Rajshekhar Basu (1880-1960) alias Parashuram, was one of the greatest storytellers of our time. He has written about a hundred short stories, many articles, condensations of Ramayana and Mahabharata, Chalantika, a much-used Bengali dictionary and translated the Gita and Meghdoot.
The basic form of Parashuram’s stories is satire. He has not only made us laugh but also has persuaded us to think. However, that does not mean that he has ignored the other hues in the spectrum of laughter. Some of his stories are purely comic and some others, though very few, bring in a touch of the tragic.
The most important aspect of Parashuram’s writing is his language. He has used the colloquial and the classical with consummate dexterity and that is his signature. His language is perhaps the one thing that has set him apart from other contemporary satirists. The sudden throwing in of the colloquial and the equally sudden use of the unexpected create the irresistible comic situations in his stories.
A few of the stories are based on the epics, perhaps inspired by his deep familiarity with Ramayana and Mahabharata. The characters are familiar but the incidents are not. These are merely incidents, which could or might have happened. And if these did occur, the situations must have been comic indeed!
It is truly an impossible task to reproduce the ambience created by Parashuram’s language, but perhaps the reader will catch a glimpse of the comedy of the situation as conceived by Parashuram.
The five Pandavs are worried. Not because they have had to leave the glitz and glamour of their capital and go to the forest for thirteen years of exile, one of which they are required to spend incognito; not because they are aware that Duryodhan would never return their kingdom at the end of this period and they would have to fight their Kaurav relations; but because Panchali has stopped talking to them for the last one month.
After leaving their kingdom, the Pandavs first came to Kamyak forest. But now they have built their ashram in Dvaita forest on the riverbank and are presently residing there. They have with them Dhaumya, the family priest and other Brahmins, Indrasen, the charioteer and many male and female servants. Draupadi has Sevanti, a young companion, with her. Draupadi is rather busy. She has to run a large household even in exile. The copper pot, which she got as a gift from the Sun God, has made the job of cooking somewhat easier. The food she cooks in it is never exhausted until she has eaten. It does not reduce a bit even after a thousand people have been served. She does all the duties of a housewife. The only thing she does not do is talking to her husbands. If it becomes unavoidable, servants act as intermediaries.
The Pandavs have already spent almost four months in the forest. Till now Yudhisthir has been in a very happy frame of mind, as if he had got quite used to this life of exile. Bhim, of course, had expressed his irritation in the beginning but nowadays he is merrily occupied with hunting. Arjun, Nakul and Sahadev, too, have forgotten the pain of losing a kingdom. But at present, they are all worried because of Draupadi’s change of mood.
Draupadi has never been able to forget the insult heaped upon her in the dice-hall. Neither has she been able to ignore the grief of a kingdom lost. She has often been heard lamenting that Yudhisthir’s obtuseness and the other husbands’ worthlessness were at the root of all her misery. Yudhisthir tried on many occasions to console her. Bhim, too, repeatedly vowed he that he would not let matters rest till he had drunk Duhshasan’s blood and broken Duryodhan’s thigh. The other three also often tried to tell her that thirteen years would pass in a jiffy and they would see good days again. But all in vain. Draupadi, unable to suppress her anger, has finally stopped talking to them.
Dvaraka is very far from Dvaita forest. Even then, Krishna visits them occasionally on his chariot. Some times, Satyabhama also accompanies him. This time, however, he has come alone. He heard the details of the present impasse and came to Draupadi’s room.
Krishna and the Pandavs are cousins. He and Arjun are of the same age. In those days, there was no specific form of address that could satisfactorily describe the relationship between Krishna and Draupadi. Even if it did exist, there were technical difficulties, because he was younger than her husbands, Yudhisthir and Bhim, and at the same time, older than Nakul and Sahadev. Draupadi’s actual name was Krishnaa and therefore they had established a friendship between themselves. They addressed each other by their proper names. Having exchanged the customary pleasantries, Krishna asked with a smile,
“My dear Krishnaa, why is your moon-like face looking like a blackened kitchen- pot?”
Draupadi said, “ Krishna, your levity is not appreciated.”
Krishna said, “What is your problem? Tell me how the Pandavs have failed to meet your needs. Do you want fine muslin or jeweled ornaments? Or perfumes perhaps? It is true that grains and cereals are not easily available here. It is quite possible that a monotonous diet of meat, fruits and roots has made you lose appetite and consequently, made you unhappy. Shall I send you cereals and pulses? Do you want a cow to give you milk? Or perhaps, butter, oil, sugar, salt, turmeric and ginger? Shall I send you ten or twenty bottles of exquisite wine? We have various kinds of wines and spirits available at Dvaraka. Here, of course, you may not get anything but toddy.”
Draupadi said, “No, no, I don’t want any of those things. Madhav, you are wise. People say that you are also omniscient. Can you tell me the reasons for my misfortune? Have you seen any person as unfortunate as me?”
Krishna said, “ Oh, many. Ask any of my wives. Each of them will tell you that she is the one and only hapless wretch in this world and an ill-starred person. They are of the firm opinion that I am the sole cause of all their temporal and spiritual disasters. Krishnaa, don’t worry. God is great.”
“You are a stooge of God. You can only see his magnanimity, not his cruelty.“
“Yajnaseni, why are you thinking only of your misfortunes? Remember all the good things that have happened to you. You are the queen of Indraprasth. Whose glory is greater than yours? These bad times will not last; you will soon regain your lost status. You have risen from fire, you are exquisitely beautiful, your father, Drupad, king of Panchal, is still alive and you have two very brave and powerful brothers. Your five sons are receiving education at Dvaraka along with Abhimanyu. You have five great husbands, four younger and four elder brothers-in-law.”
“Where did you get these brothers-in-law? I have nothing to do with the sons of Dhritarashtra.”
“Your brothers-in-law are here with you. Have you not heard the couplet:
‘The eldest Pandav is Panchali’s husband and eldest brother-in-law; the youngest Pandav is her husband and the youngest brother-in-law. The other three are husbands and both younger and elder brothers-in-law’.”
“Bah! Ain’t I lucky!”
“Panchali, don’t be angry. There is none in the world who can be called faultless. Yudhisthir is a simpleton and he loves a game of dice. That is why all this has happened. He is repentant. So, don’t torture him any more. Your other husbands are obedient to their eldest brother and so they really cannot go against his wishes. Don’t consider them worthless.”
Thus, Krishna tried to console her in various ways, quoting scriptures on the duties of a wife. All in vain. She would not budge. So, Krishna left her and went back to the Pandavs.
Dhaumya, the priest, and the other Brahmins live in a large hut. All have been summoned here in honour of Krishna’s visit. Yudhisthir and his brothers respectfully escorted Krishna to that conference.
Yudhisthir said, “ Honourable Dhaumya and Brahmins, your attention please! Vasudev Krishna, you too listen. Draupadi has lost her balance because of the insults heaped upon her in the Kaurav court and the subsequent loss of kingdom. She is very upset with her husbands and has not spoken to us for a month. I request all of you to kindly find a way out of our present intolerable predicament.”
Dhaumya said, “I can quote from Vedas, Puranas and other scriptures to instruct her on the duties of a wife. I can also scare her with the possible results of sin.”
Krishna said, “All that would have no effect. I have just tried. Nothing happened.”
Yudhisthir said, “Then what is the solution?”
Haumya, an uncle of Dhaumya and a strong old Brahmin, said, “It is not at all difficult to subdue Panchali. Pandavs have become highly henpecked. They have pampered the daughter of Drupad too much. They are actually scared of this common wife of theirs. Dharmaraj Yudhisthir, listen to me! There is a very easy way out. She is not your only wife. You have a wife of your very own: Devika, King Shaivya’s daughter. Bhim too has three more wives: Hidimba, the Rakshasi, Kali, Shalya’s sister and Balandhara, the princess of Kashi. Arjun has three other wives: Chitrangada, princess of Manipur, Ulupi, the daughter of the Nags and Subhadra, Krishna’s sister. Nakul has one other wife: Karenumati, daughter of the king of Chedi. Sahadev too has another wife: the daughter of Jarasandha, – I can’t recall her name. Well, bring these nine co-wives of Panchali. Her vanity will no doubt take a beating when they come and you too will be able to enjoy the company of your multiple wives.”
Yudhisthir said, “Honourable Brahmin, your proposal is very unfair. Draupadi has suffered much. How can we visit her with more grief? It is true that we have other wives, but none of them is our principal wife. None but Panchali can be our companion in our exile in forest. Krishna, you are our guide in all our distress. Please find a way to make Panchali see reason.”
Krishna thought for a while and said, “Dharmaraj, I will do something. With your permission, I shall take your leave today. One of my maternal uncles, Rajarshi Rohit, lives at Vanaprastha Ashram, about ten miles north from here. I shall meet him and return in two days.”
Krishna climbed on the chariot and told Daruk, the charioteer, “Drive north and go to the ashram of the sage, Jwalajjat.”
The sage Jwalajjat is about fifty years of age. His body is huge, fair and ruddy. His hair and beard are flame-colored and that is why people call him Jwalajjat. He welcomed Krishna and said,
“Janardan, I met you last at Prabhas about three years back. It is my good fortune that I meet you today again. Tell me, what can I do for you?”
Krishna said, “O great sage, my beloved relatives, the Pandavs, having lost their kingdom are presently living at Dvaita forest. Currently, they are passing through a crisis. I have come for your help to get them out of their quandary. Do you, Sir, know any woman who is readily available?”
Jwalajjat said, “ I do not have any woman etc. I am a bachelor. Where will I get a woman in this lonely forest? But yes, Panchachura, the heavenly nymph, does come to me occasionally to listen to the scriptures. But she is hardly pretty. “
Krishna said, “I do not need a pretty woman. Can she scream? That will serve my purpose. Now listen to my request.”
Krishna narrated his request in minute detail. Jwalajjat guffawed loudly and said, “Vasudev, people call you a wicked schemer. But I find that you are a benevolent schemer. Your purpose is good. Don’t worry; I will certainly honor your request. I will reach the ashram of the Pandavs in two days, in the afternoon.”
Krishna touched his feet and took his leave. Then he drove further north and reached the ashram of Rajarshi Rohit, the brother of Rohini, Balabhadra’s mother. He was presently living in the ashram with his wife. He was naturally happy to see Krishna and said,
“My son, I am meeting you after a long time. Your aunt and I will be happy if you spend a few days here. I hope all is well at Dvaraka.”
Krishna said, “Revered uncle, everything is fine. I have come to pay my respects to you, but I can’t stay long. I have to return to the ashram of the Pandavs within two days.”
About two to three hundred people stay with the ndavs. Twice every day they have to be fed. There is no market at Dvaita forest. So rice etc., are not available. Once in a blue moon, tribals like the Pukkasas bring some barley and honey. Therefore, the principal diet of the Pandavs consists of meat from hunting and forest products like fruits, roots and leafy vegetables. Everyday, after completing the morning ablutions, the Pandavs go out to hunt. Today they were happy to find a boar because back at the ashram, the Brahmins relished pork. Arjun shot it with an arrow, but it did not die. It sped into the forest. At that moment, all the Pandavs released their arrows together. And at once a woman screamed,
“Oh my beloved, I am killed!”
Oh no, had they killed a woman?
ThThe Pandavs quickly entered the forest, hearts pumping with anxiety and found the dead boar. There was no one else. They searched everywhere but did not find anyone.
Bhim said, “It must be one of the tricks of the Rakshasas. Marich misled Ram with a similar trick.”
But Yudhisthir was scared. He said, “Let us quickly go back to the ashram. I don’t know if anything untoward has happened there. Bhim, carry the boar.”
On their return, they were relieved to find that nothing had happened. Panchali cooked the boar in her copper pot that Surya had gifted her and all gorged themselves with that well-cooked pork. In the afternoon, all were sitting under a Banyan tree. Dhaumya was narrating the story of Nachiketa and Yama. Draupadi, too, sat a few steps behind and was listening to the sacred story. At that moment of time sage Jwalajjat arrived like an avenging fury. His long, matted hair and beard were like raging flame, his face was flushed with anger, and his eyes were bulging. An angry frown creased his forehead.
Jwalajjat roared, “You killers of women, you sinners, I will curse you all to hell today!”
Yudhisthir folded his hands and said, “Lord, what sin have we committed?”
Jwalajjat said, “You have killed my beloved with your arrows. Fie on your expertise with the bow and arrow. You have killed the wife of a sage instead of killing a boar.”
The five brothers fell at the feet of the sage. Panchali too folded her hands and shed copious tears.
Yudhisthir said, “Lord, we have unknowingly committed this great sin. We shall accept with bowed heads whatever punishment you give us, however difficult it may be.”
Draupadi came forward and said, “O great sage, your wife has been killed by the arrows of my husband. As a punishment for that, please take my life and spare my husbands. O Second Pandav, prepare a pyre, I will enter fire and sacrifice my life.”
Jwalajjat again roared, “ I see that you are a very stupid woman. Will my wife live if you sacrifice your life? I want a wife and I want her immediately. I have been rendered wifeless by the Pandavs and therefore I want Panchali, the wife of the Pandavs.”
Having said this, the sage Jwalajjat started dancing and kicking the earth like a man possessed.
Yudhisthir said with folded hands, “O sage, be charitable. Ask for anything but Panchali because our beloved is more important than our lives. She is to be looked after as a mother and respected as an elder sister. How can we forsake her? We would prefer to be burnt to cinders by the fire of your curse. Please spare Panchali.”
Jwalajjat said, “Oh how foolish can you be. If you burn, then Panchali will also join you in death. Unnecessarily, I too will be involved in the sin of killing a woman. No, I want Panchali.”
Bhim then folded his hands and said, “O Sage, let me suggest something, please listen. Accept the eldest wife of the Pandav clan, Hidimba. She was married to me much before Panchali.”
Jwalajjat said, “You are a wicked cheat. You want to pass off a Rakshasi onto my shoulders.”
Bhim said, “Lord, even though Hidimba is a Rakshasi, she does not look too bad when she assumes human form. In case you do not consider her enough, we have eight spare wives. Take all and spare Panchali. I am sure that my brothers will agree.”
Nakul and Sahadev said, “Oh, but surely!”
Jwalajjat said, “Your wives are not here and you cannot gift away something which is not available. I want a wife now and I want only Panchali.”
Arjun said, “Lord, please spare Dharmaraj and Panchali. And for the present, please burn the four of us and curb your anger. Then, pick a nice daughter of a sage in good time.”
Jwalajjat said, “All of you are nincompoops. However, I am somewhat pleased to see your anxiety. I won’t gain anything by burning you. I want a wife who will look after me. If, however, you insist upon sticking to Draupadi, then all five of you must become my slaves for the rest of your lives.”
Yudhisthir said, “O sage, we agree. We shall serve you as your slaves for the rest of our lives.”
Dhaumya said, “O great muni, won’t it be highly improper to do that? Instead, why don’t you prescribe some penance like eating the five holy cow-products, Chandrayana, etc.? They don’t have any money now. But when they get back their kingdom after thirteen years, they will give you as much as you want.”
Jwalajjat roared again, “Who the hell are you, Brahmin, poking your nose into our affairs? Anyway, somebody bring me a long rope!”
Yudhisthir said, “Lord, you don’t need a rope. Please tie us up with our scarves.”
Jwalajjat tied one end of the scarves to the waist of each of the brothers and went out of the ashram, holding the bunch of the other ends in his hand. Draupadi screamed and fainted. Dhaumya and others stood dumb-founded. Draupadi, on regaining consciousness, found herself resting on Sevanti’s lap. Krishna was fanning her with a Palmyra-leaf.
Draupadi said, “Alas! My husbands, where are you?”
Krishna said, “Krishnaa, be calm. They are quite safe. They are presently sitting under the Banyan tree and reciting the Aghamarshan mantra to remove their sin. I will take you to them as soon as you feel better.”
“Where is that dangerous sage? ”
“No fear. He was taking the Pandavs away, tied like animals, when fortunately I met him. I told him, ‘Lord, what are you doing? These fellows are useless, comfort-loving, lazy Kshatriyas. They will not do any work and merely demolish your food.’ He said, ‘Then I don’t want them. Bring me Panchali.’ I said, ‘Panchali is even more useless and more comfort loving. She only knows how to make herself up. It is better that I send you a hard-working Braja-woman when I return. Please accept this cow and calf instead of Panchali – at least you will have milk, curd, etc., to eat. My uncle Rohit has given it to me.’ Sage Jwalajjat was happy with that and released your husbands.”
Draupadi said, “Great is the cow that is as valuable as the queen of the Pandavs. But how can the Pandavs cleanse themselves of the sin of killing the wife of a sage?”
Krishna laughed and said, “No sage’s wife was killed. The nymph Panchachura is not exactly his wife. You can call her one who merely serves him. The boar only slightly touched her with his tusk; she panicked, screamed, ran to the ashram and fainted. Jwalajjat thought she was dead. After the Pandavs were released, I accompanied the sage to his ashram and found her swinging merrily on the swing.”
Draupadi said, “Krishna, take me immediately to my husbands. Alas, I am guilty; I have ignored them for a month. How can I apologize and ask for their forgiveness?”
“Panchali, don’t embarrass them by asking for their forgiveness. They are not upset with you. They are now as eager as a thirsty Chatak bird to hear you speak.”
“Govinda, what shall I tell them?”
“Nothing makes men happier than listening to their own praise from their wives. Krishnaa, go and praise them.”
“Alas Krishna, I have always scolded them. How can words of praise come out of my black mouth? Please teach me what to say. ”
“My dear Krishnaa, the Goddess of speech will rest on your tongue. Publicly celebrate them without any hesitation. Now, come with me to see your husbands. Sevanti, are the garlands ready?” Sevanti pointed to a basket, “Those are all I have. No other flower except Kadamb could be found.” Krishna said, “That will do.”
The five Pandavs, surrounded by the Brahmins, were sitting under the Banyan tree. They had just finished their recitation. They stood up when they saw Draupadi and Krishna coming towards them.
Draupadi folded her hands, fixed her gaze on the Pandavs and stood motionless like a sculpted statue.
Krishna said, “Panchali, break your silence.”
Draupadi, her voice dripping with emotion, said, “Oh my five husbands, born of gods, I am now overcome with the glory of my husbands. I will say whatever comes to my mind. Please excuse my garrulity. I was bewitched when I cast my eyes on Dhananjay at my father’s place. I was thrilled when he pierced the target and I considered myself lucky a hundred times over as I knew that I would get him as my husband. But fate and my elders did not bother about my sentiments and married me off to all the five brothers. The Lord in my heart is my witness that within a short while, all my grievances were gone and my five husbands merged into one in my heart. As the five senses please the heart singly and jointly, so my five husbands brightened my heart individually and jointly.
“O eldest Pandav, when I was the Queen of Indraprasth, I expended a lot of wealth in buying dresses, ornaments, etc., and bestowed gifts lavishly on my favorites. You gave me, without any question or complaint, whenever and whatever I wanted. I scolded the servants and your favorite servants complained to you against me, but you turned a deaf ear to them, lest the pride and prestige of the queen be hurt. You are peaceable, forgiving and pious. I scolded you many times unreasonably, without understanding your sense of propriety and justice. But you were never upset with my unpleasant gibberish. O revered Dharmaraj, who has no enemy, who can fathom your greatness?
“O Second Pandav, you are the powerful one who even defeated Jarasandh. You deserve to perform only such labors as are impossible. But I set you to do small jobs and you were happy to do all those just because you loved me. You like eating and are an expert cook. Many experienced cooks used to feed you to your satisfaction. But in this forest, you are satisfied with what little I give you. You never complain if the food is tasteless, too salty or without salt. O tiger among men, the kingdom will be regained with the joint effort of all of you but only you can avenge me properly. Remind Duryodhan and Duhshashan in the battlefield that no one can get away with insulting the queen of the Pandavas.
“O Third Pandav, you are not the eldest, but even then all your brothers accept your leadership in the battlefield. You are the beloved of the gods, the possessor of all good qualities, an incomparable bowman, as handsome as Skanda, the general of the gods, and an expert in the arts of music and dance. Hrishikesh Krishna is your bosom friend. I was upset when you married Subhadra and brought her to Indraprasth. But to tell you the truth, now I have no complaint. The woman, who is the wife of five husbands, cannot grudge a co-wife. Subhadra is my dearest sister. I have left my five sons with her at Dvaraka and I have no worry on their account. O brave one, you will be the leader of the Pandav troops in the forthcoming Kuru-Pandav war and with the help of Vasudev, will defeat all your adversaries. Grandfather Bhishma is my guru, your teacher Dronacharya deserves my obeisance, but they did not protect the queen, a daughter-in-law of the family. They did not obey the dictates of chivalry but remained frozen like cowards. Savyasachi, remind them of their default in the battlefield by your sharp, heart-piercing arrows.
“O fourth Pandav, you are handsome and comfort-loving, but invincible in the battlefield. At Indraprasth you dressed in expensive clothes and valuable jewelry. But here, seeing me without ornaments, you too have given up wearing ornaments and other decorative things like garlands, etc. I am impressed with your empathy. You conquered many kingdoms like Dasharna, Trigarta, Panchanad, etc., just before the Rajasuya Yajna. You will obtain similar glory in the coming war.
“O Youngest Pandav, you are my husband and youngest brother-in-law, an object of my love and affection, especially of the latter. Mother Kunti specially instructed me when we were setting off on our exile, saying, ‘Panchali, look after my Sahadev, see that he is not scared in danger.’ O fearless subjugator of enemies, I have never found you wanting in courage. On the other hand, you were always eager for battle. In the earlier days, you defeated the wicked Neel of Mahismati and the human demon named Kalmukh. I am sure you will come out victorious against the Kaurav rascals."
“O my god-like, magnanimous husbands, no one thinks of the faults of the gods while praising them. I, too, do not recall your defects now. Today you were ready to give up your lives for me. You were prepared to accept slavery just for my sake. Which other woman is more loved by her husband than I? Not Sita who was exiled by her husband, nor Damayanti who was forsaken by her husband. You left your wives with their parents and have brought along only me on this long exile of thirteen years. You are satisfied with one fifth of me when you could have had one, two or three exclusive wives. Who is more fortunate than I? Which other husbands have more control over their senses than you? Long back, I had garlanded you, one by one, on the same day, in my father’s house. Today, again, I am doing the same, under the open firmament of the forest. O my magnificent husbands, be contented and look upon me with happy eyes.”
Panchali garlanded her five husbands, Sevanti blew the conch-shell, the Brahmins uttered congratulatory words and Krishna happily clapped his hands. Yudhisthir then laid his hand on the head of Panchali and said,
“Panchali, you look tired. Come, let’s go home and rest.”
Yudhisthir and Draupadi left. Arjun took Krishna aside and asked,
“Where did you get that sage Jwalajjat? He has acted very well but he was making horrible faces to suppress laughter. Fortunately, Dharmaraj, Panchali and others did not notice.”
Bhim said, “You, Krishna! Come here! I suppose Panchali would not trouble us again, eh? What do you think?”
Krishna said, “Of course she will. Her vocal chords are not affected in the least.”
– Translated by Major General Shekar Sen, VSM from the original in Bengali by Rajshekhar Basu