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!