kiskiKAHANI (the Ramayana Project)

300 Ramayanas and Counting . . .
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Menaka Tells Her Story

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“ Vish,“ I shouted, “think of your innocent child! Wait for her birth! Don’t you desert her!“ But Sage Vishwamitra was storming into the forest without a backward glance.

A famous painting by Raja Ravi Varma ‘ illustrates ‘ this momentous event. It shows Vish as tall and handsome turning his face away from me, who, contrite in white garments is offering my little Sakuntala to him for acceptance. I contest this. Vish was never any woman’s dream and he abandoned me before I gave birth. The painter even got the colour of my garments wrong: These were sapphire with sadness, ruby with rage, amethyst with anxiety for my child. But this is the way my story is told. I’ve been misrepresented all through time, and that too in the arts that I so love.

I gave birth to my daughter in a sacred grove and placed her near the Sakuntala birds that I knew make good foster mothers. Only once could I let her suckle before I was vaporized back to Indralok, sucked up to my crystal palace in the Seventh Heaven.

Mine was the first girl-child to be abandoned; I, Menaka, am remembered throughout history as the first mother to have abandoned her daughter. The truth is my Sakuntala wouldn’t have survived the passage back to Heaven for she was half mortal. I flung myself on the brilliants encrusted floor of my aerial chamber. And wept. Raged and wept.

I didn’t attend the celebrations Lord Indra commanded in my honour. I didn’t hear the conch and drums; I only heard my daughter’s weak cries. “Menaka is weeping for her daughter, “ Lord Indra was informed.  “ Menaka will be rewarded when she is ready “ He graciously announced. Once a month low-ranking nymphs would ferry my sparkling teardrops in their palms as proof of my grief.

Lord Indra didn’t know I’d never be ready. He didn’t know I’d never forget Sakuntala’s small hands on me, her wee mouth at my nipple, her little red face, her wet crinkled ears, her tiny feet that had kicked me in the womb. There’s insufficient time in the universe to forget such moments.

I continued to weep. Being a water nymph I can weep endlessly, and I float on water, gathering it towards me. My tears piled beneath me, couching me in their sad rocking. I had twelve feet of tear-bed under me when the Chief of Security — an odious giant I had once spurned — dropped by to check me out. He peered down to hear me murmur, “ Sakuntala, how I wish, I wish, wish…” Twisting his moustache he roared with pleasure, “I’ll report you! “

“ What! “ Lord Indra’s voice boomed through the heavenly halls,“ You say she still weeps for Vish–wamitra!” Silence flooded Indralok. Then His voice boomed in laughter. “Impossible! How can she desire anyone after being with Me! “

The only person I wished to be with was my infant daughter, back on earth. But I knew if I asked for the boon of mortality Lord Indra never would have granted it. My desire had to be camouflaged and strike Him as His Own Brilliant Idea. So I continued weeping. It was a risky plan I devised, but what option did I have in those primitive patriarchal times?

Years passed. Emissaries came and went; my tear-bed was a tower almost two hundred feet high when the Chief of Security paid another visit. He was a dot way below. He shouted up to me, ‘How dare you be so high-and mighty, nymph?” I didn’t bother to reply. He stomped out.

“ Impossible, but true! “ Lord Indra materialized in a flash of lightning. “ Menaka has dared to build herself a throne higher than Mine! “ Thunder swept through my chambers, lightning fell like rain on the floating balconies; squalls twisted my towering tear-bed. “Menaka, you’ve become arrogant. You must be punished!”

At last! I flew down, flung myself at His feet and agreed, “Yes, Highest of Gods, I deserve the worst punishment! Change me into a mortal. “ “Ha, I will, “ He roared. Space blackened and I waited, but nothing was happening. I opened my eyes to redness; Lord Indra was red with rage.

“ Do you think I, Lord Of The Universe, don’t have ideas of My Own? “ He stormed. I couldn’t see for the lightning. I heard the roar of thunder, His Voice. “ Hear My Curse. You will continue to dance till the end of Time.’ Lord Indra paused; lightening quaked but did not fall. With a crash He resumed, “ Henceforth you will dance in every man’s heart   -but with a difference. He might lust and assault your ilk. Yet he will not be blamed nor need hold himself responsible for the violence he inflicts, for you, Menaka, most foul temptress, will be charged, each time, with robbing him of virtue. You will be held liable.“

“ Great God, “ I cried, “ Do not make me wreck frail humanity, nor become a symbol of shame to my own sex. Remember I once saved Indralok! It was I who saved Your throne!“

Those were classical times; even Gods had to heed certain rules. Lord Indra stroked His beard, tickled His chin, He burped. This meant He was thinking. “A curse cannot be revoked, “ He finally proclaimed, “ but it can be modified. To hide your shame you will be invisible to all but the last man you slept with. Now you’re banished. “ Even as I saw my form begin to disappear I shouted, “ Embedded in every curse is a ray of hope. Where’s mine? I demand it!“ Lord Indra chuckled. “ Menaka, for your quick wit We grant you this: If ever a mortal you have bewitched regrets his actions you will be released from your Curse. Then you can die. “  Only my throat and head were visible when I shouted, “ Great God, Your victory over Sage Vishwamitra is recorded in imperishable myth. You owe my story more. I too need a hearing!” As my ears were evaporating I heard Lord Indra thunder, “ Menaka, nymph wild in beauty and intelligence, hear Me. You’ll get to tell your story once. This doesn’t mean you’ll get a hearing, though. Ha! Thought you could outsmart me? Ha Ha Haaa…”

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