Ten years after the return of Ram and his victory at Lanka, Ayodhya is prospering. A journalist tries to discover the truth behind the dissatisfaction at the heart of this regime. But most importantly, where is Sita? In this extract we revisit Ayodhya in a unique piece of speculative fiction by Samhita Arni
It was already dark when I was ushered into her private parlor. She was barely visible, shrouded in shadows. She moved and the shadows slithered away, unwrapping her desiccated frame.
“I prefer the darkness,” she had said. “In one’s old age, darkness is far kinder than light.” She was dressed impeccably – fashionable in a classic black chiffon sari, a simple strand of pearls clasped around her neck. But her sagging flesh and heavily rouged face spoke another, sadder story.
I had begun with the cliché list of questions I had prepared. She yawned, bored, and answered politely. But at some point, a question provoked a response. She rose, and walked towards the windows, posture erect and graceful despite her age.
She paused at an open window, and lit a cigarette. The moon glinted in the sky. “The city was burning that night,” she spoke loudly, grandly. “The night he returned. He had a hero’s welcome. While I… I was less fortunate. The people were in high spirits that night, and someone flung a molotov cocktail into my dining room. I had moved out of the palace a while back, and was living in the city. The house caught fire, and my maid, poor Mantara, tried to put out the flames but burnt miserably, horribly, to death.”
She paused, and inhaled deeply. Clouds of cigarette smoke wafted out of the open window, as burning ash drifted to the ground. “I got the message loud and clear – I wasn’t wanted in Ayodhya any longer. So I moved here. My childhood home.” She gestured to the walls around us.
There were heads of extinct beasts, killed in hunting, mounted on the walls. Grand carpets on the floor – from faraway Turkey and Persia. Grand, but if one knelt down, you could see the tassels were frayed, the carpet moth eaten. Suits of armor, rusting in the dark corners of the room, creaked as the northern wind blew.
It was different from what I had expected. Here I was, face to face, with the ‘demoness’ who had haunted my childhood. We had all been raised on tales that spoke of the evil nature of Queen Kaikeyi, who had ruled with an iron fist in the last years of Dasaratha’s life, whose cruel influence continued through Bharat’s proxy reign. My parents had welcomed her stepson Ram with relief, straining against her totalitarian rule. Yet now…I wondered. She wasn’t a ghastly nightmare. She was a sad old woman, still angry. Pathetically human. Something in me stirred, despite the stories that I had heard. I found myself wondering – was it really like that? What was her side of the story?
“No one’s asked me that before. There’s been a veritable deluge of reporters in this house since then, but they’ve never been interested. They’ve always wanted to show Kaikeyi – the malicious, vindictive queen.” She cackled, her brilliant, polished white teeth glimmering. “A hint of the truth is there, in your text books and newspapers. That’s what the media does – sells you a puzzle of truth and lies packaged nicely, and you are none the wiser. The media chooses what it wants to tell you; and in Ayodhya the media is hand-in-glove with the government.”
I offered a faint protest.
“That’s right, I forgot, you work for a newspaper. The Ayodhya Times or The Ayodhya Daily? Doesn’t matter which one. They are all the same.” She paused. “You’ll go back and write that piece, like all the other reporters, like Valmiki, painting me to be some beguiling siren, who ruined Dasaratha and Ayodhya. Sex, revenge, jealousy, vindictiveness – it will all be there…” Her voice rose. “But do you want the truth?”
Her voice echoed, crashing against the ancient walls, words repeating and colliding. “Dasarata was a far cry from the powerful monarch you imagine him to be. He was a weak, erratic man. Yes, he was impotent – why do you think he had to visit that rishi? For a remedy for his sterility! It was only after that we, all his queens, bore children. He could barely make a decision – I had to guide him! Me! And even in war, I had to be there. Strategizing, whispering orders to him, to relay to his troops. I was there – check your archives. The famed charioteer queen driving her husband into battle. I saved his life once, when he was wounded by enemy fire, and took him to a safe place. He owed me his life. And I called in that favour – I wanted my son Bharat to rule instead of Ram. Can you blame me?”