(Earth Songs is a series of stories of women in a patriarchal society where they are definitely the second sex, created by a lesser God. But these women are fighters - and they usually emerge as winners, though their ways of waging battles are different from men's ways and the price they have to pay for their victory is often great. These women are all like us - of blood and flesh, with our longings and frustrations, with our strengths and weaknesses. But there is magic in every one of them - thrilling, tantalizing magic, through which the sheer beauty of these women sparkle.)
I had always known Indra. I grew up watching him. He was one of the sage's students. And I was the sage's daughter. Or at least so I thought. For, I had known no father other than Sage Gautama. I had always thought I was born in the ashram, born to the sage. It was only years later that I discovered that this was not true, that I was only brought up by him.
The discovery disturbed me highly. And brought up a number of questions to my mind. Who, for instance, was my father then? Who was my mother? Why did they give me up? Or is it that something had happened to them? Where did the sage find me? An endless number of questions.
One thing I was sure of. That they hadn't given me up. I was an orphaned child ' not an abandoned child. To be an abandoned child was shameful ' and too painful. No, I wasn't that. I was orphaned. Something had happened to my parents and I was orphaned. And the sage had found me and brought me up.
One day I gathered the courage to ask the sage some of these questions. I overcame my awe of him and asked him the questions that were foremost in my mind. Who were my parents? Where did the sage find me?
How old was I when I raised that question? I do not remember. Maybe six, maybe seven. And the sage looked at me sweetly and smiled, treating me as he had always done ' like a little baby. And he told me a story ' not a word of which I believed, of course. It was the kind of story grownups always told children ' especially a grandfather told a granddaughter.
The sage told me that I was created specially by Brahma, the creator. No, I was not born of man and woman. The creator chose all that is most beautiful in all creatures and out of that he created me. 'That is why,' he told me, 'you are the most beautiful child in the world. And when you grow up, child, you are going to be the most beautiful woman in the world. And I wouldn't be surprised if the mightiest emperor in the world himself would be tempted by you.'
How prophetic the sage was!
Another time I pestered him, sitting in his lap and pulling at his long beard, with all his disciples watching, he told me that Brahma created one thousand women first ' and from each of these women he selected the most beautiful part and out of these he formed me. And the sage added ' 'the one who gets you for a wife will be getting all that is best in a thousand women. He will be marrying a thousand women in fact.' And he laughed.
I, of course, never believed any of these stories and kept asking him the same questions again and again. He told me many more stories about my birth. Once he said I was the daughter of the earth. Another time he said I was the earth itself.
I never learnt who my parents were. What I came closest to believing was that I was the daughter of King Bhadryashwa and the Apsara Menaka.
But I doubted even that was just another story and the search for my parents ' that is, the desire to know them, the question who they were, remained in my heart.
In those days I often asked Indra that question. We were friends then, though Indra was older to me, much older. I asked him if he knew who my parents were. And he too repeated the stories that the sage had told me. When I rejected one of the stories told by him, he told me another. And when I rejected that too, yet another ' just as the sage did. And Indra too ended every story he told me with ' 'that is why you are the most beautiful girl in the whole world, and that is why when you grow up you are going to be the most beautiful woman in the whole world.'
And then he added: 'And that is also why when you grow up I am going to marry you, make you my wife.'
I pushed him away from me when he said that. I was deeply embarrassed. Shy. Marriage was something every girl had to do ' but a girl did not think of marriage before it was time for it and certainly I did not like Indra talking to me about it.
Indra finished his studies and left our ashram. It was only years later that I met him and by then I had become the wife of the sage whom I had looked upon as my father all my growing up years.
I had asked the sage how I could be his wife. I had asked him how he could have me for a wife when he had brought me up in his ashram and he had always treated me as a daughter ' even as a granddaughter. And he said the creator, Brahma, had given me to him as a daughter when I was a child and he had looked after me as such. And now, he said, when I had become a woman, the same creator, pleased with his self-restraint, had given me to him as his wife. He had rewarded his self control towards me by giving me to him as a wife.
I wanted to ask Brahma if restraining oneself from one's daughter, not being tempted sexually by one's daughter, was an act of such merit that it deserved to be rewarded by giving the man the same daughter as his wife.
Besides, it was as though I had no say in these matters. That my opinions did not count. That my feelings did not count.
As though the creator could give me to whomever he wished ' as a daughter to bring up, or as a wife. And if they so desired as both to the same man, one after the other.
And in any case, I did not believe this creator story, the story of the creator giving me to him as his wife, anymore than I believed the other story of the creator specially creating me and giving me to the sage for bringing up.
I do not know what a man feels about making one's own daughter his wife. But I do know what a woman feels when she is forced to make her father her husband.
It is disgusting. It is revolting. It is obnoxious. It is against all that I hold sacred in life. Only animals do that.
The day he announced he was taking me as his wife obeying the order of the creator, something broke in me. I could feel it breaking in me ' physically feel it, though I did not know what it was that broke in me.
Upanayana, it is said, gives a second birth to a person. I was already twice born with the upanayana the rishi had performed for me, the sacred initiation of the thread that I had undergone with the sage as my guru, by which act he had become my father in yet another sense. And now, with my marriage to him, I had been reborn once again.
For, marriage is a rebirth to every woman.
In marriage, a woman gets a new father and a new mother, new brothers and sisters, new uncles, aunts and grandparents, and a new home. It is like being born again.
But in my case I was reborn in a different sense, too. The rishi's announcement had broken me, had killed me.
And then I was reborn again.
But the new I was completely different from the old one.
The old I was an ephemeral creature. A creature born of airy substances. Of one woman's smile, the glow in another woman's eyes, the gait of a third woman, the sweetness in yet another woman's voice, someone else's laughter. But she had no soul, no substance. She was not a person.
She was a thousand things that men found beautiful in women. Made up of a thousand things that male fantasies of women consisted of. She was the stuff of their longings, of their dreams. But she was not real, she was not a woman. She was not a person. Dreams are not persons. Fantasies of women are not women.
That day, the day the sage took me as his wife, a new I was born.
This I was made of flesh and blood. She was a person. A female person. A woman. And as a woman, she was heir to all that was real about women ' not just what men found beautiful in her, not just what men fantasized about her, but all that was real about women.
A woman of flesh and blood. And an heir to all women's heritage on the earth and the heavens.
On that day I grew roots into the earth. On that day I discovered in me arteries linked with the sky, with the air, with fire and water. I was floating in the air so far ' suddenly I grew roots and these roots began nourishing me, filling me with longings I had so far never known, with thirsts that I had so far never known. It was as though I had just remembered who I was, discovered, realized, who I was and what I was meant for. I began receiving powerful, life-giving messages from deep within me, a fire was ignited in me, a fire that thirsted for many things, but above all for life itself.
I had suddenly discovered great strength within me ' strength and courage. The strength and courage to be what I am, the strength and courage to desire what I needed, the strength and courage to go after what I desired and to get it. I had never felt fettered before ' but now I suddenly felt I had always been in fetters, fetters so fine I had never realized I was in them ' and suddenly I felt free of those fetters.
With freedom came longings ' longings of the earth in me. Longings of the earth that thirsted for rain, life-giving, life-sustaining, life-generating rain. When the wind blew I did not want it to be just a wind, a wind that soothed and refreshed you, that cooled you, but I wanted it to be a wind that brought seeds that would sprout into fresh life.
I had discovered my kinship with the night and the earth ' the fecund night and the fecund earth.
I suddenly wanted to belong ' no, not just belong, but to be thirsted for.
My insides had suddenly begun to speak to me ' in the language of life, in the language of women, in the language of women everywhere ' the language of passion, of dreams, of instincts and impulses'the language of the earth, the language of the night.
It seemed as though so far I was leading an ephemeral existence, living in a dream world, and suddenly I had become real.
Rishi Gautama adored me. And I hated his adorations. I hated his attentions. I hated his look. I hated his touch. His very presence grew repugnant to me. For, all the time he was with me, something deep within me whispered ' this is an unholy union, this is a union that should not be. Incest ' my mind screamed. This man was my guru ' my guru and my father.
And yet I submitted to him. I wanted to get up and run, but I lay there, not a muscle in my body moving.
Gautama's was an old man's love for a young woman ' the obsessive, compulsive, adoring, self-sacrificing, self-surrendering, self-effacing love.
And yet with the control developed by ages of penances, he controlled himself, restricting himself to the days and hours that tradition permitted. Sex was to be limited to the ritu period, the fourteen days following my ritual bath after my periods, that is, to those fourteen nights.
And I? While I hated his very touch with all my being, my body began longing for it with hunger in every inch of it. My muscles, my nerves, my flesh, my blood, began longing for it. I had begun living for what I hated, what I detested, more than anything else in the world. The very thought of what disgusted me more than anything else filled me with thrills. I dreaded with every cell in my body the days the rishi could take me and I longed for those days with every cell in my body. It was as though I was not one person, but two. Twin selves, twin bodies. I often wondered which of the two was more real and I knew both were equally real. The rishi had transformed me from a girl to a woman and it was that newly born woman in me that was seeking fulfillment.
I knew the fulfillment my body sought, my senses sought, my instincts and impulses sought, my existence sought, will not come through the rishi.
For, to receive that fulfillment in the arms of a man, the woman has to give herself to him ' give herself to him totally and completely, freely and happily, in an act of celebration. But I couldn't give myself to the rishi. Part of me rejected him, part of me detested him. There was no celebration in me.
Which did not prevent me from becoming a mother, though.
Life went on. The wheels of time rolled on.
It was one of those days that I first started looking at Indra with new eyes. He had come back to the ashram for a visit. One day I was sitting on a rock near the river where I had gone to fetch water when Indra came to the river for a swim. The sound of his diving into the water penetrated the world of my reveries and quickly turning my head in the direction of the sound, I noticed Indra rising up from the water.
For a moment I had a feeling I was looking at male beauty – male beauty personified.
I had seen Indra bathing in the river many times in the past. But never had he fascinated me like that.
Suddenly Indra seemed the centre of the universe. Everything seemed to revolve around him.
I was being drawn to him irresistibly, helplessly. My entire being clamored for him. Deep down within me I knew Indra was not my fulfillment but my death, my humiliation. I was being drawn into the vortex of some dark, abysmal non-existence from which nothing escaped. Indra was a whirlpool of darkness. And yet I wanted Indra. I wanted to be taken by him. I wanted to surrender myself to him, to be consumed by him, to be swallowed by him, to be annihilated by him, even as a moth offers itself to the burning fire at night.
Indra was now standing before me, his whole body wet, water dripping from his hair, from his chest, from his limbs. Magnificent Indra. Magnificent male.
Sadyasnata – freshly bathed, just bathed. The sadyasnata male is no less desirable to the female than the sadyasnata female is to the male, I discovered.
I looked up into his eyes. Long. Wordlessly. As he stood looking into mine.
And then I shook. Shook all over, a sudden fear possessing me, exulting fear, intoxicating fear, maddening fear, fear that at once made all my senses stop functioning and made all of them sharp as never before.
I had a feeling a word spoken would explode me. The sound of a leaf falling from the nearby tree and I would explode. The smallest movement and I would explode. I had become so intense that if he so much as stretched out his hand at me, I felt I’d explode into a million pieces.
Time stood still. The sun in the sky had stopped. The wind wasn’t blowing. I knew even the plants and trees around me, the grass around me, had ceased to grow, had ceased to breathe. As I had ceased to breathe.
The pulsation of life within me had ceased. And yet I had never ever been so intensely alive. An eternity lived in a moment.
And then I found myself getting up and walking away.
We hadn’t spoken a word.
But I knew I had been transformed by that moment. I had been made new. I had been made whole. I had suddenly become what I really was. A woman. Not in the physical sense, not in the social sense, not in the sexual sense that Gautama had made me. But in a spiritual sense, in an existential sense.
In that moment I metamorphosed once again. In that moment I received into me the agonies and ecstasies, the desires and cravings, the hopes, the passions of ten thousand generations of women. These had been poured into me.
I was now sufficient unto myself – whole, complete and sufficient. I felt healed – healed of all that was inflicted upon me since sage Gautama took me for a wife.
I felt like a virgin again – pure, sacred, inviolate. And inviolable.
Early the next morning, while the sage was away for his bath, Indra came to me. And I received him, took him into myself.
I did not feel I had violated anything by my taking Indra into myself. I did not feel I had wronged the sage in any way. I felt as though I had always been Indra’s – sage Gautama was the outsider, the intruder. Adultery was what the sage and I did together not what Indra and I did. Sin was what the sage and I did together. Our coming together was what was repugnant. But Indra and I belonged to each other. I felt I had always been waiting for him – even as the earth awaits the rains so that she could bathe in the ecstasy that inundates her and the seeds in her could sprout.
Indra came to me day after day while the sage was away for his morning bath and ablutions. He came to me at that sacred hour when the scriptures forbid men and women uniting – the brahma muhoorta. He came to me as the first rays of the sun reached to thrill the earth each morning, as the fore-glow began brightening the eastern sky. At the hour full of mystery and magic, the hour full of wonder, and he filled that hour with ecstasies.
I knew this could not go on. I knew we were bound to be discovered. I knew suffering would follow – unspeakable suffering. And yet we kept meeting morning after morning.
As days passed, a suspicion grew inside me. Did Gautama know what was going on? I had started observing subtle changes in him. The sage had begun to grow withdrawn. He was never very fond of talking, was always reserved, but he had always been more lively and cheerful when he was near me. I felt that he had not only been not talking to me as much as before, but had perhaps been avoiding me.
Were these changes real? Or was I imagining them? I did not know.
Besides, I myself had changed since that first encounter with Indra by the river. Maybe it was my dread of the sage, or maybe it was my guilt – but whatever it was, I had definitely begun to avoid Gautama.
I was now living in two worlds. One was a world of unrealities, in which I lived with Indra constantly. The time I spent with him each morning was short, but in that world of unrealities, I lived perpetually with him. It was a world of brightness, almost ethereal brightness, a world full of vivid colors, fantastic shapes, full of fervent touches and smells almost consuming in their intensity, a world of burning passions, fascinating emotions and feelings, a world filled with unbelievable ecstasies. The other was the world of realities that intruded into this world occasionally, though as a physical presence it was always there, far more real that the world I had brought into existence with Indra. It was a world that oppressed me, that made it difficult for me to breathe, a world from which I shrank away in horror, which I wanted to disappear, cease to exist, so that I would be liberated into the world of Indra and me for ever.
I knew the two worlds could not exist together for too long – one or the other had to end.
And then one day it happened. The sage was returning from his bath when some of his disciples told him: “How great you are, Master! Great indeed is the power of your austerities! You are standing here before us and yet you are inside with your wife!”
That is when I became Ahalya – the unploughable one. On the day his disciples told him that.
The sage’s curse.
Did he discover about Indra and me on that day? Or had he known it all along and was tolerating it, accepting it, admitting his failure to give me what I deserved, out of his guilt, acting only when his disciples taunted him about it? I never discovered. And, in any case, it did not matter any more.
The sage had already cursed me.
I accepted the curse. Deep in me, perhaps I was relieved. For I had always known the curse was coming. I had known it even before that first morning when Indra had come to me. I had known it that day when I sat on the rock and Indra stood before me, our eyes lost in each other’s.
Perhaps I wanted it to come – come as soon as possible, so that I would be relieved of the anxiety of waiting for it to strike me. Also, perhaps, the intensity of the world, the world in which I lived with Indra, had begun to frighten me. That was a life no woman could live for long, endure for long.
I became Ahalya. Ahalya – the unploughable. Earth that is cursed to be barren forever. Earth that receives no rains.
Perhaps I was relieved for another reason too. After Indra had touched me, had taken me, I did not want the sage to touch me anymore. Now he wouldn’t.
The sage cursed Indra too.
I did not receive rains anymore. The winds were the only thing that nourished me now. Hot winds. Dry winds. Moisture less winds.
I had become a desert. Uninhabited, neglected by men, forgotten by them, invisible to them.
I shall not touch you any more – that is what Gautama had said. I do not need you any more, that is what Gautama had said. Your presence is repugnant to me, that is what Gautama had said. Before he walked away leaving me behind. Before he went to the mountains for tapas.
He had declared me unfit for ploughing. And his declaration made me land unfit for ploughing. Accursed earth.
Repent, he had said. Purify yourself, he had said. Purify yourself through repentance and tapas, he had said. Purify yourself through your loneliness and suffering, he had said.
The creator had played a trick on me. The creator had dealt a blow to me, had betrayed me. He had given me to the man I considered my father all the years of my growing up. My beauty had been punished. My youth had been punished. My womanhood had been punished. All for no fault of mine. Except for that I was a woman, and beautiful.
Youth should be the reward of youth, not old age. Young life should unite with young life – not with old age.
I knew I had sinned by men’s standards. But my crime, my sin, was that I gave in to the longings of the young life in me, to its young cravings. What I had done was to answer the call of life from within me.
I searched deep within me – and I found no sin in me, no hala. They say ahalya also means without fault, impossible to find fault with, without blemish. I found it impossible to find fault with me. I was without blemish. Ahalya.
But I felt deeply guilty, too. True, the sage should not have taken me for a wife. Perhaps, he should have given me to Indra, who had always loved me. Or to someone else, maybe that emperor that the sage talked about when I was a child. Or to someone else. He should not have taken me for himself.
But I couldn’t help feeling guilty. For, I had betrayed him. He was my husband, whether I liked that fact or not.
So when the sage pronounced me guilty, made me ahalya, unploughable, I did not protest. I did not plead for myself. I accepted his curse. And I lay without receiving rains, subsisting on the winds, accursed earth where only barren winds blew. Fallow. Dead.
Until all longing for rains ceased in me. Until the earth in me no more thirsted for rains. Until Indra and our love became just a long ago memory.
By the time the two youths came to me I had become luminous, they say. I was lit up by the glow of my austerities, they say.
Suffering is a kind of penance. Self-denial is a kind of penance. Burning within is a kind of penance.
The two princes of Ayodhya were very young then. Two adolescents. Rama, the elder, was clearly the leader. It was he who had come and touched my feet first. And then Lakshmana did the same.
They were my first visitors in ages. The world had rejected me all these years.
And then they came. Life touched me once more. And I felt I was alive once again.
I welcomed them to the ashram and offered them hospitality. The ashram came alive once again.
And then Gautama too came back to me.
That was eons ago.
I am an old woman now. With no hungers of youth.
Gautama and I live quietly in our ashram. Two very old people. Sufficient unto ourselves.
At times when I think of my past I wonder if Indra ever was. Indra and all that followed.
I feel I have been living like this with the sage always.
Gautama and Ahalya – two very old people.
Gautama and Ahalya – the bright, scorching sun and the fallow, unploughable earth.
We were never made for each other. Though we were given to each other. Which, perhaps, was our tragedy.
In my old age, I often think of the worlds to come. This world, following Gautama, named me a sinner. But will I be treated as a sinner in those worlds too?
I do not know. But I know one thing. If they asked me there if I had lived the life that was given to me, if I had used that most precious gift of all and not thrown it away, if I had been true to my innermost instincts and impulses, if I had been true to my flesh and blood, if I had been true to the woman in me, then I’d say, with all honesty:
Yes, I have. Yes, I have. Yes, I have…