing to break into light, ushering the dawn of a new day.
‘I cannot take you with me because I love you too much…not too less as you think,’ he was saying tenderly, holding her hands and turning her wrists out to stroke them absently with his thumb. ‘It’s not easy in the forest. Ram is taking Sita because he knows he will be able to protect her. I am going as his guard, so how will I be able to look after you or protect you? And more importantly, you are safer here in the palace. The forest is not a safe place, and it’s not just the physical hardship I am talking about. I know you can suffer that gladly. Dandaka is now especially dangerous with the demons, having captured it, throwing out or murdering the rishis, disrupting their penance. And you have seen how treacherous they can be, Mila! Don’t you remember how they entered the Mithila palace and took the form of Sita? Everyone was fooled. Even you! Then how can I take you with me to such a place and expose you to danger?’ he said violently. ‘I would go mad with worry just imagining you coming to any harm! No, Mila, I would rather part with you for these many years than endanger you even for a moment! Possibly, as Ram said, that’s what we are destined for—to fight the evil there and not sit easy on the throne of Ayodhya.’
His face was tortured, his eyes glistening with pain. He looked at her. She looked lovely and forlorn. Her silence drove him crazy. He did not miss the plea in her heart, her silent, softly despairing appeal, breaking his heart, almost killing his resolve. ‘I can never forget how Ravan and the other princes looked at you at the swayamvar and I would have killed each of them for their temerity! And in the forest, if not protected, a woman is anyone’s for the taking—it’s an animals’ world with no rules, morals or societal restrictions. How can I ever take you there?’
Urmila clutched at his hand, and said tremulously, ‘Go, Lakshman. I shall not stop you…’ she choked.
‘You won’t be alone here, Mila,’ he continued gently, reassuring her and himself. ‘Mandavi and Kirti will soon join you. And you are so strong—the strongest woman I have ever known. You are Urmila, one where the hearts meet…’ he said softly. ‘It is you who binds all the sisters together with your patience and wisdom. Please do it for me now. Look after my broken family,’ he implored. ‘And let me go to the forest for I am not sure if I would be able to protect you as your husband. My work and goal would be to safeguard my brother—the king of Ayodhya and his queen. My duty is to protect the future of Ayodhya. That’s what I have been born for…’
‘But what about my future?’ she wanted to scream in mad despair but it came out as a silent plea. ‘I don’t have anyone but you! Oh Lakshman, I need you!’
She didn’t say it but her moist eyes reflected her hopelessness.
He could not bear it anymore. He crushed her to himself, holding her close, feeling her supple, warm body against his, resting his head in the softness of her neck, his agonized face buried in the lingering fragrance of her thick hair—his solace from the world. She was, as her name described, his Urmila, the enchantress, his beating heart.
She clung to him, never wanting to let go. She could feel the heat of his hard body, the burning lips on her skin, and she moved closer to him, absorbing his spicy smell, the hardness of his mouth, the softness of his full lips, taking in each detail, each moment of his physicality. He was breathing laboriously. She sensed the battle raging within him, his struggle with himself and his desperate endeavour for self-control.
‘This is so difficult for us. Make it easier for me, Mila. Make it easier,’ he whispered against her lips. ‘You are my strength but also my weakness.’
She stood still, listening to the wild hammering of his heart, his agonised words bringing her back to the harsh reality. He would have to go. She would have to leave him. With cold deliberation, she broke away from him. His arms dropped loosely at his side, his face crushed. It was up to her now. She had to be strong, stronger for him as well. One wrong word from her would undo their happiness.
‘Love is very close to hate, it doesn’t take much to turn loving to hating,’ she said slowly, looking hard into his darkened eyes, moist and soft. ‘I love you…but I don’t recognize you anymore. I cannot but hate you for forsaking me. You have spurned me for someone else, something else. You say you love me but you cannot remain with me here in the palace and instead opt to go with your brother. For fourteen years,’ she emphasized each word. ‘It is he who has been exiled, not you. Why should you accompany him? He has Sita with him—the kind soul that she is, and the dutiful wife,’ she added deliberately. ‘He is strong and capable enough to look after himself and Sita. Why do you need to go with them?’
Lakshman did not reply, he was staring at her in silent appeal. ‘And how can I make it easier for you when it is you who has taken the decision?’ she continued ruthlessly. ‘I wasn’t considered at all, was I? I have known it since I fell in love with you, married you and came here. I knew I would be forsaken—your brother comes first. Yet, am I asking for the impossible? That you don’t leave me alone here? Don’t say I am needed in the palace to look after your old parents. They have Bharat and Shatrughna, Mandavi and Kirti. You either take me with you to the forest or don’t go there, stay back for me.’
She knew she was extracting the impossible from him. She heard him taking in a deep, ragged breath. ‘You know I can’t do either.’
‘I knew you would refuse me, again,’ she said flatly. ‘That is what your love is—hurtful and rejecting. You don’t love at all, Lakshman, you cannot love! You were right—you should have never married. You never did love me; even our marriage was forced upon you. It was a convenient arrangement that the other sisters got married to the remaining brothers. I was foolish to convince myself otherwise! All thanks to love! Or to whatever is left of it…’ she deliberately left her sentence unfinished; as incomplete as she felt right now, as incomplete as she would be from now on.
Urmila went on, his stricken face licking a fire within her. ‘And anyway, I couldn’t have done what my sister has done. I am relieved that I don’t have to go with you and I am thankful that you did not propose so. Look at me, Lakshman!’ she looked down pointedly at herself in her shimmering soft silks and gems. ‘I am a princess, born in leisure and luxury. Would you expect me to spurn this to chase you in your misguided, wild adventure with your brother eating berries, walking barefoot and cooking meals for the two of you?’ she scoffed, hoping she had laced her words with the exact amount of scorn.
She saw him flinch and she felt a sharp stab of sorrow as she realized she had succeeded in her attempt to hurt him as much as he had inadvertently hurt her. ‘You cannot stay back for me because your brother is more precious than your wife. You are not like your father to listen to his wife, are you?’ she taunted. ‘Will deserting your wife and serving your brother make you more noble? Then, let me hate you for that. Let me hate you for the forthcoming fourteen years—that endless chasm you have driven between us. Let me hate you as passionately as I loved you. Now, go!’ she choked, turning away from him.
But he did not leave immediately. Urmila could feel his eyes on her back, as if waiting for her to turn around. She did not; she dared not read the loathing in his eyes.
‘So be it, Urmila,’ she heard him say. He had not called her Mila, she noted immediately. For the first time he had used her full name in private—Urmila—meaning the enchantress, the meeting of the hearts. Urmila, meaning, waves of passion. But she felt passion slipping out of her, her spirit drained, filling her instead with waves of anguish followed by numbness. She felt nothing. Her soul seemed to have been wrenched out of her, her listless, spiritless body, standing alone and upright, her back turned to him.
He seized her hand and forcefully thrust her fallen comb into her numb palm. Her face turned down and in a shadow, she kept her eyes away from him; she could not allow him to see her anguish.
She heard changing in the next room. Moments later, he came into the chamber again, stripped of his silk robes, jewels and crown. Bare-chested, handsome and stark in his rough bark clothes, he still looked a prince. They were in complete contrast now; she in her glittering finery and he in his humble attire. He barely glanced at her; she drank in the last sight of him. And he left without a word.
You can hate me for all I just said. I hope I have made it easier for you now, she thought bleakly, made it easier for us, to hate rather than to love each other for the next fourteen years of separation. Would hatred be easier than loving?
You can read the author's conversation with Readomania at http://www.readomania.com/author-speak-view/kavitakane