Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Ayodhya - Three


Rama had always been precocious. Perhaps it had something to do with him being the eldest, or the fact that his wet-nurses read him the vedas where his brothers' had read them nursery rhymes, or maybe it was just genetic chance. At any rate, he knew the scriptures as well as any kshatriya could want to know them, his bow and sword-work put the best in the army to shame, and he drew conclusions from things that no one else could imagine using as evidence.

Take this morning, for example, and a fine one it was. He was up early, as he was every morning, a habit he shared with Lakshmana, and was walking towards his mother's apartments when it occurred to him that his mother was already awake, and had been awake for quite a while. It was obvious, from the way the hallways were freshly scented with rosewater, the pleasant smell of puja incense, the slightly strained stances of the maids and bodyguards at the doors. As he left her rooms he had met the messenger who informed him of the announcement, and he knew she was probably already in the throne room, but had left her bodyguards behind. As he told the messenger the First Queen was no longer in her chambers, the almost unnoticeable release in tension in the boy's neck told him that the news was very important. Pages always knew things they were not supposed to know. That was how they survived the numerous sackings that they were given on an almost daily basis.

But even Rama, first prince of Ayodhya, champion of a dozen sword tournaments and archery competitions and poetry contests, even he got things wrong on occasion. In this case, he assumed that the only news that could be important enough to summon the Queens of Ayodhya and their sons in informal wear, given that no one else was attending, was that Father was finally going to unofficially announce Rama as heir to the throne. Anticipating an explosion worthy of Agni and Vayu, he made his way to the throne room, dreading Kaikeyi's reaction.

Which was why even he was caught off-guard, if only momentarily, when Father announced that Pranjal Da was no longer spy master, and that he had decided on a successor. The reactions of Sumitra and Guruji both made crystal clear sense. Lakshmana was going to be named successor. He would dwell on the ramifications of that later. What disturbed him now was Lakshmana. He knew his brother as well as the back of his hand, scarred with the whiplash from bowstrings. One look at him screamed that something was wrong. The official declaration should have made him feel betrayed, even if he had known to expect it. He should have been feeling confusion, fury, grief.

Lakshmana's face was acceptance, relief, and wistfulness. Rama's first reaction had been to go to his brother at once, to comfort him and reassure him of his place in the court. But both he and Bharatha had been drafted by their mothers, and for once found himself on the same side as his brother as he tried to convince his father that Sumitra did not deserve to welcome such an august personage as Vishwamitra, and he should instead -

And that was where it broke down. They were united on the point of replacing Sumitra, but not on the point of who should do it. The Queens were not fools, and they knew that it was imperative to get the king to agree to the replacement in the first place. Rama and Bharatha, on the other hand, had other ideas. They were quite happy to let Sumitra welcome the Hermit, even though they both suspected she did not much care for that honour. And so the brothers devolved into an old argument, one that both knew almost by heart. It began with Bharatha calling Rama the son of a stuck-up stick in the mud, and continued with Rama wondering how Bharatha knew words of more than one syllable in the first place, and things only got worse from there.

Rama knew that in their heart of hearts, both he and his brother enjoyed these verbal sparring matches. The words themselves were highly inflammatory, and neither of them meant what they were saying, but they enjoyed the thrust and parry, the rhythm that these arguments took. It was good to let loose, once in a while, and at least it stopped both his and his brother's mothers from saying the words themselves. As long as they had their sons to do it, any misspoken words could be attributed to the natural boisterousness of the sons of Dasaratha. And it would not do for the Queens of Ayodhya to be engaged in a mud slinging match, however private it might be.

Eventually the king had gotten tired of his sons shouting at each other, and dismissed all of them before retiring to his private chambers. Only then did Rama get the chance to go to Lakshmana, and confront him with what he had seen. But instead he met with a very different scenario. As he walked up the corridor to his brother's rooms, he heard shouts and angry footfalls. With his keen ears, he could almost visualise the scene unfolding.

'DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT YOU ARE SAYING? WHY WOULD YOU EVER ACCUSE MOTHER OF SOMETHING LIKE THAT?' That was Lakshmana. Rama had had the most experience with his brother's temper. He could imagine him now, leaning against the far wall, hands gesticulating wildly, eyebrows furrowed into harsh ridges. He looked like Father most when he was angry.

'I only ask you to consider the possibility! Is it so far out of the reach of logic? Am I mad, to speak of this? Why can you not see what Mother has done?' And that was Shatrughna, his low voice echoing out into the hall. He was the one pacing, his finger probably pointing at his brother, in the direction of their mother's chambers, up at the devas themselves. This was a conversation that Rama should not have been eavesdropping on, and yet he found himself unable to make his presence known, and unable to leave.

'I CANNOT SEE WHAT DOES NOT EXIST, LITTLE BROTHER!' Oh, he had done it now. Shatrughna hated being reminded that he was the smallest of the four, if only by three minutes. He would explode, and then Rama would have no choice but to enter the room.

But the explosion did not come. Almost shocked, Rama heard Shatrughna master his rage, and continue in the same tight tone he had been using so far. 'Really, Lakshmana? Try. Try very hard. You may be being handed the reins of the most powerful intelligence network of all the kingdoms, but I know the court. I have been involved in it ever since I discovered it for what it was. Have you heard the stories? Of how they speak of Father, and Rani Kausalya, and Rani Kaikeyi, and Mother? Of course not! You and Rama despise the court! You stay away from it even more than Rama does! We see neither hide nor hair of you for entire weeks! But some of us do not have that luxury, big brother. Some of us have to survive, and when you try to survive in the court, you hear things. Tell me, big brother. Does your appointment make sense?'

'Sense? This is the court of Ayodhya! Since when does anything make sense?' This had always been a sore point for Lakshmana. Even more than Rama or Bharatha, it was Lakshmana who resented the divisions in the court and their consequences.

'Well, let me explain it to you, big brother. We're not just any princes. We're princes of Ayodhya, of Kosala. Each of us will marry a princess from one of the great kingdoms, we'll become fathers to more children than we can count, and we'll be talked and gossiped about by everyone. This is the court that everyone dreams of coming to. This is where the words are sharpest. And trust me when I say no one, not even Mother, can survive without learning how to be ruthless.'

'There is a difference between being ruthless, and using your own sons as political capital, little brother! Mother is not -'

Rama knew his brother's temper, knew he was prone to putting his foot in his mouth, but Shatrughna was not like that. Everything Shatrughna said was considered carefully. Even if he said it in anger, he had thought it in a moment of peace.

'Not who, Lakshmana? Not Rani Kausalya? Not Rani Kaikeyi? They're all Queens of Ayodhya, big brother! This is not a coincidence!'

Rama could not believe his ears. Was this how they truly saw his mother, saw Rani Kaikeyi? As scheming mothers who would not hesitate to put their sons to use in their war? As ruthless women who could not look past their own squabbles to help the kingdom?

'Tell me, big brother. Why do you think I am so close to Bharatha? Are you and I not twins? Didn't we spend the first ten months of our lives with each other? And yet, aren't you closer to Rama than you are to me?'

Rama was shocked, not only by what Shatrughna seemed to be alleging, but also by Lakshmana's lack of response. Shatrughna was not the only one who had given a thought to this idea.

'You have no idea what you're saying.' Lakshmana hissed.

'Don't I? It's always been clear that the next king would be either Rama or Bharatha. You and I never stood a chance. Give Mother some credit! All she did was divide her resources efficiently. The minute we showed our preferences, she made sure we spent every minute of every day with the one we liked. It was impossible for us to bond with each other! And Mother's secured her place in the court. Whether the next king is Rama or Bharatha, either you or I will be right hand to the king, Mother will certainly be in a better position than she is now, and we will take care of each other.'

'You speak as if whoever does not become king will be exiled!'

'Ah, but that's what they will be, won't they? Either Rani Kaikeyi will go back to Kekeya, or Rani Kausalya will go back to Banglar, and I can't imagine that they won't take their sons with them. They will be exiled. Can you imagine Rama or Bharatha disobeying their mothers on this of all matters? If Mother was not the cleverest of the Queens, you would not have been made spymaster! You and I and Bharatha know that Rama would make the best king. So the logical move for Father to make would have been to make Bharatha spymaster. That would have ensured Rani Kaikeyi had no more pretensions to the throne, that Bharatha would never have a chance of becoming king, and would clear the path for Rama! Even if Father were blind, and thought that Bharatha would make a better king, he would have appointed Rama for the exact same reasons! You are spymaster for a reason, Lakshmana, and Mother is that reason!'

'SHUT UP! SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP! You have no idea what you're talking about! Spymaster isn't something they just throw at someone, Shatrughna, they choose their candidates with more care than that!' Rama's eyebrows rose at that. Lakshmana wouldn't say something like that unless he knew something, something he clearly wasn't willing to tell anyone, something that it sounded like he'd known for a long time.

'You and I both know that any one of us could be spymaster. Any one of us could be king. All of us have been trained for this. No one else expected it, but I would not have been surprised to leave that room to find you king and Rama spymaster under you. We're princes, and we're in the court of Ayodhya, and the sooner you understand that the better, big brother.'

Rama started, knowing that one way or another they had finished their argument, that Shatrughna was going to walk out that door. He walked purposefully towards his brother's outer room, and the door opened just as he was about to knock on it.

'Shatrughna! How is he? Is he alright? I got held up, what with Mother and Rani Kaikeyi being Mother and Rani Kaikeyi-' None of that was technically a lie, but perhaps it didn't convey the whole truth.

'He's not well, and I don't think you should go in to see him. In fact, he shouldn't see anyone for a while. He's got some things to think about, and so have I.' And with that, Shatrughna left his brother's room, his eyes as hard as tempered steel, his gait that of a man far older than Shatrughna's seventeen. And Rama stood there, unsure for the first time in a very long time of what to do and how to do it.


it is very easy to imagine Rama as some sort of mini sherlock holmes, no? it is for me, anyway. perhaps his omniscience was merely due to the fact that he had very good logical skills. the science of deduction, as one consulting detective might put it.

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