She turned to face me, her gleaming eyes the only source of light on her shadowed face. “I wanted to create a Ayodhya that I dreamed about, a nation unlike any other that exists in India. I was born a woman, but I am more a man than my husband ever was! And it stings and pricks me – to know that I was better at his job than he ever could be. I never got any of the credit, I only get blame and recrimination. Because I’m a woman. You’re a woman too, you must feel this too?”
There was silence, except for the faint whirring of my tape recorder.
“And the Ayodhya that I tried to create – it’s all gone now… you me, Kausalya, Sita – all we’ll ever be are villains or footnotes in history text books.”
Her shoulders slumped. She sat down, heavily, ungracefully. I looked away, ashamed, looked instead at the black and white photographs that adorned the walls. Pictures of a young, beautiful queen and her besotted husband. Pictures of them hunting, at court, with children. A picture of her, standing manly in jodhpurs. Legs parted over a dead tiger. Gun held aloft.
Her voice was weary. “As for Ram… He is a living God to the people of Ayodhya, he holds himself to an impossible standard. He is a visionary in that sense. But he can’t see beyond himself – he’s obsessed with his actions, with his nature – striving to be the ideal. That can be another form of cruelty. He was cruel to his father, mother, me, his brothers and his wife.”
Kaikeyi saw my surprise and laughed. “You are shocked at my words? Let me ask you one question – What happened to Sita?”
Ram’s wife was an enigma. He had fought a war to win her back from Ravana, the king of Lanka, and had brought her home to Ayodhya. I had seen the old film strip so many times. The images of Ram and Sita entering the city in a Cadillac, waving to admiring crowds. I had been there too – a child, twelve or thirteen years old, seeing the young, shining couple for the first time. I had been disappointed by Sita. Her legendary, murderous beauty had faded after years in captivity. But there was a gentleness in her gestures, and an intelligence in her quick eyes that had impressed me. Months later she left. Rumours abounded. Some suggested that her rumoured chastity was really a hoax. Ram had discovered this and Sita left in disgrace. Others suggested that she had retired to the countryside, her conscience burdened by the many deaths her virtue had caused. And Ram had never taken another wife, much to Ayodhya’s disappointment.
Kaikeyi leaned close. She reeked of tobacco. I could feel her hot, foetid breath on my skin. “What’s her story? That’s a story that your loyal citizens of Ayodhya and your puppet newspaper may have trouble swallowing.”
As she showed me to the door, I murmured my thanks. But she was dismissive. “You won’t write this story. You’ll write exactly what every reporter has written before. You don’t have the guts.”
She was right.
Samhita Arni is a Bangalore-based author.