Reminiscences of Surpanakha

Nayanchand Pyne has a watch repair shop. He also has many hobbies. He likes to read the scriptures, play the pakhawaj, catch fish and is fairly well informed about the world of literature. He is an old man and is well respected in the neighborhood. He came to me in the morning and said, 'Here, take your watch. I have changed the hairspring. Give me fifteen rupees. Since you belong to the neighborhood, I have not charged you for oiling.'

He took the money and asked, 'What are you writing?'
I said, 'I am writing a memoir.'
'Good, good! Much better than stories. But don't write too many lies. Write only what can be easily digested. Don't try to write things like you played a football match immediately after a bout of cholera, served ten years in jail for the country, three girls wrote love letters to you, Rabindranath patted you on the back, etc. You must do another thing. Before writing, always take an expert opinion from people like doctors, lawyers, professionals, businessmen, etc. If you do that, you won't commit blunders.'

Mr Pyne's advice made an impression on me. Though I have already decided what to write, yet expert opinions can still be obtained. First, I went to Dr Nirmal Mukherjee. He said, 'Hello, how are you? Has your hip-pain increased again?'
'No, no, nothing like that. Tell me, doctor, if I put my hands on somebody's shoulders and press hard, is there any possibility of his spinal cord cracking?'
' How much pressure?'
'Let us say, two to two and a half maunds?'
'That is less than even a hundred kilograms. With that the man may be distressed, perhaps have a fractured scapula at the most, but I don't think the spinal cord will fracture with anything less than three to four maunds of pressure. But don't try all that, you will get entangled in a criminal case.'
I thanked the doctor and went to the lawyer, Nagen Sen. He said, 'I say, you have not yet paid one of my bills. Send the money by tomorrow.'
'As you wish. But I have a query. If a woman puts pressure on a man to make him agree to marry her, and the man refuses to do so later, can he be sued for breach of promise?'
'If it can be proved that force was used on the man, then the case won't stand.'
'All right. But if it is proved that even though pressure was applied on him, the man was quite happy to address her as 'darling', then?'
'My, my, did you do that? You are an ass. No, then nothing can save you. But how did you get this stupid idea?'
'No, no, not me. See you, good day.'
After this, I went to Dasu Mallik. He is a notorious drunkard but has a pleasant nature. As soon as he saw me, he said, 'Here, I was searching for you. I have something very important to discuss. I understand you have studied chemistry.'
'Oh, that was a long time back. I have forgotten everything.'
'But you do remember a little, don't you? That will do. See, I am in serious trouble. I cannot digest country liquor and the prices of regular liquor are on fire these days. On top of it, I am told that they are banning all kinds of liquor ' I don't know what sorts of asses are making law these days. Tell me, isn't it a fact that any sweet thing, after fermenting, becomes liquor?'
'It does. But don't try to do such things at home. You will get into trouble. '
'No, no, I am not thinking of that. I have thought of something else. It is such a plan that not even the fathers of the excise fellows will be able to catch me. Suppose I eat two hundred and fifty grams of sugar and then eat a bit of yeast or a little piece of bread-maker's medium, won't it ferment inside my stomach and become spirit?'
'What rubbish! Your stomach isn't a distillery. It will either be digested before it ferments or will pass out with urine.'
'Then, of course, there is a problem. However, let it go. Tell me, what do you want?'
'Mr Mallik, if a person is not used to drinking, how much liquor will it really take to get him drunk?'
'Good, good! I am very happy to see that you too are now inclined in that direction. Try an ounce of rum. You may begin with gin also.'
'No, no, not me. I want to sozzle one of the characters in my memoir.'
'What a waste! However, you can give him four ounces. It won't cost anything to douse a fictional character.'

I saluted Dasu Mallik and took his leave. Many more experts are yet to be consulted--philosophers, psychologists, archaeologists, mythologists, etc. However, I do not have so much time to consult so many experts. I can do very well with some mistakes. Now, let me begin my memoir '

Princess Pushkala said, 'Aunty, see, I have prepared two hundred betel leaves, with pearl-ash lime, scented catechu from Kerala, betel nuts fried in butter and all thirty-three varieties of your favorite ingredients, like, cardamom, clove, cinnamon, saffron, camphor, asafoetida, garlic, black salt, etc. Your betel-leaf container is full. So, tell me your story now.'
Surpanakha, the royal sister, happily said, 'You are a good girl. I bless you that may you get married to a flawlessly handsome and qualified groom. We shall all be happy.'
'Let the groom wait. Tell me your story.'
'What will you do with those sad stories? Oh, I get mad whenever I think of those rascals of Ayodhya --- my teeth start grinding in anger, my blood boils and the cauldron of my grief spilleth over.'
'Even then, tell me.'

Evening has set in. On the balcony of the first floor, Surpanakha, reclined on plush cushions, is lying on a tiger-skin and enjoying the sea breeze. Pushkala is sitting beside her, with the betel-leaf container.

Two years have passed since Ravan was killed. As soon as Bibhishan became the king, he got the palace, temple, garden etc., repaired. One does not notice the evidence of the colossal and terrible destruction that was inflicted by Hanuman. Bibhishan has allotted an independent section of the palace to his younger sister. Surpanakha lives there with her attending chedis. Though she nurses a terrible grudge against Bibhishan and his wife Sarama, she loves their young daughter, Pushkala. 
Rakshas Chhalatkaru is a good craftsman. He had made the Maya-Sita during the war under the orders of Indrajit. Indrajit 'slew' that statue on his chariot and utterly confused Hanuman. He designed the Sundari-wood nose and ears that Surpanakha wears these days. They look almost real, - one is easily deceived. However, she has not been able to get rid of her nasal twang.
Surpanakha threw twenty-five betel leaves together into the cavern of her mouth and set off on the journey down memory lane. 'Do you know, Kala, this royal family of Lanka is as glorious as it is large. Our maternal grandfather was the valiant Sumali. He was defeated by Vishnu and so he left Lanka and took up residence in the netherworld. At that time, Kuber, the King of the Yakshas occupied Lanka. Sumali's daughter Kaikasi (alias Nikasha) got three sons and one daughter, all fathered by Sage Vishrava. Ravan was the eldest, Kumbhakarna, the second and Bibhishan, your father, the third. I was the youngest of all. Vishrava had another son from his first wife. That was Kuber. Ravan was growing more and more powerful by the day and so, on Vishrava's advice, Kuber left Lanka and fled to the other side of Himalaya. Lanka once again came under our control.

Pushkala said, 'I know all that history. Tell me your story. You got married once, didn't you?'
Surpanakha shoved another twenty-five betel leafs into her mouth and said, 'Yes, I got married once. Vidyutjihva, the king of Daityas, was my husband-- very handsome and highly obedient. But common sense was never a strong point with my eldest brother and so he slew his own brother-in-law while fighting the Kalkeya Daityas. I wept very loudly, directing well-chosen epithets at the king of Lanka. He said, 'Don't shout. So what if one husband is dead. I was intensely concentrating on shooting arrows during the battle, so I could not recognize your husband and killed him. Whatever has happened has happened. Now control yourself. I am making some suitable arrangement for you. Our cousins, Khar and Dushan, are going to Dandakaranya with fourteen thousand troops.

You too go along with them. Khar will obey all your commands. Dandakaranya is a nice place. Many sages do penance there and many kings come there for hunting. You will easily be able to trap a husband there'. So, I went to Dandakaranya with Khar. Truly it was a nice place, especially the area named Janasthan. We chose this place as our place of residence. But whatever eldest brother had said was not all true. Not many Kshatriyas visited the forest. The sages were also very few in number-- mostly they used to hide deep inside the forest and meditate in secret, to escape the Rakshasas. However, there was no dearth of food. Fuits like mango, jackfruit, banana, coconut, etc., grew profusely; honey was abundant and deer of various species were also available.'

Pushkala asked, 'Aunty, have you ever eaten a sage?'

Surpanakha put another score and five betel-leaves in her mouth and said, 'My father Sage Vishrava did not approve of sage-eating. Human flesh is eaten usually by Rakshasas of low extraction. We of the royal pedigree do not prefer it. But if we ever got upset with any human, we certainly ate him up. And during some religious festivals, we did sacrifice a human or two and eat the flesh as holy food. I have eaten about five sages but I found the flesh to be rather fibrous. However, the flesh of Kshatriya kings and princes is very good, somewhat like the flesh of a young goat. But those lovely days are gone, my dear Pushkala. Your father has gone bonkers. He has banned all those nice traditions. However, listen! We were spending our days at Dandakaranya happily. But soon emptiness started engulfing me and I began feeling rather lonely and forlorn. No Rakshas or Daitya of quality was available, so I turned my attention to seek out a sage. Most of them were old and senile, with a full head of matted hair and a very hirsute face. One couldn't possibly fall in love with them.

'During my sojourn at Dandakaranya, I had picked up friendship with another Rakshasi, named, Jambhala. She lived on the banks of River Godavari. She said, 'Don't worry, friend, I will organize a handsome and young sage for you'. Jambhala was very resourceful and smart. She began looking around for a sage. One day she said, 'O elder sister, I have found a nice young sage for you. You have to tip me with a pearl necklace'. From Jambhala I came to know that a young and handsome sage name Mudgal, had recently come to Janasthan and was presently residing and meditating in a hut on the banks of Godavari. Without further ado, I went to see him the same evening.'

Pushkala asked, 'I hope you dressed to kill.'

Another twenty-five went into her mouth. She said, 'You bet I did. Eyes tinted with collyrium, a cockroach-dot on the forehead, pink blush-on, red Telakucha on the lips, red silk-cotton flower stuck in the hair-bun, hibiscus hanging from the ears, seven-stringed necklace on the neck, a blue sari with a golden blouse and ornaments all over the body. It was enough to turn any male head. When I reached the ashram of Mudgal, he was reading the Veda. I was bewitched as soon as I saw him. He was far more handsome than my ex-husband. I bowed to him and he said, 'Gentle one, who are you? What do you want here?' I said, 'O sage, I am princess Suktinakha ---'.'

Pushkala asked, 'Where in blazes did you get that name?'

'I did not feel like telling the gentleman my actual name. Father Vishrava was mighty thought-less to have given me such a preposterous name. So, Suktinakha, that is, one who has nails like mother-of-pearl. Then I told him, 'O the best among Brahmins, I live nearby. For the last three months, I am on the Vibhitaka fast. I eat only one Vibhitaka fruit in twenty-four hours. Tomorrow my fast will end and that is why, on that auspicious occasion, I want to feed a Brahmin. Please come to my hut for lunch tomorrow in the afternoon.'

'Aunty, didn't your mouth water when you saw that young sage?' 
'Don't be daft! You don't eat the man you love. If you eat up the fellow then who would you love? However, listen! Sage Mudgal said, 'O beautiful one, I accept your invitation. Tomorrow afternoon, I will eat at your place.'
'The next day, after Mudgal came, I fed him to his fill with a variety of fruits, venison and
rice-pudding. When he had finished, I said, 'O sage, have a pot of this Madhvik. It is very mellow and
soothing; I have brewed it myself from the honey collected by the bees from wild flowers'. 
Mudgal said, 'I hope, I will not get intoxicated!' 
I said, 'No, no, how can I give you any intoxicating drink? You will just feel happy and your spirits may rise a bit. Drink without fear'.
'Mudgal tasted it and then, slowly sipped the entire pot away. He said, 'Hum, no doubt you have concocted a nice thing. Fairly sharp. Have you got more?' "
I said, 'Of course'.

Mudgal quickly soaked up another pot and then five or six more. I observed that his eyes had become somewhat dilated, the tip of the nose looked pink, a foolish smile hung on his lips and his hands trembled. Now, I thought, was the time to strike.

'I said, 'O sage, I have fallen in love with you, you are the prince of my heart. Marry me now in the
Gandharva fashion'.
'But the sage was not really under my full control. He said, 'O pretty one, I don't know anything about your caste, creed, etc. How can I marry you? Moreover, the scriptures say that women are not worthy of independence. You are a weak woman, controlled entirely by your parents. It is their responsibility to find a groom for you'.
'I said, 'You can count my parents out. They do not even enquire after me. Know me as who I am, I am the sister of the Lord of Lanka!'
'The sage was startled, 'I say, are you Surpanakha?
However pretty you may be, I obviously cannot marry a Rakshasi. I have heard that Surpanakha is very dangerous. You must have assumed your present form by your magic power.'
'I said, 'Listen Mudgal, beauty is only skin-deep, external. What is wrong if I enhance my external
beauty by magic powers? You need have no fear. I will always appear before you in this form only. But at night before going to bed, I will have to shed my make-up. I cannot sleep made-up like this. I will, of course, put out the lamp before going to bed with you'.
'How can I trust you? If sometime during the night you feel hungry, you will most probably eat me'.
'Don't worry. I don't eat just anyone. And a husband is highly inedible. 
Listen Mudgal, if you marry me, you will be loaded with wealth and be blessed to get as brothers-in-law, the ten-headed Ravan, the terror of the universe, Kumbhakarna, the supremely powerful giant and Bibhishan, the pious'.

"Even though Mudgal seemed stupid, he was very stubborn. He refused to be pliant. I got angry. I
said, 'Look here, you really consider me to be a weak woman, don't you? Then, observe my power'.
'I put both my hands on Mudgal's shoulders and pressed. I asked, 'Is it painful?' 
'Let go, let go'.
'Now the pressure is one maund . Does it pain?'
'Oh, let go, I say.'
'Now the pressure is two maunds. Are you willing to marry me?'
'Mudgal shrieked with pain. He spewed out all the liquor he had consumed. I however pressed on, 'Here is a pressure of three maunds. A little more and your vertebrae will snap. Tell me, are you willing to become the prince of my heart?'
'Mudgal screamed, 'Of course, of course!'
'Sun in the sky, my chedis, and that greedy dog waiting in front for the leftovers, you are all my
witnesses. Say again, are you willing?'
'Oh father! I am, I am! Rakshasi, you are the mistress of my heart.'
'I removed my hands. I said, 'The marriage will be celebrated on the first auspicious moment tonight.'
'Mudgal, panting and desperate, said, 'Darling, wait for at least a day. Let my body-ache subside a little, and my back straighten-up slightly. Tomorrow my guru, sage Kulattha, will arrive. I will take his permission and blessing and then accept you as my wife.'
'I said, 'O.K., but remember, if you go back on your word, you will first go into my stomach and thence, straight to hell.'

'The next day when I went to Mudgal's ashram, I found that his guru Kulattha had already arrived. I bowed to him. He smiled happily and said, 'O daughter of Rakshas, I am immensely happy to hear about your affair. Let your married life be full of bliss. Now, let me see your palm'.
'He studied the lines on my palm for a long, long time. Then he said, 'Hum, the hand seems to be all
right. An incomparably handsome fellow is destined to be your husband. My disciple here is short and weak, but he is handsome all right'.
'I said, 'My lord, his looks, as they are, are quite satisfactory for me. Have you studied the lines of his hands?'
'The sage said, 'Of course, I have. An exquisitely pretty woman is fated to be his wife'.
'I was glad to hear that. I said, 'Your conclusion is absolutely correct. I was crowned Miss Lanka once. You cannot get another woman in the entire country, as pretty as I'.
'Kulattha said, 'Is that so? Then I crown you Miss India. But you don't really measure up. Recently Ram, the son of Dasharath, has come to this forest on exile and has built his hut in Panchavati. His wife, Sita, is also with him. She is somewhat prettier than you are'.
'I was angry, 'There cannot be anyone prettier than I in this neighborhood. So, I will immediately eat her up. Please take me where she is'. 
The sage said, 'Your intentions are certainly noble. Come with me'.

'Without wasting any more time, Mudgal, Kulattha and I went to Panchavati. We hid ourselves in the forest and observed that Sita was engaged in cutting vegetables.

Men are blind - the fellow says that she is prettier than I! How absurd! Even my eldest brother was
besotted with her! Then I saw a young man, dark as the freshly sprouted grass, bow in hand, entering the courtyard. Another young man, carrying a basket of fruits on his head, followed him. I guessed that these two were Ram and Lakshman.'

Pushkala said, 'And immediately your head turned, isn't it?'
'Oh what beauty! I never knew that men could be that handsome. My intentions changed in a jiffy. I told Kulattha, ' Sage, I will presently eat that Sita. I don't need your disciple, Mudgal, any longer. That devastatingly handsome Ram is my destined husband. I will take him as my lord and master. Compared to him, your disciple is a monkey'.
'The sage said, 'You mustn't talk like that. He is, after all, your betrothed'.
'I answered, 'I did not commit anything. It was your disciple who really committed and that too not
voluntarily. He called me his darling under three maunds of pressure. I release him from his commitment. I will now unite with Ram. There is no point in your being here. So, get lost!' 
'Before I could finish talking, the two of them were gone.'

Surpanakha became somewhat pensive.

Pushkala asked, 'Why have you stopped, Aunty? What happened next?'
'Don't be an ass. Don't you know what happened next?'

All of a sudden, she became violently hysterical and screamed, 'Arre, Remo, you disaster, what have you done! '

And then, she began thrashing about, throwing her hands and feet in all directions, her wooden nose and ears slipped off, her mouth foamed, her teeth gnashed and her eyes rolled up.

Pushkala shouted, 'Chedis, come sharp! Aunty has had a fit. Sprinkle water on her face, fan her, burn chillies and smoke the hole of her nose!'


More by :  Maj. Gen. Shekhar Sen

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