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Parikshit and Sushobhana
|by Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya|
Love Stories from the Mahabarata
At the other end of the lake, surrendering the pleasant ease of her freshly bathed body to a bed of tender flowers in the secret recesses of a creeper-covered hut, sat Ayu's daughter, Sushobhana. Before her was a blue, dense forest, as though a turquoise pile had fled the unbearable canopy of the burning skies to seek shelter on earth.
Manduka-king Ayu is despondent. His mind is not at peace. The Manduka-king cannot wipe out the sorrow of his daughter having rebelled against feminine nature. Hoping to marry her to a suitable person, how often had the king wanted to hold a bridegroom-choice ceremony! But Sushobhana has objected, obstructed and ultimately flared up like a serpent spurned. 'Do not build a new cage, father, for the pet bird caged in your love. I won't be able to bear it.'
King Ayu has not tried to hold any more assemblies for choosing a bridegroom. Afraid, he remains silent.
Afraid'the fear of scandal. Manduka-king Ayu is anxious regarding public calumny. Surely, the secret foolishness of his whimsical daughter will not remain hidden forever from society. Even in the midst of such anxiety, King Ayu cannot but be surprised at how, even today, this story of infamy has remained unknown to people and how he has still remained secure from the onslaught of public scandal.
That mystery is known only to the maidservant Subinita. Nothing of all the wiles and stratagems and encounters of the whimsical princess is unknown to her.
Sushobhana has spun a profoundly cunning stratagem for protecting herself from scandal. She does not reveal her identity to any aspiring lover. No one knows who is this much-desired woman; whence she comes and where she disappears for ever. Is she truly the daughter of any mortal father? Is she actually a woman brought up in this earthly world? Has she been churned out of the fragrance of all the flowers of some forest? Or is she a companion of a goddess of the eight directions, visiting this dusty earth for picking up a few pearls? Or is she a dream of this blooming lotus, or the thirst of those constellations?
Who is this radiant-bodied unknown one who, like moon-rays showered from the sky, flooding the hearts of lovers with the moonlight of infatuation, again slides behind some dark cloud? Unable to bear the separation from that shy, unknown beloved, one king has been driven mad; another, leaving his kingdom to ministers, has taken to the forest. The lives of all have become joyless. All the pain and sufferings of those kings estranged from their beloved are known to Sushobhana and also to Subinita. But, because of that, there is no remorse, no regret in the mind of princess Sushobhana, while the maid Subinita protests constantly.
Why this practice of deception and this courtesan-like behaviour? Stop, princess!' Even this desperate plea of Subinita has not had any effect. Subinita has grown more miserable, Manduka-king Ayu is sadder and the golden lamp atop the moss-green stone palace has become even fainter, hiding its face behind the evening mist.
But the lamp blazes up brighter in Sushobhana's chamber. Returning after each assignation, it is as though Sushobhana loses herself in victory celebrations. Sushobhana's festival loses itself in the drunken lassitude of wine, the music of the vina, and the tinkling of golden anklets on dancing feet. Observing the life-style of this dancing, cruel actress, her companions shiver with fear and the fly-whisks held in their hands tremble in pain and terror.
How can Sushobhana escape so easily from the embrace of the infatuated lover? By what magic? Does no one stop her? Has no one the strength to prevent her?
Not by magic, but through deception. And that deception is so very enchanting and flawless. Expert in deceiving, Sushobhana has discovered a trick of how to vanish after having achieved victory in the campaign for conquering a man's heart.
Before surrendering herself to each lover Sushobhana requests one promise. It is a vow wrought of pretended fear and imaginary anxiety:
'I have no objection to become your life-companion, beloved best-of-men. But promise me one thing.'
Sushobhana does not delay any longer. She surrenders herself to the lover's embraces, and from the next instant this playgirl's life awaits in secret the occurrence of only one event. After one hour or two, one day or two, or seven days and nights, or even after a month'when will the gaze of this infatuated man be free of the shadow of blazing lust to reveal the profound depths of his being?
This waiting ends that day when, clasping Sushobhana's hands lovingly to his breast, looking at the mountain bathed in orange glow by the soft rays of the young sun at dawn, the lover says,
'Even in the midst of so much happiness I feel afraid at times, beloved.'
Sushobhana's palms tingle with delight. In the lover's speech it is inner suffering that throbs. Now, after so long, this foolish man's love has become sincere. Sushobhana's campaign for conquering the inner being has become successful.
Thereafter, not much longer. The day the sky was overcast with new monsoon clouds, sportive Sushobhana, richly bedecked, brimming with joy takes her lover's hand and says,
'Roam with me in the garden, beloved. Today my heart wishes to enchant your ears with my dancing anklets.'
Immediately on entering the garden, the calls of peacocks echo from all sides from within the shade of the tamaal tree. Holding her lover's hand, Sushobhana runs to the tamaal tree as though truly thrilled, like a peahen longing for her mate.
Suddenly Sushobhana asks, 'Dearest, what is the name of this lovely-leafed tree beloved of the peacock?'
Evening comes. Darkness congeals below the tamaal. Sushobhana sits there alone. Then, she cannot be found any more.
The lover knows, no amount of seeking will find her. That unknown marvellous beauty, churned out of the fragrance of all the flowers of this blue forest expanse, has been lost in the darkness of this clouded evening. That lovely lipped, surprising, nameless beloved is dead. Gazing with thirsty eyes at the blue garden sits princess Sushobhana. Before her sits her companion, Subinita, fanning her.
Moistening the stubs of new leaves in the juice of red kumkum flowers, she draws designs on Sushobhana's breast. Waving the whisk she fans Sushobhana's cheeks, pained with beads of perspiration. Like an expert hairdresser, with gentle fingers she arranges the rebellious ringlets on Sushobhana's forehead into an artful disarray. On the coiffure, arranged like layers of clouds, she pins a brilliant white moonstone. Then, raising Sushobhana's chin with one hand, she scrutinises anxiously whether anything else is wanting in touching-up the loveliness of the princess' face.
Glancing sidelong in amusement at her companion, princess Sushobhana asks, 'What are you looking at, Subinita?'
Companion Subinita's voice trembles with complaint,
'Too-beautiful princess, your beauty is very cruel. This beauty pierces the heart of infatuated men, wounds them, enslaves them. The summons of your voice, like a deceptive echo, maddens the heart of the hearer and vanishes into space. Like sudden lightning, you only blind the wayfarer's eyes and disappear. You are beauty's deceptive gambler. Everything is yours, except for a heart.'
Instead of getting annoyed with her companion's accusations, Sushobhana laughs aloud in delight,
'You are absolutely right, Subinita. I am glad to hear it.'
Shaking with uncontrollable laughter, swaying her body intoxicated with the arrogance of its youth, Sushobhana says,
'Your heart fills with terror, maid, and I feel that my life as a woman is fulfilled. One after another mighty, famous, arrogant monarchs hanker, like bees maddened by lotus-scent, to kiss the reddened soles of these feet. The very next instant, leaving only the vacant mist behind for the distracted man, I come away forever. Tell me, friend, is there anything more fulfilling in a woman's life, a matter of greater pride, than this?'
'You have misunderstood, princess. Such a life cannot be desired by any woman.'
Again, shattering the foolish maid's advice by the sound of her scornful laughter, Sushobhana says,
'Being a wife means becoming man's slave. Despite being a servant, why can't you imagine the agony of that petty existence, Subinita? Do not give me the advice to follow the path to death, maid.'
Looking up scornfully, Sushobhana asks again,
'How does one become beloved-bride-wife, maid? Is there any prescribed rule for that?'
'In my life there is no burden called the heart, Subinita. Tell me, how shall I give away what I do not have?'
The maid's eyes mist over. In a pained voice she says,
'I do not wish to say anything more, princess. I only pray that in your life may the heart appear.'
Sushobhana is angered.
'This cursed hope of yours shall surely be frustrated, maid! That is why I am not punishing you. Otherwise, for the crime of having entertained that frightful desire, I would have driven you away right now forever.'
Sushobhana is grim. Her companion Subinita is also silent. In the calm summer noon, within the creeper-covered hut, her lovely body perfumed with unguents, sits the Manduka princess Sushobhana. With a peculiar thirsty gaze she stares at the end of blue garden-path. And, Subinita silently performs a maid's duty by fanning her.
Suddenly Sushobhana grows agitated. Her two eyes fixed on the garden-path look like the eyes of a huntress. Noticing something, the pupils of her eyes, graced with black eyelashes, have become restless. Curious, Subinita, too, glances once at the garden and immediately turns away her face in apprehension. The whisk in her hand trembles with fear.
A handsome young man comes riding over the garden path. Perhaps he has lost his way, or is thirsty. Hence, he is proceeding slowly towards the garden in search of cool water. His bejewelled crest gleams in the sunlight. Who is this powerful young man? It seems he is some great king.
Sushobhana stands up. The radiance scattered from that crest seems to awaken in Sushobhana's eyes the delirious dance of harsh lightning. The maid Subinita asks fearfully,
'Do you know the identity of this visitor, princess?'
Surprised, Subinita enquires in a voice brimming with respect,
'The glory of the Ikshvakus, Parikshit? Lord of Ayodhya, supremely loving of his subjects, famed for his generosity, protector of the fearful, refuge of the distressed, that Ikshvaku?'
Rippling with arrogant laughter, Sushobhana removes her maid's hand. Picking up the bejewelled waist-chains and strings of pearls, she decks herself with her own hands. Then she takes up a seven-stringed vina. Ready, Sushobhana says,
'I go, Subinita. Do not look so foolishly miserable. You will only remain happy if you perform the duties of a maid ever smilingly.'
Going up to the entrance of the leaf-hut Sushobhana pauses and muses on something for a moment. Turning to Subinita she orders,
'Do not forget, maid, to despatch attendants and a conveyance in utmost secrecy every evening to the forest skirting the Ikshvaku's palace.'
Coming out of the creeper-covered hut, Sushobhana keeps advancing towards the garden under the shades of the trees. Tearfully, with bowed head, Subinita keeps sitting silently for a long time in the hut. Looking up at the garden-path, she cannot see Sushobhana any more. From the hut Subinita returns all alone to the moss-green palace chamber of the Manduka King.
A lovely garden enveloped in the shade of massive trees'palm, myrobalan, deodar, wood-apple'overhung with hundreds of fragrant, flowering creepers. As though challenging the frown of the fierce summer, every grass, creeper and flower of this thickly forested garden, having drunk the nectar of bird-song, is vibrantly alive. Parikshit quenched his thirst with water from a lake covered with lotus leaves. Plucking the stalks, he gave the horse to eat. Then, for easing his fatigue, he lay down on the soft grass in the shade of the newly budding leaves of a bakul tree.
Parikshit's pleasant drowse is soon broken. Curious, he sits up. The gentle forest breeze seems to be filled with the strumming of the vina accompanied by a melodious female voice that entrances the ear.
King Parikshit gets up. He roams the forest looking at the base of every tree. Finally, he sees that on the mossy banks of that lake is seated a woman with a moon-stone gleaming in her hair, agitating the blood-red lotuses swaying in the ripples of the lake with gentle strokes of her lac-reddened soles, creating a lovely pattern with the pride of her youth. Touching the strings of the vina held in her hands with fingers like champaka-petals, that woman is singing melodiously.
Entranced, King Parikshit keeps gazing. Is that a human form? Or the beauty of the forest itself embodied? Or a goddess-of-amrita, who has emerged from the waters of this lake?
King Parikshit advances and stands before the unknown woman. Ceasing to sing, she glances at Parikshit. Now Parikshit is able to see that even finer and cooler than the radiance of the moonstone in her hair are the rays cast by those doe-like eyes.
Parikshit speaks, 'Who are you, doe-eyed one?'
Silently, Parikshit goes on staring.
The woman questions, 'What are you looking at, honourable Sir?'
For a moment Parikshit remains silent. The look in his eyes grows deeper. Then he invites in a voice full of love,
'Not in the bejewelled palace, but in the chamber of my heart ' welcome, lovely lady. Make my life blessed by granting me love.'
In the recesses of the scintillating bejewelled pleasure-chamber, every moment of Parikshit's love-steeped days and nights lies overwhelmed by Sushobhana's dance, song, coquetry and kisses. In this way, one day, in the twilight hour of a Baishakh evening, a dazzling white kaumudi bud was blown from the moonlit sky into that pleasure-chamber. That day King Parikshit did not light the gem-encrusted lamp. In the cool moonlight he kept gazing lovingly at the face of that cloud-dark haired beloved. Parikshit feels that this picture is no less beautiful than that of the moon in the sky. Like the marks on the full moon, black curls have cast shadows on the forehead of this lovely woman too.
With great care, with his own hands Parikshit keeps arranging the curls on the woman's forehead. Holding Sushobhana's hand, he whispers gently into the woman's ears, like the half-uttered sigh of a seashell,
The coquette's lips curve in a smile. At last King Parikshit has grown intimate. The lust of the prince for playing with lissom bodies has matured into sincere love. Giving his heart to an unknown woman, Parikshit wishes to make her his own forever.
Holding Parikshit's hand the playful woman suddenly bursts out impulsively,
'My heart does not wish to stay indoors on such a Baishakh evening flooded in moonlight, dearest. Let us go to your garden.'
Adorning her lovely form in gleaming white royal raiment, veiling her hair with a net encrusted with tiny crystals, her neck garlanded with white flowers, excited like sporting white swans bathed in the moonlight, Sushobhana entered the garden with the king. Looking at Parikshit's face she demands,
'Today my heart desires, O king, that sporting in the water like a swan I delight your sight.'
King Parikshit comes and stands beside the shore of a lake in the garden. With him is Sushobhana.
Flocks of geese and swan are swimming freely and delightedly in the waters of the lake. Like a thrilled swan, delightfully Sushobhana steps into the water. For some moments she stands there, still. And then, with a face devoid of joy, drawn with pain, she looks at Parikshit.
'Why did you bring me to this lake, king Parikshit?'
Vow? Parikshit starts and can recall only now that promise.
Forgetting that vow he has drawn his life's beloved to the waters of a lake.
Sushobhana says, 'By mistake you have drawn me to the curse of my life, O king. On the surface of these waters I have seen my reflection. Now prepare to bid me farewell.'
This is not the outcry of a broken heart, not the lamentation of a helpless one. It is a strong voice, firm with the strength of a decision.
Sushobhana is startled. For the first time in life the confident heart of the coquette is disturbed with apprehension.
'Do not commit another mistake, O king. You do not have the power to overturn the fated curse.'
Hearing Parikshit's question Sushobhana's breath suddenly comes fast and trembles with fear.
Coming forward, Parikshit stands before Sushobhana,
'Come, beloved, let me keep you bound in my embrace always. Let me see what creature of a curse can spirit away your life from my arms.'
As though a woman overwhelmed by unwarranted fear were striving to break free of the bonds of a false belief. Parikshit did not disregard this earnest plea of the woman. Drawing away from the lake, he paced through the shadows of the mango grove in the garden.
Drops of honey from the mango flowers kissing his forehead seem to console him. The infatuated singing of the cuckoo fills the garden with music. Still, the agitation in Parikshit's mind does not subside. Can it be that this Baishakh evening moon has appeared only to create a loveless void in his life through some curse?
Unable to withstand the anxiety, the next moment with hasty, quick strides Parikshit again goes and stands beside the lake, 'Dearest!'
His call becomes an outcry. There is no praying form on this lonely and empty shore. There is no female form covered in a white veil.
Parikshit's two eyes slice through the surrounding vacancy like a sharp sword. Looking at the lake he suspects that its waters might have grasped his beloved. The next moment he could spy on the opposite shore of the lake as if the corpse of a dead swan lay bathed in the moonlight. Some shadowy figures came and in an instant disappeared with the body of that swan.
It is unbelievable. The entire incident and the scenes appear suspicious. Perhaps they are mirages cast up by his pained heart and bewildered consciousness!
But Parikshit did not waste another moment. Summoning the guards of the garden he smashed the dam and drained out the lake. But within it he found no drowned female body.
Rushing to the royal stables, Parikshit races off on horseback towards the other shore of the lake.
But despite hunting all along the shore and in the woods Parikshit found no trace of that female form. Despairing, he turns back towards his empty, dark, depressing begemmed chambers. As the body of the tired horse streams with perspiration, so do the two eyes of redoubtable Parikshit stream with unending tears.
Again King Parikshit enters the path to the garden. Suddenly he notices a shadowy form hiding behind a tree like a spy. Drawing his sword out of his belt Parikshit rushed towards the shadow but could not catch it. The shadow sped away and, jumping into a stream, disappeared. But Parikshit was able to make out clearly the appearance of the spy. It was a manduka.
In the chamber of the Manduka monarch's moss-coloured stone palace the princess' tinkling anklets no longer become musical in dance as before. Even the thrill of a successful conquest could not make the honeyed wine as intoxicating as before. As though the deceiving beloved Sushobhana has returned with thorn-pierced feet.
One afternoon the world of the Mandukas was suddenly riven apart with shrieks and tormented cries. Standing at the window of the palace chamber, Sushobhana strains to plumb the mystery of this strange outcry, but fails. It seems a dust-shrouded whirlwind is rushing forward to attack this Baishakh afternoon.
'What is this fresh disaster you have precipitated, princess?'
Not without, but from within the chamber the whiplash of this accusing voice startles Sushobhana. Turning back she sees the plain-speaking servant Subinita. Frowning, Sushobhana demands angrily,
'What is the matter, maid?'
As if going to inform the Manduka king Ayu of this news, the maid Subinita leaves hastily.
Silently Sushobhana stands near the window of the chamber. The afternoon is growing pale. The angry hiss of that invisible and mysterious Baishakh storm draws near. Sushobhana feels that it is not to demolish the Manduka kingdom, but for attacking all her pride that this revengeful storm is approaching.
Suddenly Sushobhana laughs aloud. Like garbage of dead leaves she casts away the burden of such false anxieties from her mind. Lighting the lamps, she puts a cup of wine to her lips. Placing a golden mirror in front, she draws designs on her forehead with sesame seeds. Brushing aside the tormented cries of the people and the threat of the invisible storm with a curve of lips wet with wine, she takes the well-strung vina on her lap. But before she can strum the strings, Sushobhana is interrupted.
Subinita has arrived. Irritated, Sushobhana frowns,
'What more ill news have your brought, sweet-of-speech?'
'Yes, reassured and delighted. By the side-long glances of these eyes, the smiles of this trembling mouth, the deceitful kisses of these honeyed lips, how the sharp-witted and powerful Parikshit has been befooled!'
'You have succeeded in your desires, playful lady. But that your lover, in the agony of losing you, grown so cruel has begun a terrible celebration of shedding so much innocent blood'do you not feel even the slightest regret for that? Even this lamp's flame-bodied tongue of fire has a heart, but you have none, princess!'
The maid Subinita leaves the chamber.
The evening grows more dense. The sky darkens. Sushobhana draws near the window and sees lights glimmering in the enemy camp at the borders of the kingdom. Sushobhana can hear, wafted about in the breeze, the dying cries of her subjects struck down by enemy swords. Sushobhana moves away from the window. As though the lamp in the chamber, burning out its own heart, will not allow that terrible outer darkness to enter through the window. But today it seems to Sushobhana that she would prefer to hide herself in that darkness for some time and remain deaf.
Again the outcries can be heard. Sushobhana is startled. As though several heart-piercing cries were beating against her breast, the outcries of some innocent imperilled lives. This weeping is unbearable. Blowing out the lamp, Sushobhana shouts from the threshold of the chamber, 'Subinita!'
The maid Subinita comes running. Anxiously she says,
'Your command, princess?'
Sushobhana starts, as though afraid. Immediately thereafter the gaze of her collyrium-ringed blazing eyes seems to grow suddenly sad and pitiful. Calmly Sushobhana smiles,
'I am glad to hear this. After so very long father has been able to be cruel to me. I am happy to feel maid, that by revealing my offence father has saved the subjects from the maddened Parikshit. A foolish lover will depart today scorning the deceiver who is all-lies. I, too, am saved from the clutches of that fool's love, Subinita.'
Glancing at the flame of the lamp, with eyes bright like glowing flames, Sushobhana stands still, silent. Then, like a serpent tormented by its own bite, raising hurt eyes to the maid Subinita, she says,
'Then arouse hatred in that stupid man's heart! Tell him all the secret history of this heartless creature, violater of feminine nature. Let Sushobhana's infamy resound in the three worlds. Let Parikshit know that the Manduka monarch's moon-radiant daughter is a fallen woman who has had many lovers in the past.'
Covering her eyes with both palms, the maid Subinita flees from the chamber.
A bubble of blue poison floated in a cup brimful with wine. Today, after so long, the time has come for Sushobhana's final assignation. From the window a star-spangled sky is visible, as though the flowers used by celestial damsels in worship are still lying strewn about. This is the right time to fall asleep.
Her infamy has spread. Not even a blind person in this world will now fail to recognise this multi-faceted deceiver. Losing all the pride of all these years, all the thrill and joy, life has become empty. Death has already occurred. Then why delay any more? There is no meaning in lying around on this earth merely as an infamous tale. Now, finally detesting this lovely serpent, as deceitful as a celestial courtesan of a false heaven, more terrifyingly heartless than a bodiless ghoul, Parikshit will at last be able to return. There is no need to hold on to this life devoid of a heart merely for punishing it and for bearing the whole world's scornful gaze.
The poison foams in the wine-cup. Sushobhana's lips thirst. She picks up the cup.
Interrupted by the maid Subinita's summons, Sushobhana turns to look.
Subinita says, 'A message has arrived from Parikshit, princess.'
Putting down the cup of poison on the floor, Sushobhana stands up and goes to the window. She sees in the enemy camp one lamp burning steadily. Still, patient, calm, untrembling is its flame.
Unblinking, Sushobhana keeps staring. The radiance from that enemy camp's lamp seems to be touching the darkness in Sushobhana's breast. A heart awakens, as if from within the depths of a desert-darkness an exiled jasmine bud were to bloom. And the wonder of this awakening spontaneously rises through Sushobhana's lips as a murmur,
'How beautiful an enemy you are!'
Looking at this tearful lovely face of Sushobhana, like a fresh shefali flower washed by the monsoon rains of some new sky, the maid Subinita is surprised. Apprehensively she asks,
'Where do you wish to go, princess?'
Original in Bengali by Subodh Ghosh
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