Yayati: a classic tale of lust (page 3)

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I was suddenly reminded of the picture portraying Indra resting peacefully on the arm of his wife Indrani, after he returned from battle with Vritra.

Such thoughts are intoxicating like wine and I do not know how long I stood before the mirror in admiration. Someone was talking and I looked round in surprise. It was Mother saying, ‘Men also love to look at themselves for hours ... do they? I had thought it was only women who were vain about their form.’ She had apparently mistaken me for Father and added, ‘Yayu has grown up now. What would he think, if he saw this?’

On seeing me, she said, ‘Yayu, my son, how you have grown overnight! I pray that I myself do not cast the evil eye! You were standing with your back to me and for a moment I thought it was your father before the mirror ...’ She said, ‘I am now relieved of one anxiety.’

Mother stopped suddenly. Tears came to her eyes and I said, ‘You are the Queen of Hastinapur. You are not the wife of a poor hermit or a wretched menial. What cares can you have?’

‘You forget my son ... that I am a mother.’

‘True, but you are my mother.’ I said ‘my’ with pride and glanced at the reflection. Mother also saw it and smiled. In an instant she turned grave and said, ‘That maybe, but for me, whose cup of nectar was once turned into poison, it is but natural that I should be nervous about the other.’ Mother was obviously referring to Yati. I said, ‘Mother, you get me the permission and I shall ransack the earth in search of Yati and bring him to you.’

She said, ‘Child, how can you find Yati? If he suddenly returned and stood in person before me, even I may not recognise him. Then how will you who have never seen him. I wonder where he is, how he is, what name he bears, and, indeed, if he is there at all ...’

She could say no more — Yati’s departure had left behind a deep scar. That scar she carried secretly and would not bare even to Father. That I had an elder brother who had left in the aspiration of becoming a great rishi, I had almost forgotten.

She looked gravely at me and said, ‘Yayu, my son, you have grown before your time into a man and acquired proficiency in the Letters and the Arts. We must now find you a bride. It will make me very happy ... I shall speak to Father today.’

Except with regard to Yati, Father always gave in to Mother. She was never denied anything. Once, one of my tutors suggested to Father that I should reside in a hermitage for a few days. Father agreed saying, ‘You are right ... a tree needs both rain and sunshine for its proper growth.’ This happened in my presence and I was stunned. My distaste for the hermit’s life has grown everyday since understanding came to me. I was never able to fathom why God Shiva was so impressed with the long years of penance of a hermit as to bestow on him the divine power to bless or curse. My education was mostly directed to the worship of beauty and strength. These have no place in a hermit’s life. There, corporal suffering is an article of faith. Wild herbs and roots are to them a delicacy and the chanting of hymns is their only war cry. Peeling fruit and cutting vegetables is to them what hunting is to others and the lowly hut serves for a palace. The maids of the palace were apsaras[1]by comparison with their womenfolk. All these thoughts crowded in on me and I was uneasy at the prospect of going to a hermitage.

When Father and the tutor talked about it again the next day, I listened in from behind a closed door. My heart was beating wildly. In the end Father only said, ‘I also think it would be better if Yayu went into a hermitage but his mother does not agree.’ My mother saved me that day but was now putting me into new difficulties by planning my marriage.

I was unable to sleep in peace even on my soft bed, tired though I used to be in body and mind. I would wake up with a start. Dreams of valour in fierce battles between the gods and the demons disturbed my sleep. My great grandfather Pururava was a mighty unconquered hero. He had made Urvashi his queen after fighting the demon who had kidnapped her. I had in my childhood learnt by heart the epic in which his prowess was sung. My father King Nahusha was no less brave. Early in life he vanquished the tribals known as Dasyus and gave protection to the rishis. Later, it is said, he even defeated the gods and acquired Indra’s kingdom. I was obsessed with a desire to emulate them by unique and unparalleled heroism, while there was mother thinking of marrying me off, lest I emulate Yati.

‘At your birth, a great astrologer forecast your life.’

‘What then did the quack forecast for me?’

I could see from her face that she did not relish this remark. She was silent for a while and said, ‘Yayu, my son, the astrologer said this child is destined to great good fortune. He will be King and will come by all kinds of pleasures. But he will never be happy.’

I laughed at this nonsense of the astrologer. In the end I said to Mother, ‘Mother, later, if you wish, I shall marry a hundred times but today, I am not after love. I wish to show my prowess. I do not want to loll in a boudoir. I want to engage in battle. They say the gods and the demons are spoiling for a fight. Let me join it. If Father so wishes, let him turn loose the victory horse. I will accompany it right round Aryavarta. When I return victorious after destroying the enemy I can think of marriage.’

I did not realise how much I had changed during my student days. Like a stream adapting itself to the contours of its surroundings, my mind had rapidly changed a great deal. In learning archery, I, for the first time, experienced the unique satisfaction of intense co-ordination of the eye and the mind. In childhood, the sight of the rich variety of colour in the garden used to thrill me. But the experience of sighting the target in archery was quite the opposite. Everything except the target ceased to exist. The purple of the hills, the green of the trees and the blue of the sky in the perspective were forgotten. There was only the black spot there. The small black spot, the target of my arrow was all that existed for me in that instant.

This new experience was also thrilling. I was soon an adept at hitting, without fail, inanimate objects. It was naturally followed by live targets. That was so many years ago but the joy of that first shot, which unerringly found its live target, still vibrates in the mind. It was a bird quietly perched on the tall branch of a tree. It made a beautiful picture framed against the deep blue of the sky. Every moment one felt that in the next instant the picture would come to life and take to its wings. The sun wassettingin the west. Somewhere in a nest her little fledglings, perhaps without their wings, must be waiting for her. But my tutor and I were hardly concerned with her brood or their fate. I wanted to be proficient in archery and the tutor’s livelihood hung by his teaching. I suffered intense agony shooting at that innocent little bird and that shot snapped my intimate association with nature. Till then, at the bottom of my heart, I was a poet. That instant the poet in me was dead.

Mother herself cooked that meat and served the delicacy to Father and me. Father certainly relished every morsel and was all admiration. But I had to make an effort to bring myself to eat it. At night I woke up three or four times and once, I imagined I heard the shrill cry of the bird in mortal agony. Once I woke up with the chirping of her little ones. Mother was still brooding over the loss of her offspring many years ago but the same mother could cheerfully look upon the death of a mother bird. She had admiration for her son who had killed that innocent bird. She could partake of the dead mother’s meat with relish. I was baffled by this contradiction in life.

The next evening the elderly Prime Minister called and I put my puzzle to him. He pointed out that life is not sustained by mercy but by power. He told me many tales from mythology and interesting stories of beasts and birds. The central theme of all was this: The world is sustained by the struggle for power, lives on rivalry and conflict and strives for sensual pleasure.

From that day I turned a devotee of power. To my mind cruelty and bravery were twins.

My bravery was soon to be put to the test. Tales of the conflict between gods and demons often came to Father, sometimes from Devarishi Narad and sometimes from others. The desire to fight on the side of the gods and to defeat and crush the demons, so as to demonstrate to my people the prowess of their future king was strongly borne in upon me quite frequently. But Father disliked the idea of siding with the gods or the demons.

I often tried to investigate the cause of father’s aversion to both from the old Prime Minister but his stock answer was, ‘Everyone gets to know things in their own good time. After all, trees do not grow leaf, flower and fruit all together.’ I then thought I should satisfy my craving for the battlefield in other adventures.

The annual festivities of the deities of the town were approaching. People from far and near used to flock to the capital to witness the celebrations. The capital town of Hastinapur turned into a sea of humanity. There were so many attractions that the ten days of festivities were soon over.

For the last day of the celebrations that year, the army commander had innovated an attraction. His idea must have been to encourage the spirit of adventure among his men. A steed of fleetfoot was to be doped and let loose in the circular arena. When the steed broke into a gallop, the contestant was to catch it where he could and mount it. He then had to go round the course five rounds and dismount without stopping the steed. For every contestant a fresh horse was brought in.

I liked the sport but it was meant for the common soldier. Nobody would have liked the prince to participate. With a pang of disappointment at heart, I was sitting by my parents eagerly watching the sport. Four times the horse had thrown the rider before he could complete the course. I looked at the fifth one cantering in. He had the appearance of a great and graceful giant. You could see in every eye fear, wonder and admiration. He was being led to the course by six attendants but he was defiant and neighed loudly. He was pawing the earth with his powerful hooves. He would throw up his head scattering and ruffling the mane, which then looked fearful like the white unruly hair of an angry rishi, poised for pronouncing a curse. Looking at him, a wild desire welled in me and my hands began to itch. Excited, I was stamping the ground. Every atom in my body was thrilled into action like the dancing jets of a fountain.

I looked at Mother and saw deep fright in her eyes. She whispered to Father, ‘Ask them to take this horse away. He is frightening. There will be an accident, spoiling the last day of the celebrations.’

Father smiled and said, ‘The life of man is dedicated to prowess.’ I closed my eyes to understand the implication of what my father had said. There was a terrifying scream from the spectators. When I opened my eyes, I saw that the contestant had failed. He had been thrown and the horse was galloping away. Two or three others tried but the horse was intractable. The entire arena was held in fright. There was a deep roaring in my ears urging me to arise and reminding me that the life of man is dedicated to prowess. It said, ‘Arise, Yayati. You are the future King of Hastinapur. A king may have no fear. Otherwise, it will be the talk of the town, that Hastinapur has been subdued by a horse. The gossip will reach the gods and the demons. You are the son of the brave King Nahusha.’

That shook me. I stood up and was moving forward when I was held firmly by two tender arms. I turned round. It was Mother.

I roughly thrust her hands away and jumped into the arena. A sea of men surrounded me but they seemed fixed like stone carvings and were soon out of my mind.

All I could see was the wild horse. He looked defiantly at me. He appeared to challenge the might of the Nahusha kings. Gradually I was getting nearer to him. The feeling arose in me that he was no horse but a mere rabbit, and his mane looked like a rabbit’s fur.

While I was thus entranced a shrill voice seemed to warn me. ‘You fool, where are you going? It is the Valley of Death.’

I shouted back, ‘No, it is not. It is not the Valley of Death but the Peak of Fame. It is a high peak but I am going to climb to the top. See, here I am already at the top.’

I have no recollection of the sequence of events and the next thing I distinctly remember is that I was firmly in the saddle and the horse was flying over the course like a hurricane. It was like riding a storm with the lightning firmly under control.

Two rounds were over. The huge crowd was surging with admiration and joy.

That spirited animal and the rider, young Yayati, were both intoxicated. Both were mobile statues. Both were travelling at a tremendous speed. Like the sin and merit acquired in an earlier birth, these two had become inseparable.

We had finished four rounds and entered the fifth. This was to be the last. I was conscious of my unique achievement. The golden dream of my youth had come true.

These were the nuances of my wild thoughts. I did not even realise that the horse was foaming at the mouth and that his speed had slackened. My mind warned me to be cautious. The fifth was to end a little beyond where Father and Mother were sitting. I moved near to their seats, I wanted to see the glow on my mother’s face. The temptation was great and I looked back just as I was passing them.

That one instant of temptation was near fatal. My grip on the saddle must have slackened and before I knew what was happening, I had been thrown from the saddle. The bitter revenge of that dumb animal was concentrated in that one act. For an instant, while I was in the air, I could hear shrill but plaintive cries from the crowd. The next moment I was deep in the abyss of unconsciousness.

When I came out of that frightful abyss, all I saw was a mild solitary ray of light. I did not know where I was.

I was suddenly jogged into remembrance. Then followed pain coursing through the head and limbs. Like a dried leaf in high wind, I had that day been flung into the air. Was I perhaps maimed from the accident? Why otherwise can I not get up? I put my right hand to the forehead. There was a cold pack there. I must have been in fever. With all my strength I shouted, ‘Mother!’

I heard the jingling of bangles. It must be Mother coming to me. I strained my eyes to see, but it was not Mother. It was someone else. Was I mortally hurt in that accident? Am I in my bed or at the door of death? I could not make out. I looked steadily at the figure standing by my bed. Has death such a beautiful form? Why then is man afraid of death? I heard a voice calling, ‘Prince?’ It was Alaka.

Her voice was shaky. For eight days the sun had risen every morning and set every evening, but I was not conscious of it. Where was I those days? What did I do then? I was baffled. I thought I was a different person but with the same form. But ‘I’ could not recall a single moment of those eight days.

I asked of my mother and Alaka said, ‘Her Majesty is in her room. She has given up eating since that day. Yesterday with great misgiving she came to see you and fainted at the sight. The physician has ordered her rest in bed.’

She added, ‘The physician has been watching over you night and day. A little while ago, he danced with joy on feeling your pulse and said, “Alaka, I feared that my skill was going to fail me and disgrace my grey hair. But now the prince is out of danger. He will probably regain consciousness about midnight or early morning at the latest. You must keep awake till he does so. See that the pack on his forehead is kept cold.” ’

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