Sunday, 4 December 2011

Numbers


Numbers. The entire world is a number. The entire universe, all infinity of it, it is all a number. Even as you read this, in words that try to approximate reality but fail, there are numbers describing you. There is a number for how fast you read this, a number for how long before you stop, a number that is your smile and a number that is your eyes. They are all numbers, and they are true.
 
Your reality is a number, and your imagination is a number. Even as you try to conceive an idea that cannot be expressed through the medium of numbers, you have failed, for numbers rule all, even your own mind.

The world is numbers. A number describes the length of your arm. It describes how long it’s been since you last had sex. There is a number for Obama’s popularity, for the area of the moon, for the whiteness of your teeth. Numbers are everything.

Ask Euler, not that he’s alive, but bring him back from the dead and then ask him, what is the most beautiful thing in the world? Ask Erdos, or Gauss, or Ramanujan. They will tell you the truth: that it is a number. Beauty is described by numbers, so is truth, so is sorrow and so is joy.

Music is numbers. Numbers describe sound; they express frequency, wavelength, velocity. But they also tell us beat, rhythm, melody and harmony. Lyrics are numbers, for words are numbers. Musical notation is merely numbers, and the sight we use to see it is numbers, and the hearing we use to listen to it is numbers too.

Consider, then. Words are numbers. Take agoraphobia, or decentralisation. Take geography, or creationism. They are all numbers, regardless of what they mean. They are numbers, and they refer to numbers. All else is semantics, and semantics is also numbers.

Numbers rule our world; it is they who are our gods. π determines our life spans, e decides our fates. i is the ruler of our mad right brain, and 1 is the expression of our logical left brain. They are all numbers. Gravity and light are numbers. Protons and electrons are not merely governed by numbers, which are ironclad and refuse to change. They are numbers, quantum and weird as all hell, which change all the time with a rhyme and a reason known only to them.

So too are the gods numbers. Brahma is ∞; the entire universe is created by him and from him. Shiva is 0, who destroys all that pass into him without a care. And Vishnu is Unity, 1, the preserver who does not change, but keeps the balance between the two who battle forever. And so they number three, no more, no less.

We are not in some tedious matrix world. Ours is too true and complex for that. The numbers that dictate this world do not just tell us likelihood and probabilities, they tell us our genes and our characters. Your unique being is a specific expression of a specific number in a specific fashion, without it you are nothing. And nothing is also a number. The entirety of numbers that describe the whole universe could sit comfortably in the gap between 0.0050 and 0.0051. It is a tiny abyss,  a universe in miniature.

Numbers are the world.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Geekiness

I am such a geek. I know I am a geek, I feel it in my bones. I know this because of the things that bring me joy.

Manga brings me joy. A new chapter of One Piece, and old chapter of GetBackers, a coolly told fight or a sappy idealistic declaration by the stupid hero, they bring a smile to my face.

Video games bring me joy. I jumped for it when I realised Dragon Age 2 was out, I hugged a stranger once when it transpired that we both felt the exact same way towards Starcraft and Oblivion (that emotion being sheer, unadulterated awe).

Television brings me joy. I can and do talk for hours, and hours, and hours about what TV I love, and what TV I don't. I love Sherlock and Doctor Who, The West Wing and The Wire.

Fantasy brings me joy. To have read, obsessively, every single book in the Wheel of Time, to have memorised the intro to The Name of the Wind, to have the gall to call myself Sauron and be called Sauron, there is nothing that is as joyous as that.

Science Fiction brings me joy. To have read the Guide more times than I care to remember, to have imagined Dune too many times to forget, to have seen in the eye of my mind exactly what Ender's Battle Room looks like, it is etched deep into my skull now.

More things than these bring me joy. They bring me so much joy that sometimes I must stop myself from exposing myself to them for fear of becoming used to that which should be carefully rationed out will take that joy away from me. And the fact that I bother to consider this, the fact that that there is a calculus by which I determine whether or not to procure an item that fulfils my enjoyment of these things merely reinforces the idea that I am, in fact, a geek.

I am a geek, and it brings me joy.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

chess and cigarettes and the blues


Chess and cigarettes and the blues. These are the things that remind me of her. Well, they remind of being in love with her, mostly. Which is odd, because we never played chess, neither of us smoked then, and I only started listening to the blues three weeks ago.

And yet, there’s something about the clink of a chess piece against a wooden board that reminds me of her.  The way my opponent moves his bishops, decisively and without a second’s hesitation, is uncomfortably similar to the way her fingers would move across her piano. The aura she exuded, one of calculated intelligence, was endearing but also frightening. She wasn’t a queen, because queens don’t have time to stop and think. Neither was she a knight, because she never leapt to conclusions, and never leapt towards anything.

She was a bishop. She thought in lines that were straight and not straight; she kept to her rules and never broke them, but if you asked me now I could not name a one of them. Even as I sit here, contemplating the game that unfolds in front of me she haunts my thoughts (Pawn to e5, I hear myself say, and I regret that I didn’t say Bishop takes King’s Knight instead, though it would have been a risky move, and foolish too).

We play for ten more minutes, our moves clacking against the board. After a furious exchange of pieces, with more than one deft manoeuvre on both our parts, we are left with a stalemate: he has no move he can make. We shake hands, and I walk outside the dreary hall, the game had been more challenging that I’d expected. They have announced a break; it will be fifteen minutes before they start the next round, which is to be the penultimate one today.

I find myself in the company of some other chess players in this tournament, most of them nonchalant about the whole thing, as if it is a matter of course that they take part in this sort of event. Perhaps for them it is. There are four of them, standing in the heat of the summer afternoon. One is a tall, fat man with brown hair and a face like a ghost who merely nods at me; he is the favourite to win this competition. Beside him is a boy, barely into his teens, but I am not fooled by his youth. I have seen him play, and it is with a kind of intense calmness usually only found on the faces of tigers stalking their prey. I have learnt more than a few things from him today, but I hope to learn more. His brown eyes bore into mine like he is trying to divine my strategies, and for more than a few moments I think he will.

The third one is a woman, wiry and short, who is wearing glasses of a shade of purple I did not know existed. She is smiling, and seems to be the only one here excited about the prospect of advancing to the next stage, to the nationals. She is the one who has waved me over, even as she speaks to the last of the four she nods me a greeting. But it is this last man who interests me the most, for it is him that I have just played, and just drawn against. He greets me wordlessly, and offers me a cigarette before taking one himself. The woman wrinkles her face with part-disapproval and part-exasperation, before taking the boy with her and moving three steps back.

We light our cigarettes, him with his lighter, I with the matchbox that is my constant companion these days, and descend into a silence more deafening than the trumpeting of a thousand elephants. I have never known how to talk to strangers; in some ways this is comforting, to know that other people don’t, either. I am being pulled back into my reverie, my memories of her coming back to me as if she were standing in front of me (I can’t understand it, they kill you, they kill you and leave you to die, and he let them! They leave your lungs a black, heaving mess, your throat atrophies and your fingers shake and he just continued buying the damn things-)

‘Good game’, he says, in a gravelly voice. I am grateful for the interruption. This is one thing I can talk about, so I do.

‘Yeah, I was a bit careless with my rook towards the ending.’

‘No, I think you did what you had to. If it hadn’t been my knight, it would’ve been my bishop.’ I wonder if he notices me almost wince.

The tall man in front of us (I have never been sure of names) speaks with a jovial lilt to his voice that belies his stern demeanour.

‘Your strategy with the queen was terrific; I’ve never seen anything like it before! Where did you think of that?’

And with that, we descend into a discussion of chess, its theory and its practice, with our two companions advancing from their position one inch at a time. They are both of them too much in love with chess to let something like nicotine stop them from discussing it. They might not be interested in the competition, but they’re certainly enamoured with the game. Much as I have been, for the last too many years.

We’re called back, half an hour later, earlier than we’d expected since these things usually run much longer than anyone expects them to even with the timers and the stern warnings.

My last game is against an old man. He is wearing a hat that seems to be made of some sort of rubber; for the life of me I cannot figure out why. My every move is interrupted by contemplations as to its provenance, but nonetheless we get done in the time we are allotted. I have beaten him handily, once he gave up his queen in a rather silly move it was easy going. He smiles at me, and thanks me for an interesting match, and shakes my hand before joining what seems to be his family.

There is another break, a shorter one this time, during which I find my previous opponent and his friends discussing what they might do if they do happen to advance. As they see me approaching the tall one (whose name I still cannot recall) gives me a toothy grin, and continues his earnest interrogation of my queen tactics. It is refreshing to talk to someone who is able to keep up with my rather long-winded theories.

When they announce the winner of the day, and all the ones who have advanced, I am not surprised to find that all my comrades and I have placed in the top eight. Of the 128 people here, only we will go through to the national rounds, in three weeks’ time. The woman takes my number and my e-mail, and tells me she is planning on car pooling it there, and I assure her that I will be very glad to join her.

As I walk back towards the bus stand, past the shops and the cafes and the eateries, my mind cannot help but return to thoughts of her. I wonder what she would have thought, to see me doing so well. Then I forcefully throw that notion out of my mind, find my music player and stick my earphones into my ears.

Though I’ve not listened to Chopin in a while, and I have been given some music by a man called Jeff Buckley (who I’ve been assured was the greatest artist to die before his time in recent years), my fingers still choose to listen to the same people I have been hearing incessantly since I discovered them, the musicians of New Orleans. As the trumpets and the strings and the pianos envelop me, there is only one thought in my mind.

It has been a good day.


Saturday, 4 June 2011

The Most Ancient and Excellent Sport of Cricket


I am crap at cricket, and it should not be surprising. As a batsman I have little-to-no hand-eye co-ordination, my arms are too weak to hit the ball farther than five feet, my legs stay glued to the ground, unable to move. As a fielder I am terrified that the ball will come my way, I have no speed when it comes to running, and my hands do a terrific imitation of a frog when I try to catch something. As a bowler I’m not that bad. I get the ball to spin (sometimes) and I trick the batsman with my googlies (rarely). I am crap at cricket, but despite this, I enjoy it a lot.

I enjoy playing cricket as much as any Indian boy who has grown up playing cricket. Watching it has its own joys, but playing it is special.

I love playing cricket, and like most people I know, the best memories of playing cricket have never been in grounds designed for that purpose. In many ways, gully cricket is truly the best form of the game, because cricket is intrinsically a game of location.

Everything is about placement. Placement, of the shot, the fielder, the line and length of the ball, these are what make the game enjoyable. But gully cricket, the kind of cricket I played, had its own idiosyncrasies. There was never a home advantage like the one you have when you play at your home, with the rules you’ve come up with.

The reason I write this is because I think anyone who’s ever played cricket in a place that is not a large ground adheres to some form of these rules, and any group of players will invariably come up with similar rules regarding the same place. Cricket is cricket, and when faced with a tree, or a wall, or a door, the cricket player’s mind works in certain predictable ways.

The first common-sense rule of playing cricket is conservation of ball. If anyone makes the ball go somewhere it is difficult or impossible to get it back from, that idiot should be out.

I had a friend whose front verandah was essentially a long, straight strip, with relatively low walls and houses on either side. The only way to play, then, was to hit the ball straight and on the ground. Anywhere else and you’d lob the ball into the building next door, and that’s an automatic out. Hit it straight and high, and it would go into your friend’s house, and that’s not much better. For someone who was used to having a large offside for long-pitch, it was painful to play.

The house in Marredpally had a few places and ways to play in them. In the verandah outside it eternally depended on what cars were there and whether you could get someone to move them. Whether we played short pitch or long pitch also depended on how much effort one wanted to put into bowling. And, of course, if the ball got hit into the terrace of the building opposite, you were out. I rather suspect that if you got onto that terrace today, you would find a graveyard of hundreds of old rubber balls, all waiting to be reclaimed.

The second common-sense rule of playing cricket is conservation of force. Anyone who hits the ball hard in a direction that is problematic has to be out.

The upstairs triangle was the shortest of short pitches. You could run from one end to the other with one large stride. Of course, the ball had to be out of the hands of a fielder for long enough to allow that to happen. The easiest way to ensure the batsman didn’t get easy runs, and also makes sure there were no injuries, was to declare full-toss wall out. There were perhaps two patches of wall this didn’t cover, one of which was the 2-d space and one of which was the boundary area (I find it rather hilarious that while full-toss wall was out, full-toss door was not. That margin of error must have been tiny).

The third common-sense rule of cricket is ease of getting out. Batsmen shouldn’t be allowed to just stand there, accumulating runs.

On long pitches this isn’t that much of a problem, given that bowlers have space to run, and batsmen can hit foolish shots and get caught out. On shorter pitches, however, like the third floor terrace at school, we’d find there was a necessity to also introduce the one-tup-one-hand rule. This was a pain, because seemingly safe shots would find their way into the single hand of a fielder after a bounce, or a fielder would catch something with one hand only to support it with his other. It was the cause of much drama, ruling whether or not a catch was with one hand or two. Other esoteric rules include things like the three times body rule, or the omniscient wicket keeper behind the batsman, allowing any edged shot to be caught behind.

The fourth common-sense rule of cricket is ease of getting runs. Batsmen had to get some credit at least for pushing the ball in such a way as to avoid every awkward rule introduced thus far.

On oddly shaped pitches (i.e. most, if not all, of the pitches I’ve ever played at) we’d have to rule certain areas of the pitch as mini boundaries. If a tree was in the way, or there weren’t enough fielders to police every area of the pitch, it was easier to just say that hitting the ball in certain directions guaranteed one or two runs. In sufficiently cramped spaces, touch-one-run might be a better idea than having to run at all.

Everyone has some form of these rules in their head, simply from having played cricket and knowing how it works. When I put up a status on Facebook about playing cricket with Hredai and Sharan, with rules like one-tup-one-hand, touch-one-run, and full-toss-wall out, Vallabh was able to not only diagnose it as extreme short pitch, but also specifically as Srikrishna’s garage.

I think that’s terrific.

Friday, 20 May 2011

To Break a Bow


As Rama did the impossible and lifted the bow, wondering what all the fuss was about, he was overtaken by something else. This was almost like the first time, when he had killed Tataki, but this feeling was so much more.

Power. All that he knew was power. All of creation laid bare for him to do with as he pleased. The entire world ready to do his bidding, if he but thought about it. There was nothing but power in him, and he would destroy any who challenged him. The bow in his hands was an insult to his stature. How dare the Destroyer pretend to his throne? He was the greatest of the Three. He had come down to the Earth six times before, and he would do so three times again. Brahma and Shiva were nothing. Nothing! And with a single movement, he destroyed the bow that Vishwakarma had made for Shiva. Only one weapon was allowed to be so powerful, and that was his Sudarshana chakra.

He looked around, seeing the eyes of humans and the looks on their faces; aghast, amazed. And then his eyes landed on one pair that was neither. It was calculating, cold, and reminded him of only one other. This was one of Prajapati’s Seven! He dared to meet the eyes of the Preserver, as if he was an equal! The presumptuousness! And his plans, the ones he had woven around every unsuspecting one of his devotees, the ones that no doubt the rest of his blasted brotherhood had more of, they were finally laid bare to him. This would be a lesson none would forget. The annals of history would echo with the mournful cries of this pathetic mortal -

And then another pair of eyes caught his attention. Ones that were deeper than any he had known. Lakshmi. And in a dark corner of his mind, there was a whisper. Sita, it said. Sita Janaki Vaidehi. What in the-

Sita. She Who Was Born in the Earth. Janaki, the daughter of the King Janaka. Vaidehi, Princess of the Kingdom descended from the Moon, Videha. Maithili, Queen of the City of Mithila. Sita. Sitasitasitasitasita

And then Rama collapsed, oblivion taking him and his memories of omnipotence.

________________________________________________________________

i was feeling really guilty that i had not written more, and i had this written from long ago. i really like it, ok? even if it is short, and an orphan from the rest of the story i'm supposed to be telling. 

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Avalon


There is a place, far, far away
And I will go there eventually some day
Where Arthur and Merlin wait for the call.
Heaven and Paradise can wait for a while
For there’s another locale where I’ll
Watch the twilit eventide fall.

Valhalla sounds nice
But it ain’t got no spice
And Nirvana’s also a state of no beer
Vaikuntham ain’t bitter
(‘Cept for that thousand-headed critter)
But there’s only one place me heart holds dear

Give me my pick
And I’ll tell you double-quick
Avalon’s the only place for me
It’s got books and it’s got beaches
No end of pineapples or peaches
And there I shall truly be free

I’ll talk to Mab and Titania
(Queens of Madness and Mania)
To Faust and to the Jabberwock too
I’ll drink at the Hilton
With Keynes and with Milton
Nothing less than the finest Scotch brew

Oh, Heaven’s not really for people like me
Angels make for boring company
Their wings and their haloes aren’t my style
I don’t want to sing Hosanna
And I crave more than just manna
Anything else would be denial

I’ll go instead
To the sleeping, not the dead
And chat up the Lady of the Lake
I’ll avoid all them duties
And chase all them beauties
In a dream from which I never shall wake.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Change

Sometimes change is good
It is new and green and spring
Sometimes it is good
To hear nature newly sing

Sometimes it is hard
To see an old friend go
To see comfortable things
Disappear over the rainbow

Sometimes old is restrictive
But sometimes it is not
And sometimes it is hard
To figure out which should be forgot

But this is a change,
And it has happened,
And it is time,
To move on.

Sometimes even bad poetry can say something good.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Trains

I like trains.

I love trains. There aren't very many good things about them. They're cramped. The food is almost always awful. The non A/C compartments are liable to fry you alive, and the A/C compartments are likely to freeze you to death. The stations are invariably overcrowded, the toilets are stinky, the space underneath your seat never enough for all your bags.

Oh, how I love trains. The dagadagadaga of the wheels underneath you. The little bedside lamp that you never use, because it's just too bright. Looking out of the window, to see miles of woodland, or farmland. Going over a bridge, wondering whether it can take the weight of this giant machine. Stopping in a sleepy little town, or a not-so-sleepy metro, where vendors outside try to sell you plastic nothings. Reading your book, because you have nothing better to do, and let us be honest, don't want anything better to do.

Trains have character. Not like aeroplanes. Giant metal birds, sterilised, air-pressured, air hostesses saying please-sir-put-your-cellphone-off all the time, never willing to accept that if the most advanced flight systems of the world could be foiled by a mobile phone, Nokia would be marketing very successfully to Al-Qaeda. Even the food is tasteless. On trains, the food always tastes of something. The cutlets are sublime, the coffee is never bland. You only ever travel on planes because they're convenient. There is no other reason why one should travel by it.

Trains are most certainly not like cars. Horrible, cramped things with no space for your legs or for your head or for your arms or for anything. Wearing a seat belt, and not being able to move at all. The cars behind you insist on going at the speed of light, and the cars in front of you have probably never heard of Einstein or Heisenberg, and madcap motorcyclists trying to find new ad inventive  ways of overtaking and/or committing suicide. Horns everywhere, and people swearing at each other.

No, the train is a special thing. The locomotive's wheels, the steam engine, the tracks on which they ride, are far superior to any mode of transport that has ever been conceived. They are conducive to memories and conversations and a dozen other things. They are home in a way nothing else is home, for trains are the technology of the Old World of British India married to the bureaucracy of the New World of the Republic of Hindustan. Sheets and pillows and rough towels that you never, ever use, the almost forgotten sigh of 'I wonder what first A/C is like', and waving to people on platforms, on roads, on construction sites, watching their bemused faces as they wave back before going on with their lives.

Traveling on a train is a cathartic experience for me. It is a way of letting go of everywhere outside, my only contact my phone, which is inevitably deprived of signal and of charge. My space the upper berth that no one else will have because it is too painful to climb, my time the entire day it takes from Hyderabad to Delhi, or the short night it takes from Secunderabad to Madras, my world my own.

The best memories I have on trains are the ones I have of going to weddings, with my entire family. Playing bluff and 304 and Uno. Buying and sharing pakodas and mixture. Huddling underneath rugs to keep warm, and talking and laughing and saying 'DODDIK-PO!' to each other.

I love trains.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Forests - Six

Ahalya

Over the last month Lakshmana has seen more forest than he’d care to see for the rest of his life. There was no difference whatsoever between one square yojana of trees and another, save that sometimes there was a stream to make things more interesting. They were well and truly lost, and depended on the Hermit more than ever. They would hunt at his word, though he never partook of the meat, and they would rest at this word, though he seemed to never tire.

Lost they might have been, but they knew enough to tell that the Hermit was also quite definitely not heading back to Ayodhya. He was not even heading towards anything that could be remotely described as civilisation. Lakshmana had seen a few maps of where he thought they were, and they all agreed that it was nothing but wilderness this far east and south of the Ganga. The stars said they were going towards the river, Rama said they were definitely heading towards Rani Kausalya’s kingdom, though that was a few hundred yojanas away, and the Hermit said they were heading towards ‘the Monk.’ He never felt it necessary to expand on whom the Monk was. Rama remarked that it was probably one of the Seven, Gautama or Bharadwaja or Atri or Agastya.

‘Agastya is the Priest’ Vishwamitra said, and left it at that.

But as they ploughed on, never stopping for so much as an explanation, the princes grew ever more frustrated. By now they could have been halfway to Ayodhya, they could have found a chariot travelling home and taken it, even. But the Hermit led them resolutely in the other direction, and they had no choice but to follow him, with only the thought that the Hermit probably had a reason for hiding things from them to comfort them. About a week after they had left the sacrificial grounds, though, the Hermit finally had something to say.

‘Tell me, young princes. Is that a hut I see in the distance, or are my eyes fooling me in my old age?’

Rama and Lakshmana peered in the direction that the Hermit was indicating, but they knew there was no real point to it. If there was a hut in the distance, the Hermit knew about it. Asking them was meaningless.

‘It is indeed, Guruji. Just one tiny hut, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Is this the ashram of the Monk?’ said Rama, his eyes picking out a spot of brown in the distance that could, with much imagination, be seen to resemble a cottage.

‘It is not in the middle of nowhere, as you so poetically put it. It is on the banks of the most holy river on our Earth. It is on the banks of this same river that the kingdom of Rani Sumitra is established, a mere forty yojanas away. Yes, we are not far from Kashi at all.’ Rama and Lakshmana looked at him in amazement. Apparently they had been travelling much faster than they had thought, to have covered so much ground. ‘But there is another reason we are here. A reason that has as much to do with Gautama as it has to do with his wife, Ahalya. Listen and attend, my princes, for this is the story of Indra’s downfall.’

As he talked they continued walking towards the cottage in the distance, the story completely engrossing their minds until they paid no attention to where they were going.

‘In the Satya Yuga the Seven may as well have been gods. They were born of Brahma’s mind, their souls made from the fabric of Kala, Time itself. They were thus blessed with both the Creator’s intellect and his creativity, but there was something they lacked. They desired wives just as their father had one, ones who would match their brilliance. And so Brahma found wives for his sons, each to each. Just as Vasishta married Arundhati, and Atri wedded Anasuya, Gautama’s bride was Ahalya.’

The Sage’s tone grew wistful, his breath quickening ever so slightly.

‘Ahalya was a vision of beauty. I met her only once before her tragedy, but that meeting remains indelible in my mind for more reasons that one. My kshatriya’s mind and my kshatriya’s eyes may have wandered where they were not meant to go, but it was obvious that her heart and soul belonged to someone else. I believed then, and I believe now, that she has always been in love with only one man. It was clear in the way she walked and talked and smiled. The question, of course, is which man? And to that I have no answer.’

‘Stories of Ahalya’s beauty were so numerous that eventually they reached the ears of the king of the Devas, and he has never been able to resist a challenge. Indra’s prowess with women has always been legendary, so to hear of Ahalya proved irresistible for him. This time, however, he went just a little bit too far. In his haste to possess that which did not belong to him, he never once considered the consequences of his actions, he would come to regret his actions in the aftermath.’

‘He used his not inconsiderable powers to fashion himself in the manner of Gautama, and descended in that form to the Monk’s hermitage. He found Ahalya there, and he found Gautama missing, so he did what I assume seemed like a logical idea at the time. He approached her, only as a husband should. Was Ahalya truly fooled by Indra’s maya? There are many stories about the powers of the ones who are wives to the Seven, but having never been one, I can neither confirm nor deny these conjectures. Now, centuries after the act, does it matter?’

‘Perhaps not. It was an unfortunate set of circumstances for all involved, for it was during the culmination of that act that Gautama finally returned from his daily bathe in the Ganga, and found his wife in bed with the Rain God. An angered brahmin is a fearsome one, but an angered Monk is a sight even the king of the Devas found terrifying. Before either of them could react, Gautama cursed Indra, and he cursed his wife, and the curse of a son of Brahma is potent indeed. He cursed Indra to impotence. He lost his ability to procreate, and take part in that act for which he had gained so much fame and infamy.’

At this juncture the Hermit burst out laughing. Lakshmana suspected there was something there, a lingering grudge between the Hermit and Indra that and occurred long ago. Perhaps it would be worth digging up that little story, whatever it might be.

‘Then, to add insult to injury, he cursed Indra to have a thousand phalluses erupt all over his body, humiliating him even further. At that second he paused to take breath, and in that time Indra fled the scene, too scared to find out what else the Monk might do to him. Of course, this left Gautama with his wife.’

‘In those few seconds his rage might have cooled, but I doubt it. His second curse was as vindictive as his first. He banished the sight of his wife from the three worlds. The beauty that had so entranced the lecher Indra would no longer plague the world with its temptation, and Ahalya would never again betray him in that way again. But once his anger had abated, once he had time to think, once the rest of the Devas had petitioned him on the behalf of their lord and his conscience pricked at him on behalf of his wife, he took a very small amount of pity on his victims. So he changed Indra’s affliction into a thousand eyes, such that he would still be constantly reminded of his act. And he promised that if ever a man proved to him that he deserved to see Ahalya’s beauty, if he entered the cottage of Gautama without a single base thought about his wife, even though he knew the legends about her, if such a man were to come to the cottage of the Monk, then he would free Ahalya from her curse, and welcome back the sight of his wife to the three worlds.’

‘How Indra regained his virility is a story for another day, though he has not regained it fully. The reason we are here now is to uphold a tradition that once took place at the very beginning of this Yuga, much before Kosala was born. Men from all over Bhulokam came to Gautama’s forest, in the hope that they would be the ones to free Ahalya from her curse. As the years passed and nothing changed, their numbers grew ever fewer, until they stopped completely. Perhaps it is time to start it once more.’

The brothers stood thunderstruck when the Hermit ended his story. What Vishwamitra was hinting at seemed obvious, but it was also ridiculous. Defeating an ancient Rakshasi was one thing; it was difficult and nerve-wracking but also somehow expected of them. Breaking ancient curses and walking into the dwellings of powerful brahmins was not something princes of Ayodhya were trained for.

‘Ah, here we are! Which of you would like to try his luck first?’ the Hermit said, as if this were some sort of street attraction at the Holi festival.

Lakshmana frowned. The Hermit always came up with surprises, and this was one in a long line of surprises. There had to be some sort of ulterior motive, something that Vishwamitra was not telling either of them, something that he suspected had to do with the Seven and the plans they wove.

‘Right, if neither of you will volunteer; I’ll have to pick one! Rama, why don’t you go first?’

Lakshmana continued to think furiously. If the spymaster of the greatest network in all of Bhulokam could not figure something like this out, what was the point of all the training? Who benefitted if Ahalya was freed from her curse?

‘Guruji, forgive me for my impertinence, but may I ask what became of Gautama after the events you just described?’ Rama asked. Lakshmana immediately focused his attention on the Hermit; their combined gazes seemingly interested in nothing more than a minor matter in the tale.

‘He retreated into a deep tapas, and has remained there since. It has been a very long time since any of us spoke to the Monk.’

Rama always did know exactly the right question to ask. Gautama, then. Gautama, who knew things that Vishwamitra did not, who would tell Vishwamitra if the context was right. What better context than to have brought the man who would save the Monk’s wife from his curse? There was something here, and Lakshmana had to get to the bottom of it.

Rama had approached the entrance of the cottage, but nothing happened. Then the Hermit jerked, and motioned to Lakshmana.

‘You too must go into the abode of the Monk, Suryaputra. You haven’t travelled and fought together thus far to be left out now, have you?’

As Rama and Lakshmana both entered the hut, one far too occupied with conspiracies and the other equally bewildered by brahmins and their ways, a blinding light suffused it, bathing everything in its warmth.

‘I thank you, sons of Ayodhya, for undoing my curse. Perhaps you would like to sit down, and I will feed you?’ said the woman who was now standing in front of them, one who could only have been Ahalya.

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that was easily the most difficult of them all. i dunno if i managed it well. if you liked it, please tell me, electronically or via other means. next bit will be mithila, and will come back after i have written it.

and a line from an article that in found while doing some research:

'It is ironic that though Rama’s visit redeems Ahalya, it is because of his suspicions that Sita decides to suffer fire and later enters exile and oblivion.'

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Forests - Five

Sacrifice

After three gruelling weeks of memorising formulae, they had finally arrived at the sacrificial grounds. For nights on end he dreamed of scions of the Surya line, men, women, even children. He learnt more at their feet than he ever had with the Sage. Not just about astras and weaponry, but about governing a kingdom, and strategies of war, and even a little bit about spying. Through constant practice he achieved a semblance of competency with his astras. He could never match Rama for sheer brutal efficiency, but an inventive use of his skills was all he needed to be good enough to keep up with his brother. He still couldn’t understand how his heir did it. While Lakshmana was proud of being able to fire off consecutive astras, Rama would string and fire three or four of them at once. In many ways he was destruction incarnate, and yet he found the time and the patience to nurse animals they encountered on the way. Lakshmana would have been bewildered if he had not known Rama as well as he did. It had been one of the Sage’s earliest lessons: ‘A king must be both compassionate and cold-hearted. Mercy without justice, and justice without mercy will surely lead to downfall’. It had been taken to heart by all of the princes of Ayodhya.

They had arrived just as the preparations were being wound up. The brahmins were ready for the Hermit to finish the rite, to cleanse the forest of the evil influence of Tataki and her ilk. They were expecting the remnants of the Asura force to attack shortly before nightfall. They had learnt their lessons well, after the death of Tataki and the subsequent skirmishes. At times it seemed as if the Hermit was steering them towards the encampments of the Asuras, just to see if the princes could handle it. It had been annihilation. After the first few battles, the Asuras had become much more careful, never coming out by daylight, always hiding in the shadows. But they had destroyed the majority of their forces in this way, and it would be a much-weakened Asura army they would face on the final day of their mission.

Lakshmana had drawn up a battle plan, such as it was. With only two warriors guarding the entire site, anyone else might have given up. Lakshmana nearly had, until the night before. He suspected the man he had seen in his dreams was Raghu himself, but he could not know for sure. Every portrait of him in the palace had only been painted after his death, and even those had been badly damaged through one mishap or another. He had only appeared for a minute, and said only one line. ‘If you cannot attack the flesh, attack the spirit’. It was a good idea, until Lakshmana knew what it meant. At that point it became genius.

The decimation of their comrades would have had a huge impact on the confidence of the Asuras. Any rumour of their prowess would only get more fantastic with time. All they had to do was play on that fear, break the morale of the Asuras, and they would win. They would make it seem easy. They would put Rama on the ground, and hide Lakshmana in the trees. When the rakshasas saw the blue skinned one they had dubbed the Destroyer, they would already be terrified. They would not miss his brother, by that point they would be too far gone in fear and adrenaline. And while Rama used his prowess to cut down the biggest and the strongest, and awed his enemies with his brilliance, Lakshmana would strike from the canopies. Any Asura that got too close would find himself the victim of an arrow that could not possibly have come from Rama. Not that he would survive to tell the tale. And the legend of the Heir of Ayodhya could only grow, could only make their next enemies easier to fool.

Like all battle plans, of course, this one had gone to pieces the minute the first arrow had flown. For the first few hours everything had gone swimmingly. The Hermit had been chanting hymns, in a better mood than he had been since Tataki’s death. His fellow priests chatted with each other, telling stories and arguing about philosophical quandaries. Rama and Lakshmana stood on guard, alert but not unduly concerned. The first Asura made his appearance just as the Hermit started the main ritual. Rama had dispatched him easily, using only his own strength, and it had begun. Instead of a straightforward attack, more and more demons appeared on their own, posturing and testing their defences, and each time Rama beat them back. An impossible hope grew in Lakshmana’s chest. It was as if their enemies had lost all conviction. He believed that right up until they surprised him.

Whatever they had been expecting, it certainly had not been this. Instead of the straightforward bull rush that the demons were famous for, they attacked intelligently. Three squads of Asuras circled the ritual glade, each comprised of several warriors, each bent on the desecration of the ritual. Every time Rama concentrated on one unit, the other two advanced, and it began to wear on both princes. Rama’s eyes flashed briefly, and with a flurry of arrows he destroyed all three squads. For a few brief, precious moments of respite Lakshmana thought they had won. But there was still something missing. His eyes widened.

‘Rama, her sons! Where are her sons?’ he shouted.

It was a question that should have struck them both much sooner. Agastya might have cursed Mareecha and Subahu, but even before that they had been the sons of two equally powerful and dangerous beings. They were princes of a lineage as ancient as Ayodhya’s own, and they were not going to be cowed by a few flashy astras. With a roar Subahu entered the fray, and the last shred of their plan blew up. Rama was beset on all sides by just one rakshasa, arms and legs clawing and tearing. Rama never faltered, but he was hard pressed by this opponent. Just as Lakshmana reached for an arrow to help his brother, something else caught his eye. Was that a foot?

A volley of limbs was being thrown at the sacrificial fire, blood still spraying from veins and arteries. It occurred to Lakshmana that they were battling geniuses, ones trained in war and forged and tempered with blood. They had counted on losing their soldiers, counted on it and used it against the princes. A single drop of blood could render the entire exercise futile, and they had more than enough for a dozen sacrifices. Lakshmana summoned Agni and burnt every fragment of rakshasa flesh that came his way, but he knew there would be something more. Then he was attacked by rakshasas. The other son, Mareecha, was still out of sight, but the Asuras attacking him were still very good. He drew his sword, slashing desperately, drawing blood wherever possible. The stench of dead rakshasa filled the air, as even more flesh was thrown at the Hermit, and Lakshmana jumped from one tree to the next.

Explosions rocked the battlefield as Rama and Subahu fought. Everytime Rama reached for an arrow; his enemy lunged at him, forcing him to dodge. Rama never had the time to aim, only to fire blindly and hope. But Lakshmana was equally beset by Asuras, and while he was doing a little better with them, his mind was still worried by Mareecha’s absence. More blood was being rained on the battlefield, and Lakshmana threw his sword at the last Asura, before taking up his bow again and incinerating them all. Rama could take care of himself, for now Lakshmana had an Asura prince to track. His eyes scanned the battlefield, until they rested on a brahmin seemingly at ease. Which was unnerving, because the only other Brahmin at ease was Vishwamitra himself, the rest of them were huddled around the fire, nervously chanting hymns to the Devas.

Lakshmana fired one arrow, then another, directly at the odd one out, knowing that if he was wrong, he would have singlehandedly completed the Asuras work for them. The death of a Brahmin would destroy the rite. But even as the arrows flashed towards the priest, he reached for them and broke them with his bare hands. No brahmin he knew could have done that on a whim. And then he saw Yama again. Death, with his noose, calmly trying every now and again to snare Subahu and Mareecha, sometimes missing and nearly encircling one of the princes’ necks instead. It enraged Lakshmana, that even after bargaining with him he was afforded no respect, no mercy.

Clearly he thought it funny. Mrtyu, asking for Mahabali and Markandeya. Well, they were the only two he had promised. He had not said anything about Mareecha, if only because now everyone knew where he was, and Yama assumed he knew where he would be shortly. But Mareecha would not die. Lakshmana was going to make sure of that. His eyebrows furrowed in concentration as he watched the Asura flit through the skies, through the rain of blood and gore, all the while wondering what astra to use. Then it struck him, another joke in the divine comedy that was their lives. Not a Devastra, but a Manavastra would he use. Correctly placed, it would banish the Asura from the forest, into the southern kingdoms, and leave him too weak to be a threat. He would be alive, but not much else. And it would irritate Yama beyond anything, and that on its own was worth it.

He recited the hymns, sixteen syllables for a line, and the corner of his eye saw Yama’s eyes light up in anticipation. Then he loosed. If Rama’s Suryastra was a golden messenger of destruction, Lakshmana’s Manavastra was an icy breath of doom. It left frost in its wake, and as it struck the Asura’s chest it froze his entire body. And then it sent him flying, far and away to the south, where none would ever see him again. Seeing his brother thus attacked left Subahu in a wild fury, and that was all Rama needed. At once he strung not one, not two, not three, but four arrows to his bow, and unleashed the elements upon his enemy. Agni, Vayu, Varuna, and Indra all converged upon Subahu, and with a last bellow of defiance, he swung at Rama, and then he was gone. Yama’s eyes seemed to shimmer at Lakshmana, chuckling, and then he returned, with his prize, to his abode.

With the deaths of their princes, the last rakshasas finally lost their morale, scampering into the forest. Breaking their spirit had taken a little bit more than just shock and awe. Too tired to chase them, the princes merely leaned on their bows, trying to catch their breaths, as the Hermit came to the climax of his rite. A crackle of something emanated from the fire, its very sound alien to all who heard it. And when it was done, the princes looked around, to see that there was no blood, no flesh, no trace of all the Asuras they had battled. Every vestige had been destroyed by the Hermit’s sacrifice. And so were the forests of Tataki cleansed of her evil influence, never to be seen again.

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i liked this bit. action is always fun, no? one more until we finish with forests, and go on (with any luck) to mithila.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Forests - Four

Atibala

Nothing bored Lakshmana more than a puja. There was no rhyme or reason, it seemed, to what was done and when it was done, except that a long time ago someone had said ‘This is how it shall be done’. However, the Hermit insisted upon them, morning, noon, and night. Incense became his constant companion, its heady aroma clouding his mind. But it was in the middle of those pujas that Lakshmana gained the time to reflect on the journey so far, to think about the startling changes it had brought upon both him and his brother. While Lakshmana had become leaner and faster after each puja, Rama did not seem to have changed physically at all. It was almost as if he was perfect already, just waiting for the right moment to show it.

But something had changed. Rama was finally grasping whatever Vishwamitra as throwing at him. Far from perfect he might have been, but whatever solution he had found clearly worked for him. Rama always did have a knack for weaponry, his hands always quick to adapt to some new exotic implement someone had presented to Father. The darker part of Lakshmana’s mind knew it to be something much bloodier, that Rama’s hands would wreak terrible havoc upon any that threatened his kingdom, that nothing would stop him from defending Ayodhya.

Lakshmana, on the other hand, had still not found a way to manipulate the gods, as Rama seemed to be able to do. There was one way, but still the argument raged in his skull, in the quiet times he found. The day he had seen Yama, he was glad to be alive. But after that, when he had tried to see him again, that was truly terrifying. Death was everywhere, when you looked for it. Predators killed prey, and were preyed on themselves. And then he had appeared. The same man, dark as the midnight sky. When he had the time to observe him, he realised exactly who he reminded him of. His grandfather Aja had had the same grin Yama was wearing plastered on his face. His eyes were a deep russet red, his teeth impossibly white. In his hands he still held his weapons, his noose and his rod, but they were now at ease. The buffalo on which he was seated no longer shook its head, this way or that, but was content to remain still.

Nephew! You are in need of help, it seems. Well, I can give it to you, but I demand my price. And honestly, it will be one that you will not like. I’m not like Brahma, vulnerable to emotional blackmail. There is a monkey who is indestructible because of his weakness, you know. An indestructible monkey! What has the world come to? But I happen to have a reputation to maintain. If you want my help, I’m afraid you will have to work for it. The only reason I am here at all is because you finally gave me Tataki. She’s been avoiding me for centuries. Do you have any idea how many times she was nearly killed? NEARLY! Who cares for nearly when they’re still alive at the end of it? But no matter, she is with me now. So, you would like dominion over the Devas, eh?

Lakshmana had remained far more composed that he’d thought he would, for he’d thought that seeing a god would cause some sort of fainting spell, at the very least.

Of course you do, you’re a kshatriya, after all. Red-blooded and eager for battle and all that. Well. Here’s what I can do for you. I can ask a few friends of mine for their secrets. They all come to me eventually. I’m sure there is a Raghava somewhere who’s had the same problem you’ve had. So he’ll tell me, and I’ll tell you. Simple.

But in return, you have to do me a favour. There are certain individuals spread across Bhulokam, ones that are not unlike Tataki. They refuse to die, because of one boon or another. Now, I can’t directly interfere in the affairs of another god, and I wouldn’t dare! Yama’s grin grew positively evil at this. However, their husbands and wives and children are another matter entirely. And if there were one person who could tell me the whereabouts of a man who hasn’t been seen in centuries, whose appearance seems to change by the decade, well, it would be the spymaster of Ayodhya, wouldn’t it?

Lakshmana’s face had frozen, then. Yama was asking for information on total innocents, for nothing more than a grudge!

Oh dear, it seems I’ve struck a nerve, have I? Don’t forget, young kshatriya, I come for all of you, in the end. And they will be well taken care of. The balance demands it. If they’ve done nothing wrong, I can do no wrong to them. They’ll live like lords in Patalam, completely under my care. Yama’s voice, if it could be called that, seemed to harden. Their relatives up above, on the other hand, well. Perhaps they shall learn that immortality is not as sweet as it seems. And then it lightened again, the pressure that had been building in Lakshmana’s skull mercifully receding. Tell you what, I’ll not even ask you for all of them. Just give me the whereabouts of two of them. Mahabali, once the king of Asuras, and Markandeya, rishi and devotee of Shiva. I’m even fairly sure the Hermit over there knows where Markandeya is. Promise me information on the king and the brahmin, and I will give you control over the Devas.

Think on it, young kshatriya. I have all the time in the world. The question is, do you?

And he had been right. Lakshmana was running out of time, their destination growing ever closer, and while Rama was working double-time to make up for the hours he had lost, Lakshmana was still floundering in the darkness, searching for the right answer.

‘Is there something troubling you, Lakshmana?’ the Hermit said, breaking him out of his reverie. It seemed he had gone through the entire puja, making all of the relevant motions and repeating all the necessary hymns without paying any attention whatsoever.

‘Nothing, Guruji, just a minor philosophical conundrum that I have been grappling with for the past few days’ Lakshmana replied, hoping that the Hermit would be in one of his rare good moods.

‘I hope I am not boring you with my instruction, am I? After all, if you have time to think about minor philosophical conundrums, clearly I am not doing enough to occupy your mind!’ Some hopes were always in vain, it seemed.

‘Of course not Guruji, I apologise for my distraction. It will not happen again.’ He replied smoothly, hoping against hope that the Hermit would leave it at that.

‘Well, if this distraction is so important, why don’t you share it with the rest of us, then?’ Sometimes Lakshmana wondered why the word hope even existed.

‘Yes Guruji. I was merely wondering whether it was acceptable to sacrifice the freedoms and lives of a few innocents so that a greater purpose might be served, and if so, how far should one be willing to compromise one’s principles before it became too far?’ There. He hadn’t even lied about his problem.

The Hermit grinned, an action completely dissonant with his behaviour for the last week or so. Perhaps hope did come through, occasionally.

‘That is neither minor nor a conundrum, my young disciple! What we have here is nothing less than a philosophical debate that has raged since the birth of man. Your own Guru Vashishta and I have been on opposite sides of this debate many times. Suffice it to say that I personally believe that everyone sacrifices something, sooner or later, and it is better to do it for some purpose than for no purpose at all. It is a harsh truth, but valid nonetheless. Everything has a cost, but what truly determines it is whether you remember that cost, or forget the value you once placed on your sacrifices. There is no greater sin than to ignore the burdens you have placed on others so that everyone might live a better life.’

‘But enough of that! I expect you to apply yourself once more to the task at hand, Lakshmana. Time is running out for all of us. We shall be at the puja grounds within three days, and all of us must be ready.’ And with that, he walked away from Lakshmana, to where his brother was meditating on his latest astra. He would not put it past the heir to have listened in to every word of that conversation despite being on the other side of the clearing, and would not have it any other way.

Lakshmana’s face turned stony for a moment, but he accepted the truth of the Hermit’s words. If the kingdom were to prosper, the only way to do it would be to accept Yama’s help, and the strings that came with it. After all, one did not become immortal without some degree of cunning. He had no doubt that Markandeya and Mahabali had other means of fighting Death. Any information that he might give Yama would only be one piece of a giant puzzle, and would certainly not be very reliable.

His decision made, his resolve strengthened, he turned towards the fire, ready to turn in for the night. In the distance, he saw a dark man with a grim smile on his face, and just for a moment he looked like exactly like Lakshmana.

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bala and atibala, the twin power of the astras of the gods. now that both of our heroes have some semblance of power, maybe it's finally time for some action!

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Forests - Three

Bala

It was as if a fog had come upon him. For those few seconds, when Rama had unleashed the power of a god, everything was clear, obvious, simple. He knew what his purpose was, wondered in its complexity, was sure of his place in the world. Now that power was gone. That inspiration, brought about by desperation and dumb luck, was no longer his guiding light.

Now he summoned his powers through science. He called the gods with method, with practice. It was no fun anymore.

Fun? You are calling down the beings that watch over our mortal realm, and you’re asking for fun? Vishnu and Shiva, may the world never cease to amaze me. I’m not teaching you this so you can play with it, young rajkumar! This is not a game! Fun, he says. I wonder if you were better or worse when my dear old friend Vashista was teaching you. Why I gave up my lands and throne in favour of your ancestors, I’ll never know.’

Vishwamitra fumed silently in the distance. They had taken over a glade somewhere deep in the Southwoods, one of dozens that all looked the same, their only guide the Hermit who never let them put a foot wrong. He was not happy with their lack of progress over the last three days. Every failure was met with derision, every success with a sneer, their only motivation that they had already done everything they could, and succeeded to boot. Vishwamitra had given them no little power, conducting arcane rituals in languages that sounded alien even to Rama’s ears. Each day he felt his strength increase, saw his brother’s strides grow longer and quicker, and yet the Hermit’s temper would not abate. He had given them the physical strength, but any advice on mental strength was not forthcoming. He just told them to meditate on the gods, and chant the hymns he gave them. They started with Indra, and when the King of the Gods hadn’t come down, Vishwamitra kept giving them new hymns and new Devas, and silently seethed every time they failed. Today’s Deva was Death, and it seemed that despite their best efforts, Yama was not impressed by either of their entreaties.

‘For what it’s worth, I agree with you’, Lakshmana said, breaking him out of his reverie. There was a small smile on his face, the kind that he used to smile before the Announcement. Rama couldn’t help but think of it in those terms, an unconscious stress on the thing that had changed their lives so drastically. ‘That look on your face when you did it the first time was you having fun. So maybe you don’t get it the Hermit’s way. Whoever said there was only one way to summon Devas? I’m certainly not going to bother with this anymore. If it was going to work, it would have by now. We’re the best Ayodhya has, and if one method isn’t right, then we can always use another.’

‘And what other method would you suggest, Lakshmana?’ Rama said wearily.

‘I have absolutely no idea. As the one with the experience, I think you should be the one to experiment with how to summon gods. I am merely going to contemplate the nature of death. Who knows, maybe Yama will find it in his heart to pity me’ Lakshmana replied wryly.

Rama raised an eyebrow at that. Lakshmana had already told Vishwamitra and him of his vision, and though he believed his brother completely, the Hermit remained sceptical. Lakshmana would not be daunted in his pursuit, Rama knew, but he would now be much more circumspect about it that he would have been otherwise.

So, he settled down next to his brother, their feet crossed and their brows wrinkled, as they struggled with their hearts and souls to find it within themselves to command the wind and the fire and the oceans.

Rama went back to that day, his mind turning over that memory as it had done so many times before. He knew what had triggered his release. It had been a sort of arrogance, that nothing could be hidden from him. Guruji’s wisdom always had far reaching consequences. So perhaps, then, what would do would be to follow his Guruji’s teachings once more. He ran through every single piece of advice Guruji had ever given him.

‘Always remember that a scared warrior is a true warrior. Fear is a soldier’s best friend. The only soldiers without it are either did, or will be shortly. Fear keeps the pride in check, and pride is what kills all of us, in the end.’ Useful, perhaps, but he had learnt that in his battle with Tataki. But it had been fear of dying that had ignited his pride in the first place, which made everything more confusing.

‘A man’s motives are his own, even if that man is a woman. Men come to me, and say “Guruji, what goes on in a woman’s mind?” Women come to me to ask the same thing about men. The truth, Rama, is that all of us are as complicated as we want to be. And when you ask “Why did he do this, why did she say that?” you are asking the most difficult question of them all.’ Well, the Hermit had certainly proved that, with his wild mood swings. The man was more temperamental than the monsoons, and as unfathomable as the deep blue sea.

‘When in doubt, ask for help. Ask from whoever will give it to you, even if it seems ridiculous, because the worst that can happen is that they will say no.’ That was an interesting thought. Who would he ask for help? Who would give it to him? There were no men here to ask; his brother and he were equally clueless when it came to this, and Vishwamitra unwilling to give them any help whatsoever. Maybe Lakshmana did have the right idea, however far-fetched it sounded at first.

So ask the Devas, then. How hard can it be? Just ask, and hope that they listened. But ask whom? Indra, the king of them all? No, he was as temperamental as Vishwamitra. Vayu, the strong one? He was just as changeable as the rains, just as unreliable. Agni, the fierce one? He would burn you if you got too close. He needed to think in a different path, but what other path was there? Not Kubera, not Chandra, and certainly not Surya. A small voice in the back of his head told him his forefather had helped him once, under duress. He would not do so again. So who, then? Kartikeya, who leads the armies of the Devas? Almost, almost. But there was one who was better fitted to this, one who was tricky and mischievous and knew exactly what needed to be done and where. Not Kartikeya, but Vighneshwara, The Remover Of Obstacles, The Lord Of The Mouse, He Who Knows The Secret Places. Rama grinned. Yes, it all seemed so easy. Just ask Gajanana, He Who Has The Face Of An Elephant, for help. Just a small favour, that’s all. Only how to summon gods and make them do his bidding. Not very much, really. He knew what to do; now he just had to figure out how to do it.

Rama opened his eyes, and for a moment it seemed that they would pop out of his skull. There he was, in front of him, seated on a mouse far too small for one of his gait. Behind that trunk of his, he was smiling too, Rama was sure of it. It showed in the crinkling around the eyes, the playful swinging of his snout.

So, Rama, it seems you have need of help.

Rama continued to be dumbstruck, his mouth unable to make sounds of any sort.

Yes, don’t worry that you cannot follow the Hermit’s formulae, his dull scripture and rigid mathematics. Those are well and good, but you and your brother are cut from a different cloth. The same one that I come from, I suspect. And what am I here for, except to remove these petty obstacles from your path, just as you princes exist to remove the obstacles from the paths of your subjects?

Ganesha seemed to lean in, even as he stayed exactly where he was.

One piece of advice, Rama. The Seven are dangerous folk indeed. Be wary of them, as you should be wary of me. Nothing they do is without consequence, however much it seems insignificant. The curse the Priest cast an era ago affects the princes of Ayodhya today, and the actions of Vasishta and Vishwamitra today will reverberate for millennia to come.

Merely say my name before your every endeavour, rajkumar. We shall have fun, you and I, and never you mind the mutterings of Vishwamitra.

Rama came out of his trance, gasping for breath as if he had just run a thousand kilometres in a single second. In some ways, he had.

Lakshmana looked at him, his eyes clouded by worry and fear. His brow was slick with sweat, and the smile he offered was weaker than it had been scant half an hour before.

‘I don’t know about you, Rama, but Death scares the shit out of me.’

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Forests - Two

Tataki

She looked at Rama. The expression on her face was one he was accustomed to seeing, just not on a bloodthirsty demon intent on killing him. It spoke of untold weariness, and sheer exhaustion, and a very tiny amount of grim determination that was fuelling her even now. Usually it was one that his father wore, at the end of a particularly long day. It was one that veterans of the last war wore, at the beginning of the anniversary. And it was that expression that the rakshasi that he had come to slay had on her face.

'You, little boy? You will defeat me? Brahma blessed me with power and speed and wit beyond compare. Agastya cursed me into this form for all eternity. I have survived more than you can imagine. The passing of Time does not affect me. I cannot drown, cannot burn, cannot be poisoned. There is only one thing I live for. I will avenge my husband, and remove this curse from my body. But you will end me? A snivelling little brat barely out of his teens? I wish you luck, for all the good it will do you', she said in little more than a whisper, though it seemed to carry for miles.

Then another voice spoke; one that was supposed to be chanting hymns, but had stopped abruptly when Tataki had started speaking. With one hand motion he paused the world. All tension seemed to leave it, all hostility disappearing like so much water in desert heat. 'You do not know who this boy is, Tataki. He is your downfall.'

‘Hermit, do not disrespect your senior. I was old in this form before you were a thought in Brahma's mind. Death shall have no dominion over me. The noose of one as pathetic as Yama will never encircle my neck.'

'Really, rakshasi? None can best Death. He bows only to Shiva, the Destroyer, and even then under great duress. Taint the name of a son of Surya, and a son of Surya will claim restitution.'

'Hn. I would like to see him try', she said, in the softest of tones. Her manner shifted, her eyes hardened as she fought the maya of the Hermit with her own, and the battle was joined again. Gone was the tired warrior; in her place was a rakshasi eager for bloodshed.

Rama's bow was strung, his fingers ready for action, his mind calling to the memories of the Hermit's teachings. Next to him Lakshmana had a sword in hand, ready to fend off any attacks on his brother. They had both agreed that Rama was best suited for the bow; that Lakshmana's quick swordwork would come to both their advantages in a tight spot.

Rama's mind calmed. Vishwamitra's voice echoed in his skull. 'To call the Devas is not an easy task, young princes. They do not bow to just anyone. They are proud, stubborn, and wilful. And yet we know it is possible for them to aid us. I myself have done it, in times of need. And so we come to the how. How is it that kshatriyas can do what brahmins cannot, to make the Devas do one's bidding? The priests speak to them; they ask them for favours, bind them with hymns. But they cannot control the gods. That is the power of the warriors alone. And to do so, one must accept one simple fact. The gods are not people. They are ideas. And all you need to call an idea is to name it. An elephant king once called down Narayana himself, simply by naming him. And that is what you must do. Name the gods, their characters, their very being, and they will have no choice but to descend. They do not do this willingly. They do not take kindly to being summoned, whether it be by a street sweeper or Vasistha himself. And to withstand their force, you must learn Bala and Atibala. You must fortify your minds and your bodies. Do this, and the astras of the gods shall be yours.'

‘But you have not yet proved yourselves worthy of the astras of the Devas. Defeat Tataki own your own merit, and then I shall teach you to wield Bala and Atibala. Show me the power of the Line of Surya.’

Tataki swung wildly at the two princes, her reach far longer than any normal woman’s. As Lakshmana tried to defend his brother, jumping over the demoness’ arm before landing awkwardly a few feet away, Rama was already pulling back his bowstring, launching one arrow, then another, then a third, all at the most vital points he could find. And yet, despite the skill of Ayodhya’s best, despite the fact that Rama knew that he was aiming for the eyes, that arrows should have hit the eyes, they missed. Every single one of them.

He had already been separated from his brother. Lakshmana was behind the rakshasi, trying to regain lost ground, but she was moving too fast for either of the princes to find purchase. He continued to fire arrows at her, but to no avail. Rama’s mind, always fast, always fluid, always flexible, could come to only one conclusion. They were not good enough. The crown princes of Ayodhya, descendents of the Sun, sons of Dasaratha, grandsons of Aja, the best in the realm, were not good enough. And that was not acceptable. Rama refused to bow in the face of adharma. The sun brooked no defeat, brooked no insults. The demoness had insulted his family, for was not Yama the son of Surya? And for that, she would pay.

With a final gasp of breath, Rama nocked his very last arrow. He poured all his might, all of his very being into it, as he tracked the demoness’ chest and the beating heart that lay underneath it. And, just as he was about to loose, a single unbidden thought came to him.

'Some things are hidden even from the one from whom nothing is hidden'

He was a Suryaputra! He destroyed secrets and shadows and left nothing but light! THERE WOULD BE NOTHING HIDDEN FROM HIM!

Just for the briefest of moments, when it mattered the most, the meaning of the most powerful hymns of flickered in his mind. A spark that grew into a flame that became an inferno of four simple lines praising none other than his own grandfather many times over. He named his patron, Savitr-called-Surya, and beckoned him into his last weapon. And then he loosed.

That single arrow was transformed. Once it might have been wood and metal and nothing more. Now it was a golden missile, bent on destroying anything that came in its path, demoness or no demoness. He saw Tataki’s eyes widen, he felt Lakshmana dive out of its path, and he just knew that back in Ayodhya Guruji was meditating in his ashram, the ghost of a proud smile dancing on his lips.

Tataki’s death was a conflagration of light. As it struck her breast, it burned through blood and bone, lungs and heart dissipating in its wake. The utter disbelief in Tataki’s eyes might have been comical had she not been about to skewer him with her claws. And so the deed was done. He had killed Tataki, and he had not needed anyone’s strength but his own. Surya could still hold his head high, secure in the knowledge that his descendants were still the most powerful of them all.

In those precious moments of reflection, when he was trying to recover from that one instant of sheer clarity, he missed a single detail. One that his brother managed to catch. Lakshmana, while diving out of the path of the astra, had for once seen something that his brother did not. A dark man, with a noose in one hand, an iron rod in the other, seated on a buffalo, trying desperately to encircle Tataki’s neck. One who, after Rama’s arrow pierced the heart of the demoness, finally succeeded. One who then winked at Lakshmana, as if to say ‘You cannot avoid me forever’, before disappearing with his prize.

There would be much discussion after the fact, of how exactly Rama had managed to call down Surya without Bala or Atibala, of whether Lakshmana’s visions of Yama were caused by fatigue, adrenaline, or some combination of the two. But for now, both princes were happy to be alive, to have killed a demoness far older than them, and to know that the other had not died.

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aaaaaaand cut. i really liked this bit, i thought it came out well.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Forests - One

this is the sequel to an earlier series i had written called Ayodhya. All parts of my unworthy version of the Ramayana can be found under the label myths.

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Kaama

A forest is full of sounds. This was the first thing that Rama noticed. It was one thing to have keen ears in a palace, where it was only people who talked and walked and made noise. It was quite another in the natural habitat of dozens of different predators and just as many prey. Every noise signified something, but in the time it took to ponder it’s significance, another replaced it. Even Rama’s admittedly superior sense of hearing could not keep up with the sudden increase in information.

'Just a little further, young princes. I imagine after yesterday you need rest, yes?' the Hermit said. Vishwamitra really was unlike Vashista in the most surprising of ways. They had stopped at the Hermitage of Kama the day before, and the things that he had heard still made him blush! The Hermit, on the other hand, did not seem to care. He merely smiled and said something about getting a proper education. And when he spoke to Lakshmana about it, his brother looked at him and said that learning to control one’s urges was all very well, but they had those urges for a reason. It had taken him an entire minute to realise that he had been joking. Perhaps his brother was coming back to them, however slowly the process might be.

However, the visit did prove useful. Vishwamitra used a combination of flattery and seniority to persuade the brahmins to keep the princes occupied, and disappeared into the forest. After listening to several rather embarrassing treatises on various ….. positions inspired by the escapades of God of Love himself (or so the legend went) they had finally come to something useful. The demoness Tataki, devourer of brahmins.

It was one of the elder yogis who told the story. They called him Shanti, though it was likely that his parents had named him something different, a name that he had replaced once he joined the ashram. He intoned the Gayatri mantra first, something that Rama had heard since before his birth, but could never recall. It seemed that whenever he tried, he came up with nothing but a blinding headache. He had once asked Guruji why this was so, and Guruji had smiled at him, and said 'Some things are hidden even from the one from whom nothing is hidden'. Guruji really did take a delight in being obtuse, sometimes.

'Listen well, Daasarathi, for this story has its beginnings in the very dawn of time'. Just like many of the priests sitting around them, he thought, before he batted it away. Next to him, Lakshmana restrained himself from letting out a loud guffaw, no doubt from having entertained a view along similar lines. Rama frowned. It seemed the Hermit was rubbing off on both of them, and not always in a good way. He shook his head and continued to listen to the yogi, who now seemed to be extolling the virtues of Ganesha, though for what reason Rama could have guessed. In an extremely roundabout manner, the yogi finally arrived at what Rama assumed was the crux of the matter.

'-and that is why we do not anger any of the Seven, for their wrath can be, and often is, great and terrible indeed. This is a lesson that Tataki learned a very long time ago, in the Satya Yuga itself. In those days much that we take to be fixed was mutable, and much that we now know to be mutable was fixed. Some laws, much more lenient then, have now become harsh, while others, which are now guidelines at best were then rules that no one broke. One such law was brahmahatya.'

'I would imagine killing in general would have been condemned then, much as it is now, Shantiji’, Lakshmana interjected, a little harshly in Rama’s opinion.

The yogi only smirked at Lakshmana. 'In those days, young prince, death was not as permanent as it is now. To be reborn after dying was a certainty, not a hope. Indeed, many souls could and did remember their past lives, and sought out their past parents or children, though that action always had terrible consequences. But killing a brahmin meant making all of his tapas null and void. All of the restraint poured into a lifetime's worth of rigour, gone in the instant it took for Yama's noose to encircle a brahmin's neck. The loss of such tapas could only be balanced by the punishment meted to those responsible for such a heinous act. As a result, brahmins themselves used their tapas to administer harsh punishments on those foolish enough to harm one of their own.'

'So the brahmins were unrestrained in their punishment of otherwise defenceless people?' Lakshmana interrupted again. What was wrong with him? He was never this rude to any of the palace brahmins.

'I think it would be very hard to attack someone and not have any defences, prince. And I think you fail to understand, that in the Satya Yuga there was no reason for anyone to attack anyone else. Food was plentiful, there was no shortage of space, and no one's desires outmatched their needs. Any violence was rare. Violence inflicted upon brahmins was thus even rarer. Our ancestors merely strove to keep it that way.'

Strangely, neither the yogi nor his brother seemed to be at any unease. A smile played on his brother's lips, while the yogi was still smirking, his eyes twinkling in the firelight.

'At any rate, whether or not it was, in fact, a bad thing', and upon saying this he raised an eyebrow at Lakshmana, 'the fact remains that brahmahatya was punishable by whatever the attacked brahmin deemed appropriate.'

Then, having explained in great detail the whys and wherefores of brahmahatya, the yogi did something that should really not have surprised Rama. He changed the topic to something completely unconnected to his previous subject.

'Once, there were Yakshas on Bhulokam. In the days before the advent of Ravanasura, the isle of Lanka belonged to Kubera, the god of wealth, and the guardian of the North. It was he who ruled the Yakshas, the Gandharvas, the Kinnaras, and a host of other beings. These beings frequently travelled outside their lord's realm, and settled in many places far removed from his influence. One such Yaksha was called Suketu.'

'Suketu was a Yaksha of no mean power. He had won the right to leave his lord's realm through many trials of wit and combat, and settled himself in a wealthy forest kingdom which he ruled for many centuries. However, despite his loyalty to his king, and his respect of his people, there was one thing that Suketu lacked. He desired a child, someone to carry on his name and bring it even more glory. And so he began a penance great and terrible, fasting and chanting hymns continuously, so that Brahmadeva might bless him. Eventually, Brahmadeva did take notice of the Yaksha king, and blessed him with a beautiful daughter. This daughter Suketu named Tataki.'

'Tataki was a joy to her father and her people. Her beauty was renowned far and wide, and many princes from great kingdoms sought her hand in marriage. In the end, Tataki married Sumali, the son of an ancient Daitya called Sukesh. Unlike his wife, and his wife's father, Sumali was not the most humble of men. His propensity to insult those above his station would prove his undoing.'

'Tataki bore Sumali two sons, Mareecha and Subahu, and one daughter, Kaikesi. These sons would often walk for hours with their father, conversing on a wide variety of topics. It so happened that on one of these walks, they walked past a man. As Daityas, they stood no less than ten feet tall, and this man was perhaps five feet at most. And so Sumali called out to his sons, saying 'Look at this puny man, who does not even reach my knees! Who is this worthless being who dares to walk upon the lands of Sumali the Great? I shall have his head for my dinner table tonight!'

'That man was no other than the Sage Agastya. As you are no doubt aware, the Seven are capable of hearing and seeing things that would normally be hidden from mere mortals.’ A sardonic grin appeared on Lakshmana’s face, mirroring Rama’s own. ‘Upon hearing this threat to his person, Agastya was fearful of his life. It is not a small thing when someone threatens one of the Seven.’

‘And so he used this law of brahmahatya to visit some terrible punishment on an arrogant Daitya prince.’ Lakshmana finished for him coldly.

‘That is indeed what he did, young prince. He ended the poor Daitya’s life, and confined him to the lowest levels of Patalam for all eternity, for only then could he be sure that the Daitya would not come upon him to take his revenge.’

Then Shanti smiled at Rama, and said ‘So, rajkumar, what do you think happened next?’

And, strange as it was, Rama did know what happened next. ‘Mareecha and Subahu were enraged by this action. As princes of their kingdom, as sons of their father, they were honour bound to retaliate. Along with their mother, a powerful warrior in her own right, they tracked down Agastya and attacked him. At this time, however, Agastya was more prepared, more in control of his emotions. The fact that this attack was brought upon by the love they held for Sumali meant that any retribution he might bring upon them had to be at least slightly mitigated. And so he cursed them. He cursed them, not to Patalam and the ministrations of the Asuras who reside there, but to live the life of Rakshasas in Bhulokam. In sparing them from death, he gave them a small sliver of a chance of salvation. But they spurned it. Even today, they prey upon all brahmins who dare enter their territory, their anger dulled not in the least by the passing of a Yuga, always seeking their one true enemy, the one who cursed them into their pitiful states.’

The fire was guttering out, its reflection in the eyes of those around him slowly dying. Lakshmana looked at him dumbstruck, while the yogi continued that to smile that infuriating smile, the rest of his face blurred by the darkness.

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wilkommen to my next bit. hopefully i am deviating enough from whatever other versions you have read, and i am not boring you. the next bit will have fighting in it, i promise!