Listen: Nothing was happening in Indralok. The rakshasas had been subdued, the Naga kings, jeweled hoods folded, were slumbering over their treasures, Lord Indra had laid aside his weapons; his attributes, the thunderbolts lay docilely at his feet over a pile of snoozing storm clouds. He yawned. Lord Indra had been winning at dice for a thousand years and He was hugely bored. That’s when Narada Muni materialized and asked, “God, who among your celestial nymphs is the best dancer? “
Lord Indra devised a competition. His nightly routine was to quaff nine jars of soma, then crash. He decided the apsara who kept Him awake with her dancing till He finished the last drop of the tenth jar would be declared the winner. Since I, Menaka had just returned from a dance sabbatical my colleagues requested me to win; they were tired of dancing for Him. So it was that Tillotama and Rumba dropped out early while Urvashi gamely kept on till the ninth round. “Menaka is Best Apasaraaaa! “ Lord Indra announced, and snored, the tenth jar rolling dry.
Down on earth, Sage Vishwamitra was in deep meditation. It was his four hundred and ninetieth year. The heat of his tapas was scorching the lowest of Lord Indra’s Seven Heavens; we heard the denizens there were scampering on tiptoe. It was reported that Sage Vishwamitra would soon gain enough power to rocket into Lord Indra’s throne and topple Him.
Lord Indra decided on damage control: Despatch an apsara. It’s a barbaric practice. Sages are at their most corruptible when poised to gain power over the Gods. But if they see us, they blow their minds on pleasure and forget Heaven. So the myth goes. None can imagine how demeaning it is for us apsaras – sky-crossing nymphs who devote our immortality to the arts — to be dangled as bait. Besides, we face blazing heat, the lust of ancient sages, their dragon breath. Some haven’t brushed their teeth for eight hundred years.
Pause, and think about it, will you? I, Menaka, and my colleagues, the apsaras, lustrous with the beauty of creativity, were offered as entertainment for pleasure seekers; our supple artistry bent to serve as distractions; our bodies, filled with the play of fecund energies were reduced to goods. This is why we are flippant; changeling creatures, bright and more frivolous than can be suspected by mortal minds for we guard deep secrets. Our work is dangerous and free. We use our laser-sharp minds to conceal ourselves; we pass off as our disguises.
In the bad old days before globalization we dancing girls didn’t have career options. There was only one sponsor for our art—Lord Indra. Having ‘won ‘ the dance contest I was chosen for the job. I borrowed from the rainbow its colours for my robes, acquired the patter of raindrops for footsteps, arrayed my hair like monsoon clouds and presented myself to Lord Indra. When I left Indralok I was in disarray.
I homed in on blistering heat, towards a huge anthill shining white-hot. That had to be Vishwamitra! I conjured fragrant dew from my body the way mortals sweat. My dew-sweat washed away the anthill. O the disappointment! But I’m a professional. I stamped my feet and a garden bloomed. I summoned mist and light, I was softly backlit to perfection. I began singing seductively and low so that the tune snaked into his mind like a recurrent dream. His eyelids fluttered. I began my dance, trailing my shimmering veils over his limbs, dropping them; I began the Air Tumbling Siren Sequence. It’s the last part of the routine. I tumbled before his closed eyes, limbs splayed and circling, for five years, non-stop. I was dizzy.
I thought: One last effort before I rest. I leapt into a 360-degree pirouette in the air while breaking my garlands and showering petals on him, I somersaulted in slow motion. I was upside down, hair streaming, hip bells slipping on my breast, skirt on my face when he awoke. He looked, stretched one arm to grab mine dangling above his face; one tug and I was below him. That was it.
He wasn’t good. Even… but that’s another story. Vish came instantly; but what can you expect from a sage who’s been planning to usurp the power of the Gods? After a decade his body temperature fell to 300 degrees centigrade so I knew all but the Lower Heavens should have cooled to egg-cooking heat. Another twenty years passed in singing, dancing and sex. Vish said he felt hungry –for food. This meant he had lost most of his supra-natural powers. I was delighted for I could now plan to return home and seek solace, solitude, through my art. I became a food gatherer for him like archaic mortal tribeswomen. I diligently gathered fruits and berries, de-stoned and de-piped each one before popping these into his open mouth. An artist, reduced to this!
At this point in my story I must inform you that we apsaras aren’t like mortal women who are routinely raped but still get pregnant; we need the touch of tenderness to become fecund. He was tender with me once and I conceived. I told Vish he must be a good father, I needed him to bond with his child. I remember he rolled his eyes.
One day as he was resting his head on my growing middle and munching red berries the inevitable happened. I had forgotten to de-pip one berry. The pip lodged in a cavity in his teeth. He tried to dislodge it with his tongue. He failed. He tried to poke it out with a twig; he failed. With his remaining powers he roared out a mantra. The pip shot out of his mouth. “Menaka,” Vish cursed, “ you are like this berry. Sweet and luscious on the outside but stony inside. I realize Lord Indra sent you to snare me! I reject you through all Time, Space, and Meaning. I return to my austerities. “ He turned to the pip. “ O little pip, you have led me back into awareness. For this flourish!” Immediately a great tree grew between us.