Friday, 25 February 2011


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


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.


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.'