Indian Mythology - Damayanti, a Prose Poem
Damayanti is Abandoned by Nala
Damayanti wakes, shuddering at the silence of the forest.
It is the great silence that makes her eyelids flutter open.
Why cannot she hear her beloved's breath?
Her fingers reach, eyes half closed,
towards the floor beside her.
Anguish seizes her.
"Maharaja!" she cries, "Nala, why have you abandoned me?
Now I am lost, truly lost.
How lonely it is, how silent!"
She rises to her feet and stands at the door of the hut
flung wide as though to release a hasty thought.
Her breasts, once sandal-smeared,
are now adorned with dust and streaks of tears.
The woods are misty in the feeble light of the pre-dawn hour. He is no longer there to brighten it.
Nala, the sun itself.
She looks, she listens.
She stretches forward her lovely long neck
and peers into the trees.
"Oh Nala, they called you true and just.
Yet you have abandoned me while I slept.
I, your wife!
Have I not been a good wife to you?
When you lost your kingdom to your brother
because of your obsession with the dice,
did I condemn you like the others?
I, Damayanti, the most beautiful woman on the face of the earth,
scorned the very gods to choose you as husband!”
A light suffuses her pale face.
She lifts her head, her body taut.
She laughs, childlike.
"It cannot be true you are gone, my Lord.
I think you are playing with your Damayanti.
This is a game.
Come to me.
Where are you hiding?
Show yourself to me!
I am afraid.
Nala, do not play this cruel game with me.
Ah, I see you!
I see you, beloved, in that thicket!"
She points a trembling finger at the trees.
"Why don't you answer? Just one word is all I ask!"
She falls silent.
She looks around, eyes wild.
Her limbs slacken.
The tears well up in her eyes and drop,
leaving pale trails on her cheeks.
She brushes them away and straightens her shoulders.
"Gone, you are truly gone, King.
I must not weep for myself,
but for you, alone and exiled.
What will you do, my Lord,
when thirsting, hungry and exhausted,
you fall asleep beneath some tree
without your Damayanti beside you?
Your Damayanti will not be there to comfort you."
She walks into the forest,
but sees not the beauty about her,
nor senses the fragrance of the jasmine wild.
She hears not the peacock's cry.
She sinks to the earth, weeping.
She springs to her feet.
She clasps her hands, she curses:
"Whoever has cast this evil spell upon my Lord,
I pray he suffers a far bitter fate.
I pray his days are darker than yours, my Nala!"
Screaming, she trips, horrified over a great serpent's coils.
Great, gleaming powerful coils embrace her.
Yet even now she weeps for Nala and her children,
and not for herself.
"My children," she gasps, "will your orphaned fingers ever clasp a father's hands?
Ah, Nala, my Love, you who would have saved me if you could,
what will you do, when free from the evil spell,
you regain all but your wife?
Who will look after you with love, my Prince, when I lie dead?
Ah, these eyes shall never behold you again.
Come to me now, let me see you one last time!"
She should perish, swallowed by the great serpent.
Its forked tongue flickers over her shivering limbs.
Those foaming jaws gorge her body till her hips.
Her perfect breasts heave in panic.
"Help!" she shouts,
"pity me, save me from this dreadful death!"
The vultures reel overhead, waiting.
But she is saved by a hunter wandering through the forest.
He rushes to her side, marvelling at her loveliness.
He slices through the serpent
with a single, swift blow of his sword.
He lifts her from the dying, writhing coils
and wipes the foam from her body,
fingers trembling with desire.
Seeing her hunger he feeds her.
He watches her closely,
he watches the hunger die in her almond eyes.
But there is hunger in him now.
"What are you doing here in this wilderness, beautiful one? How did you fall into the jaws of death?"
She tells him how her Lord and King of Nishadha,
possessed by some evil spirit,
lost all in a game of dice with his avaricious brother.
The hunter does not listen to her words.
Lust rises in him as he gazes at her voluptuousness
so revealed to his eyes;
those long, dark lashes cast shadows upon her cheeks.
Her tender sighs,
her honey-sweet voice sets him afire.
He puts his arms around the startled queen,
his lewd whispers hot upon her neck.
She flings him from her.
She burns, oh how she burns,
a goddess insulted!
Her eyes blaze.
Her very skin catches fire.
"If I am clear in heart and true to my Lord,
then may you,
vile murderer of innocent beasts fall to the earth stone dead!"
And the hunter falls,
struck by the lightning blazing from her eyes,
his breath stopped, eyes rolling,
shaking hands clutching at his throat.
Flames flicker on the wind.
The hunter is a pile of ashes at her feet.
"What former deeds of mine are the cause of all my travails?" she whispers, staring at the ashes with horror.
~ ~ ~
The forest reveals its true self to Damayanti
as she flees through the trees in the twilight,
she knows not where.
It is evening.
The forest lonely, filled with shadows.
She hears the sound of beasts greeting the oncoming night.
Lions, wolves, deer, bears, leopards.
Then the strident low trill of the crickets begins.
She thinks about those silver belled anklets
she so loved to wear.
The trees are assuming the shape of truth.
The Semul tree is the goddess Lakshmi with arms outstretched. The bright red cup-like flowers, sacred to Lord Shiva,
glow like drops of blood.
The Creator of the world,
Pitamaha once rested after his labours beneath Semul branches.
How strange then that its thorns
torture the unfortunate in one of the seven hells!
Bird nests blanket the trees.
All this Damayanti beholds.
She sees the Creator resting beneath the branches of the Semul.
She rushes towards Him, words about Nala on her lips
but He is gone.
Fantastic images pass before her entranced eyes.
She wrings the now short tattered skirt of her saree
in fear and awe.
It is difficult to believe
that she destroys with a flash of her soul-filled eyes.
She walks on,
eyes forever darting in all directions,
eyes yearning for the sight of her Lord.
She feels her aloneness pressing upon her.
Who is there to shelter her from the shadows
in this wild place?
As though through a mist, she sees hideous shapes
flitting through the trees.
A great wind begins to blow,
whipping her long hair into her eyes,
whistling past her unadorned ears.
"The rakshasa breathes!" she cries,
her knuckles white on the hem of her garment.
The demon's breath is the wind,
mowing down the trees in its path;
bending Damayanti's slender waist like the stem of a flower.
She shields her eyes from the storm of leaves and dust.
She stares ahead.
She watches the giant turn
into a gnarled old woman in a shining robe,
She sees the pishachas flitting through the green gloom
their feet turned backwards,
shrieking in nasal voices.
Serpents swing from the branches above her,
fierce bison paw the earth, grey boars root for food.
The roar of the waterfalls fills the forest.
Moonlight limns the shapes of beasts at the waterhole.
The sound gladdens her.
Peaks rise before her.
She glides towards a rock like a pishacha.
She lifts her face heavenwards and speaks:
"Nishadha's king, where have you gone,
leaving me alone in this uninhabited wood?
You gave your people numberless gifts,
you performed the great Aswamedha Sacrifice
- who could offer more to the gods?
But what have you given me?
An empty vow!
True men remain true to their vows.
So say the holy books.
Will you not keep your vow,
you who the people call `lion-hearted'?
Am I not your chosen one?
Why do you fail to answer your wife in this dark,
The lord of the jungle waits for me,
and you who said none else is as dear to you as Damayanti
You lied to me!
Weary am I,
stained with the dust of my lonely wanderings.
Will I find you on that hill?
Or perhaps lying on the leaves,
resting from your flight beneath some tree on the horizon?
Who will I question in this place
‑ have you seen Nala somewhere in this jungle ?
Is there no one here to give me tidings?
Will no one tell me –
"Sweet Princess, that King with the lotus eyes you seek
just passed this way"?
The golden tiger draws near.
He stands squarely before her,
powerful paws planted on the earth like pillars with roots.
He pants, great wet pink tongue lolling drops of saliva.
She winces at the sight of his long yellow fangs.
She draws back two steps,
her garment stretched to tearing point
between her shaking fingers.
"Dreadful lord of this wilderness,"
she stares into his eyes,
"you are the king of beasts
and I am the daughter of Vidarbha's king, Bhima.
I am Nala's wife, Nala, Subduer of Foes.
I seek him here, alone and miserable.
Will you not offer me comfort? "
The beast does not answer.
He turns his back on her and stalks down to the river
that glitters through the reeds.
River seeking sea as Damayanti seeks her lord.
She gazes at the mountain beneath her,
at the rich slopes falling away from her
and thinks of the hidden veins of gold and silver
within the mountain's heart.
She hears the birds sing,
their wings rustle softly among the Kinsuk,
Ashoka and Fig trees.
Perhaps the mountain has seen Nala.
"O Lord of the Mountain,
you who see far and pierce the blue of the skies;
you, refuge of living things,
I worship thee.
I, a monarch's child,
a prince's consort,
the highborn Damayanti, hail thee.
Have you seen Prince Nala, the noble,
the terror of all enemies?
He is dark, yet the sun itself.
They sing songs about him.
He is just, well read in the Vedas,
drinker of soma juice, worshiper of Agni,
and he is generous,victorious.
He is my husband. Have you seen him ?"
But the mountain does not answer.
"Speak, dearest Prince," she cries.
"Your voice will be music to my ears
more soothing than the sound of sacred legends !"
But Nala does not answer.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Damayanti Seeks Wisdom from a Yogi
Three nights Damayanti passes in the wilderness.
She journeys northward and comes upon a silent green grove, morning peace heavy upon the trees.
It is a hermitage ‑ a ring of leaf huts.
Small fires dot the undergrowth.
Embers glow a pale red in the pale light.
A crystal stream meanders
singing through the flowering trees.
She sees the emaciated yogi sitting cross ‑legged
beneath the trees, eyes open,
yet unseeing in meditation deep.
She recalls the ancient ones –
Vasistha, Bhrigu and Attri
who lived their lives eating sparsely,
taming their passions,
pure in heart,
breathing slow breaths,
seeking the road that leads to heaven.
Fearless wild creatures graze around this haunt.
Monkeys, black faced and curious throng the trees.
She is glad to feel her tense muscles relax,
glad to be free of the beast‑haunted night.
Here is a shelter of peace.
The yogi emerges from his meditation.
He sees Damayanti in her weary loveliness.
Jewelless, unadorned, she seems a queen.
"Welcome!” he says to her. “Rest here for a while,
and tell me what you would have us do."
"Worshipful one who lives in peace in the midst of wild beasts and hard work, is it well with you?"
"I thank you noble lady, it is well with us.
Who are you, so beautiful, so noble, yet so sorrowful?
Are you the mountain yakshi,
or the spirit that lives in the river?"
"None of these am I, no goddess of the wood,
nor a mountain or water sprite.
I am a woman with a tragic tale."
She speaks about herself,
not a quaver of self pity in her voice.
And at last, wearily she asks, "Have you not seen my Nala? "
"Beautiful one, the future is yours and it will be great,
that we foresee.
Yes, you will see your Prince soon.
You will regain your lost love, Bhima's sad daughter!
You will know him as your Nala of times gone,
free from trouble,
purged of sin,
governing all Nishadha again in his glory,
once again the joy of his friends and terror of his foes."
“But tell me, O Great One,” she says,
“why do I look for one that has abandoned me?
Am I not a fool in love?
The gods themselves asked for my hand,
and yet I chose cruel Nala!”
“You chose Nala because
you were husband and wife in a previous birth.
The karma between husband and wife runs deep.
Ask why you chose him, why you are facing this difficult time? Ask what you must learn from this,
for everything and everyone that comes to us,
is trying to teach us something we have failed to understand. Your Prince is not himself.
He is possessed by Kali,
the Evil Spirit of the Kaliyuga.”
“My Nala, possessed?” her delicate hands rise to her throat. She pauses in thought before she speaks:
“Ah, I know now, O Great One!
My lord neglected his ablutions before his prayers . . .
and the evil possessed him.
That is why his eyes grew lustreless,
he failed to notice me.
All he could think of was the dice!
No, it was not the Nala I knew!
His face did not shine with light.
He was no longer beautiful!”
“It is most easy to lose one’s beauty, daughter of Bhima!”
“I bow to you with deepest respect,” says Damayanti.
“Perhaps I must learn humility.
Perhaps the gods are teaching me that loyalty to a spouse
that seems disloyal, is not foolishness, but a great virtue. How do you, Great One, transcend the pride
of being chosen by the gods?”
The yogi after a minute of silence, answers:
“There are as many methods of spiritual practice
as there are people.
But if there is no deep thought behind the practice,
there is no outcome.
The mere practice of the mantra of words has no lasting effect. We are here to think and meditate,
but it is a choice open to all.
You are always on the threshold of the unknown
until you attain enlightenment,
and I have yet to attain it!
To become aware of one’s instinctive, inherent awareness,
one must drop all worldly preoccupations
– such as the awareness of one’s beauty, or privilege. “
“Then I must thank my Prince
for all the realizations that lie in wait for me.
But O Great One, I do not wish to lose my beauty!”
“What is beauty?" says the yogi with a smile.
"One becomes beautiful because of an inherent goodness.
One loses this beauty when goodness turns into selfishness. You have seen this in Nala.
Ego breeds ugliness, daughter.
Do not be led by mere appearances.
Look for the light in the eyes,
the brightness in a smile.”
Damayanti means to thank the yogi
for the comfort and advice he has given her,
but he vanishes before her astonished eyes,
huts, fires, stream, grove, all.
She sighs. "Was it a dream?
Why has this happened to me ?
I am seeing things in my misery.”
She moves on.
The spring is gone from her step,
her head hangs like a wilting flower.
She spies the Ashoka tree that takes away grief
and flings herself upon the dark brown trunk.
There are no flowers.
If there were flowers,
she would soak them in water
and drink a palmful to ease her sorrow.
"And flowers there shall be!" she cries,
touching the tree with her left foot.
Buds break upon the branches and open slowly,
the soothing pale yellow flowers of the Ashoka.
She makes a container from a large, shiny leaf
and drops the flowers one by one
into water from a nearby spring.
Smiling, she stirs the potion with a finger,
then lifting it to her parched lips,
drinks and claimed by sleep,
forgets her searing pain for the night.
Like Sita fleeing from Ravana,
she would lie safely beneath the Ashoka;
no beast, no ghoul would venture into its shadow.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Help from a Merchant Caravan and an Elephant Stampede
"Ah lovely tree," she cries in the morning light,
"you that ends all sorrow,
tell me, have you seen sad Nala pass this way?"
But the tree does not speak.
Damayanti stops to rest on that long weary road.
Barely has she caught her breath
when she starts as though from a dream at the rolling, splashing, churning sounds of laden horses
wading through the river to her left.
She laughs with the relief.
She is not alone!
She delights in the colours and textures
of silk and muslin bales on the backs of scornful,
She longs for the feeling of clean silk on her limbs
and frowns down at her rags.
She watches the elephants,
lumbering up the bank,
their bellies gleaming with the water.
There is a great clamour of trumpetings,
neighs, the jingle of harnesses
and the hoarse shouts of the merchants.
The thin and pale Damayanti rushes to the bank,
dusty, long matted locks flying.
But they pass her by, they taunt her.
"What? Nowhere to go, pretty beggar maid ?"
Yet one there is who dismounts from his dark steed
to come to her.
"Enough!" he shouts at the men in a powerful voice.
He looks at the lovely, gasping Damayanti.
No beggar maid is she.
"Who are you and how do you come into this wild place?
Your appearance astonishes me.
Are you one of us or a spirit wild of river valley?
Tell me the truth.
If indeed you are a spirit,
grant us good fortune and safety on our journey home."
"No spirit am I.
I am a woman with a tragic tale."
She tells him her story.
Once again her eyes are alight with hope.
The men throng around her,
wondering at her noble speech. Some look ashamed.
"I am Suchi," says the merchant,
"leader of this caravan.
Many are the places I have travelled through
yet never have I heard of this Prince you speak of.
For a long while now, travelling through this forest,
we have not seen a human shape but yours.
May Manibhadra, Lord of Yakshas
honour me as I speak the truth!"
Once again, the droop of her eyes, her body.
"Where are you going?"
"To Chedi, where the just Subahu is king,
we go to sell our goods.
You are welcome to travel with us if you wish, Princess."
They camp near a wondrous deep pool where the lotus flowers. The lotus eyes of Damayanti open wider.
All around them, the boughs are heavy with fragrant blossoms, the grass rich.
Petals drop into the water to float aimlessly
till captured by lotus leaves
bejewelled by trembling drops of rain.
Birds sing in this heaven,
feasting on fruit no mortal has yet tasted
for this is a virgin place.
She rests on the grass and dips her dust-stained feet
into the cool water of the pool.
She laves her weary limbs,
drinks deep and inhales the scented air.
Peace comes to her,
hope fills her soul to bursting.
Surrounded by such beauty,
how can she remain stricken with grief?
She sees Nala in every flower and blade of grass.
She knows with unshakable certainty that he waits for her.
The men, tired and hungry‑eyed,
cast longing, curious glances at her.
She sits at a distance from them,
unperturbed by their attentions.
There is no space for sin here in this lovely place.
Suchi orders a tent for her beside the pool.
He sends her a meal of fresh honey and fruit.
She sleeps a restful sleep at last.
The night is deep. Stars shine through the trees.
~ ~ ~
She wakes slowly to the sound of trumpeting and stamping.
The earth quivers under the berserk rush of elephants thirsting for the waters of the pool.
The mazda of madness oozes from their great heads.
The elephant cows tied to tree trunks trumpet in answer,
their gigantic legs wrinkled and grey.
They pull at the ropes and the trees begin to sway.
Damayanti is the first to rise.
She trembles at the looming dark shapes as they bear down upon the camp, breaking through thorny briars,
mowing down mighty trees, uprooting rocks.
"Stop !", she cries. "Let me live, I have yet to find my Nala!"
"Haha! The elephants, the mad elephants!"
cry the merchants and their attendants,
running here and there,
only to be squashed like fruit in the stampede.
Blood and guts everywhere.
Some stare unbelieving as in a dream,
grasping at sleep,
and are trampled among the flowers.
The horses and camels die gory deaths.
The elephant cows join the mad herd,
dragging broken tree trunks behind them.
"No, not the horses, not the horses !" she screams,
agonised by their rolling, terror ‑ filled eyes,
How Nala had loved horses!
There are voices now, filled with panic and despair
in the tearing darkness.
"There is fire in the tents! Fly for your lives!"
"Look where we leave our treasures trodden upon by mad beasts! Gather them! Stop!
Why do you run away, leaving your treasures behind?
Stop I tell you cowards!"
"Fly, fly for your lives!"
Damayanti cowers beneath her fallen tent, barely breathing. Their words sadden her.
"Why has this misfortune befallen us?
Whose evil curse is this?
Have we not worshipped mighty Manibhadra and Vaishravan,
King of Yakshas?
Have we not made offerings to the spirits that impede?
Were the stars adverse?"
"Who is that woman with the insane eyes
that stole into our caravan?
Surely she is ill‑favoured.
She seems hardly mortal!
Surely she is the cause of this calamity.
Our goods, our friends, gone!
She is an evil sorceress,
demon or witch or gliding ghost!
She has murdered us at midnight.
There is no doubt. It is she!"
"Where is she?
If only we could spy her, our ruin,
we would strike her dead with stones, canes and clubs,
better still, with our bare hands!"
Damayanti listens, and trembling,
flees into the thicket, shamed, breathless, guilty.
"Perhaps they are right. I caused this,
I myself, struck with ill fortune.
I bring ill upon everyone I meet...
Nala, did I bring ill fortune to you too?
Am I truly good for you?
There is not a ray of light in my darkness.
What wrong have I done?
Perhaps it is my karma –
punishment for the sins of a previous birth.
What was I in my previous life?
What sin was mine?
My palace lost, my children, my husband too.
I am torn from my home,
ripped from my mother's womb!"
She weeps long and loud.
“Is this the Evil One's doing?
Oh beloved, does the Evil One plague you still?
How do I find you?
How do I free you from the spell?
You were flawless once,
like a stream running pure from the snows."
But Suchi who knew that she is innocent
as the cloud that has not rained is dead.
Hiding herself from the eyes of the remaining merchants,
she toils towards Chedi in their wake.
~ ~ ~ ~
Damayanti Disguises her Identity in the Palace of Chedi
Outside the city gates,
Damayanti waits concealed till the merchants,
loaded now with just a few bales of muslin,
disappear into the crowded streets.
Trembling anew with fatigue at the thought of finding Nala, she enters the gates on slow, alert, silent feet,
like a hunted doe.
Those who see her, pause and stare.
Children break from their play to follow her,
laughing and taunting,
cruel as only children can be.
"Look at her, she hasn't bathed for a year!"
"She looks mad."
Damayanti, ignoring them, reaches Subahu's door.
The Queen Mother,
taking fresh air on the palace roof sees her.
"A beggar woman. She looks insane!"
cries the Queen Mother's maid.
"No beggar woman is she.
My blood tells me that she is noble born.
She seems troubled by the rabble,
yet she says not a word in her defense.
How sorrowful, how beautiful she is!
Go, bring her to me.
Her large sad eyes are like the Goddess Lakshmi's."
The maid, lifting her skirts,
takes the stairs two at a time.
Hissing at the jeering throng,
she takes Damayanti by the hand
and leads her through the great palace doors.
"Where are you taking me?
Surely, surely this is not King Subahu's abode ?"
asks Damayanti, startled, yet not resisting.
"Indeed, you speak the truth. The Queen Mother asks for you."
"Have you seen my Nala ?" is about to spring to her lips,
but they are on the roof now
and the Queen Mother is walking towards her
with hands outstretched, smiling.
"Though you look pale and sorrowful,
you have a noble air, my child.
Your beauty shines through your dust‑stained face.
What is your name? Where do you come from?
You seem to have journeyed far and you have no fear of men. Perhaps some charm keeps you safe."
Damayanti's story unfolds once more.
But she conceals her true identity.
How reveal that she is King Bhima's daughter,
how allow her old father to learn of her sad plight?
She calls herself Urvashi.
No, she tells the Queen Mother,
there is not a drop of noble blood in her veins.
She is an ordinary woman,
looking for her husband who lost his way in the forest.
"Stay with us, "says the Queen Mother gently,
clasping Damayanti's hands.
"I am moved by your plight, poor, unfortunate,
so like a Princess in your poise and demeanour!
The people of my court shall seek out your husband,
have no fear.
Who knows, he too may wander into Chedi like you have, searching for you.
You are like a daughter to me, stay with us."
"Then be it so, great Queen.
I accept, if I am not made to eat the slops,
wash the feet of your guests
or speak to strange men, uncurtained.
May I ask for a small favour?"
"Ask for as many as you wish."
"I ask, great Queen that any man who troubles me
more than once without reason, be put to death.
But I am willing to speak to Brahmans
who bear news of my lord.
If these favours be granted,
I shall gladly stay with you. If not, I must go on."
"I accept it all, Urvashi.
I admire your honourable love.
May the gods reward you richly for it.
You are noble and you will be treated as such.
You will be companion to my granddaughter, Sunanda.
She is close to you in age. You will get on well together."
~ ~ ~ ~
The Travails and Transformation of Nala
Ten days Nala journeys through the jungle,
appeasing his fierce hunger with wild fruit, herbs and roots. Many a time he gazes at himself in still pools
and recoils from his ugliness.
He is both fascinated and repulsed by it.
He longs to wear the magic robe and watch himself
grow whole and beautiful again
but he cannot call on the Naga for the sake of his vanity. His face! What has happened to his face?
What if Damayanti sees him thus?
Knowing the truth about his identity,
would she love him still?
Does she love him still?
Lost and alone in the forest where he had abandoned her!
She must hate him.
Has she encountered harm from man or beast?
Has she taken a new lover in revenge?
She is not to blame if she has. He is a coward!
His thoughts fill the hours
till he reaches Ayodhya and seeks the court.
Uncertainty rages in him when he beholds the fair Rituparna. He notices the King wincing at his ugliness.
He sees the mockery on the faces of the court.
He sees the hidden smiles, hears the unsaid insults. Gathering himself together, holding his head high, he speaks :
"I am Vahuka,the Charioteer,O King.
You will not find any other on earth who has my skills
in taming and guiding horses,
or my skills in preparing meats for the royal table.
I know it all.
Ugly am I, poison to the eyes, but I know it all.
Whatever the task you give me, big or small,
I shall fulfill it, O King."
"I shall employ you, Vahuka as my charioteer and horse ‑ tamer if you could prove to me your skills.
Make my horses the swiftest in the land, can you do that? Your wage shall be ten thousand gold sovereigns.”
"Whatever you wish, my King, "Nala bows his mangy head.
"You may stay then with my servants ‑ Vrishni and Jivala.
They will acquaint you with the horses and our customs."
Vrishni and Jivala, thinks Nala,
they who looked after his steeds in Nishadha!
They will never know him,
yet he is glad to see familiar faces.
Vrishni, his dearest friend.
The friend that abandoned him with a guilty heart!
He longs to tell Vrishni all, unburden himself.
Yet he must not. The time has not come for that.
Nala has fine food, he has shelter, he has a goal,
but his heart is never at rest.
He has not sweet Damayanti.
Every morning brings with it fresh longing.
Every evening he sits by himself
on the steps of his humble dwelling,
near which the stables smell of horse dung and sweat.
He sings one verse over and over again ‑
"Where is she, all weary, hungry and thirsty,
yet loyal as only she can be?
Does she think of me, foolish man
that abandoned her in a moment of weakness?
Or is she, my beloved, wooed by another?"
Vrishni and Jivala wonder greatly at this daily refrain. Vrishni knows there is something he is reminded of by the song. Did not his lord and mistress, of days gone by,
King Nala and his queen Damayanti,
wander through the forests, banished from their own land? Tears spring to his eyes at the memory.
He is moved by the dwarf's plight.
Where does he come from, this horribly deformed creature? Who is the fair maiden he sings of?
Is she as grotesque as he?
He chides himself at the careless thought.
Lovers, no matter how ugly,
are always beautiful to each other.
He tells the curious Jivala,
"Leave him be.
Who he sings of is his own business.
If he wants to tell us about his tragedy, he will."
But Jivala heeds not.
"For whom do you sorrow, O Vahuka ?
Please tell me, I am your friend.
Who is the cursed husband of this unfortunate maiden?"
"I sing of a lady who was wedded to a weak‑willed man.
She is so beautiful, so virtuous, so loyal,
that no other could match her.
As they wandered together in the wilderness,
he fled from her while she slept.
He believes he was not himself then,
but possessed by something evil.
How could he have abandoned her,
left her to the mercy of beasts?
Racked by sorrow was he at this deed.
Today he sings this same sad song.
He is a lone traveller,
world‑weary, his sorrow is without end...
he longs for her, the Blameless One.
All alone and sad, she must wander the jungle,
searching for him, always searching!
Perhaps...she lives no longer.
The jungle is fraught with dangers."
Jivala places a hand on Nala's shoulder.
"You sing as though you yourself have abandoned her, Vahuka -"
"Oh, it is I, it is I,
that evil one who has abandoned his only true love!"
cries Nala, uncontrollably, grasping Jivala's hand.
"Listen to my counsel, friend.
You will find her, perhaps I can help you find her,
but sing not of her on our doorstep.
Let not the world into your secret.
They will pity you, laugh at you, friend,
they will not understand."
"Ah yes, my friend, no one understands but you."
He bursts to tell Jivala all.
Yet he does not name her.
It would be foolish to do so.
Jivala knows him, yet knows him not.
Nala feels the well of his loneliness grow deeper still.
~ ~ ~ ~
The King’s Messenger Finds Damayanti
King Bhima's messenger, the twice born Suhadeva
has reached King Subahu's court.
How will she, the fair and beauteous secret one
now conceal her identity?
Yet how will Suhadeva know one so marked with her grief?
Her lovely lips droop at the corners.
Her eyes seldom laugh, even at the young Sunanda's jests.
This morning too she asks
if there is a Brahman come with news for her.
"None yet, my dear Urvashi," answers Sunanda sadly.
Damayanti wanders into the gardens where the peacocks play
and the blue lotus flowers.
"Ah, Nala, my beloved, I have no news of you,
no, not today even!"
Suhadeva hears her and wiping with haste
the tears that spring to his eyes,
approaches the sad, wilting form beside the fountain.
Has he heard right?
Did she call Nala's name?
Is it truly Damayanti,
once the most beautiful woman in the three worlds?
Ah, but behold her eyes, lustreless,
yet long-lashed and lovely.
Only Damayanti has those eyes!
And wait! The mark between her brows!
Yes, it is she.
Ah lovely lotus bloom bruised by the careless hand of Fate! How dry are the pools of her almond eyes,
all tears shed!
Ah, delicate Princess,
so tenderly reared to bloom in a palace built of precious gems, how she seems to wither, rootless, in this place.
Does Nala languish without her too,
living each day with hope,
or does he lose heart as the days go by
without a sign from her?
“No,” he says to himself,
“I must bring you together,
not because King Bhima has promised me a thousand bulls
and a thousand acres of land,
no, but because you are our Queen,
our flawless Queen!”
He speaks over her shoulder:
"I have found you at last, Princess.
Fear not, I am Suhadeva,
sent by your royal father to bring you home to him."
Damayanti breathes deep to still
the thunder of her leaping heart.
"I thought you would never find me, Suhadeva!
Is my father well, my children?"
"Yea, as well as they could be without you, my Queen.
They have no spirit without you."
"And Nala, surely you bring me news of Nala?"
"We seek him still.
A hundred twice born rove the land in his quest."
her tears mingle with the water in the fountain.
Her body is wracked with sobs.
"Weep not, Princess, they will find Nala,
as I have found you.
How pale, how dim you have become in your grief!
Like the moon trying in vain to shine through the mist."
Sunanda has watched it all.
Watched with amazement Damayanti weep bitterly
before a strange Brahman.
She turns with hurried steps toward the palace doors.
"I knew it all along," says the Queen Mother,
"that our noble guest was concealing something from us…
She is a princess born.
My blood does not deceive me.
Sunanda, daughter, summon them to me."
"I lied to you, Sunanda, dear friend.
How do I face you or the Queen Mother?" cries Damayanti, blushing in her shame.
"Have no fear, Princess.
My mother is kind. She likes you, you know that.
Come, she asks for you both."
"Do you know whose wife, whose daughter is this,
O twice born?"
The Brahman tells her all,
glancing at Damayanti in between words.
"Damayanti, Nala's wife!
Oh it is you, my sister's daughter.
Why did we not see that little lotus bud between your brows? We heeded not the sign,
that beauty spot with which the Creator has marked you!
And yet my blood knew you from the moment I set eyes upon you. Come to me!" She embraces Damayanti.
Sunanda clasps her hands.
"Is it any wonder that I felt
such affection for you Damayanti?"
"I saw you when you were newly born, Damayanti,"
says the Queen Mother joyfully.
"So long ago that was!
You do not recall my face, but we are of one blood."
"How well you have treated me, a stranger to your land,
my mother's sister!
And you, Sunanda, how well you have looked after me!
I have been more to you than a hand maid.
You have denied me nothing.
You have guarded my honour.
Yet...yet there is another home dearer than this to me.
Allow me then, to leave for the home of my childhood,
where my children wait for me!
Too long have I been away.
Suhadeva tells me that they are much grown
how lonely they must be."
"You shall leave right now,
if you so desire, my sister's daughter.
I shall send with you a troop of my finest men.
You will enter your father's land royally escorted,
seated in my own favourite palanquin.
I fare you well, my kin.
May you find your Nala soon!"
She lays bejewelled fingers on Damayanti's bowed head.
~ ~ ~ ~
The Reunion of Nala and Damayanti
Bearing Damayanti’s message,
Suhadeva hastens to the palace of King Rituparna.
Outside in the courtyard,
Nala accosts the Brahman.
The tears roll down his cheeks
as the twice born repeats Damayanti's words :
"Where have you gone, you who
left me in the forest wild?
I wait for you,
you who were called noble and true
not so long ago!
Have you no compassion,
Nala, shame‑faced and weeping,
misshapen Nala with the shrunken arm answers:
"Only a noble woman may be composed
in her great grief and so win heaven by her many virtues.
She is invincible.
Nor will she give way to anger against her lord
who deserted her,
for he is in deep distress, king of no land!"
Nala burns to leave all and seek her.
What torture to restrain himself from telling all to Vrishni!
He tires of it.
The Dice, he must learn the skill of the Dice.
Damayanti, having received Nala’s answer,
sends word about another ‘swayamvara’.
Only Nala would speak those words.
Only he could drive King Rituparna to Vidarbha
for her ‘swayamvara’ in a day’s time.
Could the grotesque dwarf be her beloved,
made ugly under a curse?
The people wonder at Damayanti’s sudden decision.
The loyal, suffering wife
now suddenly decides to abandon the search for her husband.
Nala is pained at the news.
Is this a ploy of Damayanti's to bring him to her,
or has she truly ceased to love him and found another,
as he feared?
Women have fickle hearts.
Above all he dreads the thought of driving King Rituparna
to the choosing ceremony of his beloved.
To watch her garland another in his presence!
Nala yokes the four horses to the King's chariot.
They are lean animals, their nostrils wide and scarlet.
Flawless are they, bearing the true marks of thoroughbreds.
The King, ready to mount the car frowns at Nala's choice.
"What do you mean by this, Vahuka ?
This is no time for jesting.
How can these horses carry us a thousand miles
in a single day?"
"Each of these horses bears twelve curls, O King
‑ one on the forehead, one on each temple,
four on the sides, four on the chest,
and one on the crest of the back.
I am sure these steeds will carry us like the wind
to your heart's desire.
But if you would choose others,
point them out to me and I shall yoke them instead."
"I am not well versed in the science of horses as you are, Vahuka, I trust your judgment.
Your success will be the ultimate proof
of your skill with horses."
Vrishni mounts the chariot after the king.
He is amazed at the dwarf's knowledge.
The horses fret, straining at the reins.
Nala soothes them with magical, liquid words.
He urges them forward, uttering sharp cries.
The hooves lift into the air.
Vrishni and the king gasp as the chariot skims
over the Gate of the Sun.
Vrishni recalls the keen ‑eyed Matali,
charioteer of the Gods.
Has he come to them in disguise?
Or has Vahuka learned this superhuman skill from Nala?
Vrishni's mind reels in confusion.
Is it Nala himself,
his beauty despoiled by some god's curse?
The chariot rushes across the skies like a streak of lightning.
Over peaks and valleys, rivers,
seas of green forest, cities, villages.
The wind sings and shrieks about them,
blowing their hair and garments backwards,
bending the horses' manes.
"I have never driven so swiftly," thinks Nala.
"The wind steals my breath.
All for Damayanti.
I come, beloved, wait for me!"
More than a quarter of the way later,
the King's mantle is swept off his shoulders.
Fluttering like some angry red cloud,
it settles gently to earth.
"Stop Vahuka!" he shouts above the raging wind.
"Stop, so Vrishni may retrieve my mantle."
"We have already come five miles from your mantle,"
answers Nala, his eyes brimming with Damayanti,
"We will lose time if we return."
They are above the deep woods when Rituparna,
sighting a tall Vibhitak tree heavy with fruit says eagerly:
"Slow down now Vahuka! Look at that tree.
On two of its branches there are fifty million leaves
and two thousand and ninety berries.
I know not all there is to know,
but this one thing – numbers and dice,
I am greatly skilled at,
just as you are at taming steeds
and making them fly like the wind."
Nala feels anticipation throb in his temples.
"Now is the time for learning," he thinks.
"I will not let it pass."
To Rituparna he says,"I shall descend and count for myself."
"Ah, but we cannot pause now.
There is not time enough for play."
"Then choose, O King, between Vrishni and I as your charioteer.
The road lies straight and clear."
"That cannot be, Vahuka.
You are a matchless charioteer.
Only you could drive us to Vidarbha by this eve.
If you will give me your word that we will reach
in time for the swayamvara, you may do as you please."
The chariot falls like a leaf beside the Vibhitak tree.
Nala cuts the branches, his hands shaking with the excitement.
He counts with the speed of thought.
"Indeed, you are right King. Your gift is a marvel.
Teach it to me, Lord, I burn to know.
In return, I shall teach you my skills with horses."
His eyes gleam like a hungry child's.
"So be it.”
They sit beneath the trees, throwing the Dice.
Nala wins the second round and then,
suddenly falls to earth, vomiting green rivulets of venom,
and Kali is borne away on the vile flood.
The agony of it makes Nala shake and cough
till he is almost swooning with the ordeal.
"You are ill, Vahuka!” cries the King.
“What is the matter? Have you eaten something flawed?"
Vrishni, now more puzzled than ever,
runs to rub Nala's shaking shoulders.
He makes Nala drink a herb potion he carries with him always, propping Nala's lolling head on his lap.
The king watches anxiously this incredible scene.
Vahuka, his brave, strong Vahuka thus violently ill!
Will he ever reach Vidarbha in time for the swayamvara?
Nala rises at last,
mumbles an apology for this unforseen delay,
and climbs into the chariot,
glowing gold beneath layers of dust.
His heart is bursting.
He dreams of her, he dreams of wearing the crown again.
He feels invincible.
Tears sting his eyes when he thinks of his people.
He shouts words of magic at the horses.
The king sighs with relief.
The thunder begins.
The horses neigh, tossing their broad-jawed heads,
nostrils flaring red, their flying hooves
swifter after their rest.
The sun is a drop of blood hanging in the heavens
when they storm through Vidarbha's gates.
The palace looms up ahead.
Hearing the unmistakable thunder of Nala's chariot,
Damayanti runs to the roof of the palace.
Peacocks crane their iridescent necks and dance.
Her heart is like the cloud that thunders
at the approach of rain.
Who else can it be but her beloved?
She knows by the sound of the wheels, the horses' hooves.
The sound she thrilled to for many years.
Damayanti presses her hands to her heaving breast
as though to still the thunder.
She peers down breathless at the chariot
that has reared to a stop in the middle of the courtyard.
She watches Vrishni descend, followed by the king.
With mounting dread she watches for Nala.
That misshapen thing driving the car towards the stables!
He looks up to see her.
A smile lights his weary features.
He is Nala and he is not.
"Surely it is he that the Brahman described to me,
he that uttered those meaningful words
only as Nala would utter them!"
She shivers again, violently.
King Bhima is surprised at Rituparna's sudden appearance. Welcoming him, he asks for the reason of this visit.
Rituparna, amazed at seeing no signs of a ‘swayamvara’,
no festivities,no kings,no princes come to woo Damayanti,
and fearing some kind of stratagem, answers wisely,
"I have come to pay my respects to you, Bhima!"
Damayanti is torn by memories of her beautiful Nala.
How can she bring herself to love this deformed thing?
How can she thrill to the touch of those warped hands?
Yet he is her beloved, is he not?
She remembers the words of the yogi.
She must not be fooled by appearances.
Perhaps the spell of the Evil One is still upon him,
the reason for his ugliness.
She shall free him from the spell.
"Go, Kesni," she tells her hand maiden,
"go now and speak to that misshapen charioteer...
I think he is my Nala. And pay heed to his answer."
Kesni runs through the gardens towards the stables,
her breath tearing, anklets jingling.
He hears her approach and turns from the foaming horses,
hoping that it is Damayanti who has come to him.
"The Princess Damayanti asks to know who you may be
and what brings you here," says Kesni, gasping for breath.
"King Rituparna was told
that Damayanti is holding a ‘swayamvara’ at dawn tomorrow.
I drove him hither, swifter than the wind."
"Who is the third man with you?"
"His name is Vrishni.
He was King Nala's dearest friend once.
Now, after Nala's exile,he serves King Rituparna.
I am Vahuka,skilled tamer of steeds
and preparer of the King's meals."
"Does Vrishni know about Nala's whereabouts?
Has he told you anything about Nala?"
"It was Vrishni who brought Nala's children to safety
here from Nishadha,but he knows nothing about him.
Indeed,no one knows about Nala.
He has been changed into a shape unrecognisable
and wanders about the world in this disguise...
he cannot reveal himself."
She pauses,takes a deep breath.
"Do you remember Damayanti's message?
And the words you uttered in answer?"
"I remember them well."
"Repeat what you said to the Brahman,I pray you,
it will heal her grief."
Overcome by emotion, he utters the words.
"Ah, but why so sorrowful if you knew him not?"
she asks with the hint of a smile.
"I feel for him."
Nala thinks of the magic robe the serpent god had given him. Should he become his true self again?
Dare he appear before his beloved in this grotesque disguise? Surely she will recoil from his ugliness!
And what of the ‘swayamvara’?
Why does he see no signs of it?
Now he feels more certain
that it is Damayanti's desperate way to reunite them.
Surely she must know that he would come to claim her
from the ends of the earth.
Yet how can he be sure?
He must tread cautiously.
"Watch the dwarf closely, Kesni," says Damayanti,
"when he prepares the royal meal.
See that none give him fire or water."
For Nala,rich with the gifts of the gods
needs not these things.
Kesni watches amazed as Nala enters the low portals
of the servants' dwellings
and the portals rise to let him in.
She watches, unseen,
as he gazes upon the empty vessels
and they are filled with water.
He holds up a handful of withered grass to the sun,
gazes intently upon it and it bursts into flames,
leaving his fingers unscorched.
He picks up dying flowers and they bloom once again,
their fragrance richer than before.
This she conveys to Damayanti,
who weak at the knees,
sinks to the bed, her heart beating wild.
She is certain it is he.
No other has these special god given powers.
Yet she cannot tell her children
that this dwarf is their beautiful sire.
How see her beloved in those beady eyes hidden by flesh,
the flattened nose,the hanging lips?
Will her love take flight at the sight of such ugliness?
Yet miraculously the dwarf could turn into the Nala she loves, the Nala whose touch
makes a thousand flowers bloom beneath her skin,
whose lips are sweet.
"Take the children to the kitchens, Kesni,"she says.
"Perhaps Nala will reveal himself to them if not to me."
Kesni leads the children by the hand
into the vast smoky kitchens.
Nala sees them, drops the stirrer, rushes to them,
goes down on his knees and embraces them tenderly.
Sobbing,he holds them to his breast a long while.
"Why weep? They are not your children," says Kesni.
"Ah,these beautiful children remind me of my own, fair maiden. I could not keep my tears at sight of them.
Take them away now,
a princess' progeny should not enter the kitchens."
The children! Little pieces of his heart!
How long it seems since he has heard
their heart‑wrenching laughter,
seen the gleam in their large, innocent eyes!
Does Damayanti seek his response to them,
knowing that he must respond?
Or have they come to see the ugly dwarf
the palace whispers about?
Hope cuts through him like a knife.
Does Damayanti suspect that he is her beloved?
But how could she forgive him for abandoning her?
She would never believe he ever loved her.
He had succumbed to the Evil One,
he had been weak,
his mind and heart not strong enough to battle Kali.
He wipes his tears on a grimy sleeve and rises to his feet.
"Come to the palace, the Princess asks for you."
"For me?" He feels a jolt of joy in his belly.
"How can I, a lowly charioteer enter the royal chambers?"
"It is her command, come!"
The sight of Damayanti,
standing outside the palace doors in scarlet robes,
her hair tangled,
the mourning mark of ashes on her fair forehead,
makes his head reel.
How beautiful she is, how sad and distant
like some ice maiden surrounded by empty vastnesses of snow. Why has she summoned him?
To question him about King Rituparna,
to ask him to entertain the court with his comic ugliness,
to commend him for riding like the wind,
just as her beloved would?
He longs to touch her,
throw his arms around her.
But surely, she will draw away from him.
He waits for her words like parched earth waits for rain.
"O Vahuka," she says in trembling tones,
"I shall not blame you.
I can only thank you for helping me realize the truth.
That husband and wife are bound together
by laws that cannot be broken.
You have taught me what true beauty is,
for even as you are, the light shines on your face!"
"You are my Goddess, Damayanti.
Far greater than I could dream of being.
I have been weak.
The evil Kali possessed me.
He made me bend to his evil will.
Your curses made him suffer greatly
but he stayed in possession of my soul
till the venom of Karkotaka
and my new knowledge of the Dice drove him from me.
O beautiful Damayanti, beloved,
our sorrows are at an end.
I have come here at great speed to find you again....
I had feared that you would not forgive me,
that you would choose another!
Three years of estrangement from you, my beloved,
and then came news about the ‘swayamvara’!
I did not know what to believe!"
She trembles at his words.
"I wanted to lure you here
after the Brahman brought me your message. \
I knew you would come if I were to hold another ‘swayamvara’. May the wind draw away my breath
if I do not speak true, my husband,
for I have always been faithful to you.
Let the sun steal away its warmth from my limbs,
let the pale moon deny me peace if I have sinned!
O let them speak for me, or abandon me, beloved!"
The wind whistles around them.
Nala listens. He hears the soughing of the wind:
"O Nala, Damayanti has done no evil.
Faithful has she remained to you
for the three years of your estrangement.
You have found her.
Now do not be foolish enough to lose her again!"
Flowers fall, the music of the spheres begins.
Nala dons his magic robe and calls upon Karkotaka.
Desire stirs in Damayanti's veins,
those sweet purple veins on the inside of her fair rounded arms.
She feels his embrace engulf her.
Everything seems glad at this reunion.
The singing birds,
the swaying trees,
the very stones.