an episode from the ‘Ramayana’ retold by Amit Chaudhuri

She’d been watching the two men for a while, and the pale, rather docile wife with vermilion in her hair, who sometimes went inside the small house and came out again. She’d been watching from behind a bush, so they hadn’t seen her; they had the air of being not quite travellers, nor people who’d been settled for long; but they looked too composed to be fugitives. Sometimes the men went away into the forest while the woman attended to household chores – Surpanakha observed this interestedly from a distance – and then they’d return with something she’d chop and cook, releasing an aroma that hung incongruously around the small house.

She, when she considered herself, thought how much stronger and more capable she would be than that radiantly beautiful but more or less useless woman, how she’d not allow the men to work at all, and do everything for them herself. It was the taller one she’d come to prefer, the older one, all of whose actions had such authority. She liked to watch him bending, or brushing away a bit of dust from his dhoti, or straightening swiftly, with that mixture of adroitness and awkwardness that only human beings, however godly they are, have; he was so much more beautiful than she was. It was not his wife’s beauty she feared and envied; it was his. Sighing, she looked at her own muscular arms, used to lifting heavy things and throwing them into the distance, somewhat hirsute and dark, but undoubtedly efficient, and compared them to his, which glowed in the sunlight. Her face, which she’d begun to look at in a pond nearby, had cavernous nostrils and tiny tusks that jutted out from beneath her lips; it was full of fierceness and candour, but, when she cried, it did not evoke pity, not even her own. The face reflected on the water filled her with displeasure. How lovely his features were in comparison!

After about six days had passed, and she’d gone unnoticed, hiding, frightened, and when she was glimpsed, frightening, behind the bush, she decided to approach him. She had grown tired of hovering there like an animal; even the animals had begun to watch her. Although she’d been taught to believe, since childhood, that rakkhoshes were better – braver, less selfish, more charitable and better-natured – than human beings and gods, it was true the latter were prettier. They’d been blessed unfairly by creation; no one knew why. Long ago she’d been told that it was bad luck to fall in love with a god or a human being, but the possibility had seemed so remote that she’d never entertained it seriously. The feeling of longing, too, was relatively new for her, although she was in full maturity as a woman; but she was untried and untested, rakkhosh though she was, and uncourted; and this odd condition of restlessness was more solitary and inward, she found, than indigestion, and more painful.

She decided to change herself. She could take other forms at will, albeit temporarily; she decided to become someone else, at least for a while. She went to a clearing where she was sure no one would see her, where the only living things were some insects and a few birds on the trees, and the transformation took place. Now she went to the pond to look at the picture in the water. Her heart, like a girl’s on glimpsing a bride, beat faster at what she saw; a woman with large eyes and long hair coming down to her waist, her body pliant. She wasn’t sure if this was herself, or if the water were reflecting someone else.

Ram and his younger brother Lakshman had gone out into the forest to collect some wood; she saw them from a distance. Her mouth went dry, and she snorted with nervousness; then she recalled how she’d become more beautiful than she’d imagined, and tried to control the noises she inadvertently made. She thought, looking at Ram, ‘He is not a man; I’m sure he’s a god,’ and was filled with longing. When they came nearer her, she lost her shyness, and came out into the clearing.

‘What’s this?’ said Ram softly to his brother, pretending not to have seen her.

Lakshman glanced back quickly and whispered, as he bent to pick up his axe: ‘I don’t know – but this beautiful “maiden” smells of rakkhoshi; look at the gawky and clumsy way she carries her body, as if it were an ornament she’d recently acquired.’

‘Let’s have some fun with her,’ whispered Ram. He’d been bored for days in the forest, and this overbearing, obstreperous creature of ethereal beauty, now approaching them with unusually heavy footsteps, promised entertainment.

‘Lord . . .’ she stuttered. ‘Lord . . . Forgive me for intruding so shamelessly, but I saw you wandering alone, and thought you might have lost your way.’

Ram and Lakshman looked at each other; their faces were grave, but a smile glinted in their eyes. They’d noticed she’d ignored Lakshman altogether. It amused and flattered Ram to be on the receiving end of this attention, even if it came from a rakkhoshi who’d changed shape; and it also repelled him vaguely. He experienced, for the first time, the dubious and uncomfortable pleasure of being the object of pursuit. This didn’t bother him unduly, though; he was, like all members of the male sex, slightly vain. Lakshman cleared his throat and said: ‘Who are you, maiden? Do you come from these parts?’

‘Not far from here,’ said the beautiful woman, while the covering on her bosom slipped a little without her noticing it. ‘Lord,’ she said, going up to Ram and touching his arm, ‘let’s go a little way from here. There’s a place not far away where you can get some rest.’ Within the beautiful body, the rakkhoshi’s heart beat fiercely, but with trepidation.

‘I don’t mind,’ said the godly one slowly. ‘But what’s a woman like you doing here alone? Aren’t you afraid of thieves?’

‘I know no fear, Lord,’ she said. ‘Besides, seeing you, whatever fear I might have had melts away.’

‘Before I go with you,’ conceded Ram, ‘I must consult my brother – and tell him what to do when I’ve gone.’

Surpanakha said, ‘Whatever pleases you, Lord,’ but thought: ‘I’ve won him over; I can’t believe it. My prayers are answered.’

Ram went to Lakshman and said: ‘This creature’s beginning to tire me. Do something.’

‘Like what?’ said Lakshman. He was sharpening the blade of his knife.

Ram admired the back of his hand and said moodily: ‘I don’t know. Something she’ll remember for days. Teach her a lesson for being so forward.’

Lakshman got up wearily with the knife still in one hand, and Ram said under his breath: ‘Don’t kill her, though.’

A little later, a howl was heard. Lakshman came back; there was some blood on the blade. ‘I cut her nose,’ he said. ‘It,’ he gestured toward the knife, ‘went through her nostril as if it were silk. She immediately changed back into the horrible creature she really is. She’s not worth describing,’ he said, as he wiped his blade and Ram chuckled without smiling. ‘She was in some pain. She flapped her arms and screamed in pain and ran off into the forest like some agitated beast.’

Crying and screaming, Surpanakha circled around the shrubs and trees, dripping blood. The blood was mingled with the snot that came from her weeping, and she wiped them away without thinking from her disfigured face. Even when the pain had subsided a little, the bewilderment remained, that the one she’d worshipped should be so without compassion, so unlike what he looked like. It was from here, in this state, she went looking for Ravan.

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