Continuing our series on Stories from the hills…
When women unite,
even the gods
the ultimate and the all powerful
bow to their will.
Thankfully, women don’t do so very often.
Before the narration of any of the stories, a short poem is sung. These few lines are said to carry the gist of the story to come.
As Ram, Sita and Laxman travel through the forest, they reach Shabri’s hut. Shabri, in this version, Shabri is not an Untouchable. (This might be because tribes don’t practice untouchability, or because Buddhism does not accept this kind of discrimination.) She is an old woman, always at loggerheads with her own community but always friendly to travelers. Perhaps this is why she stays outside the village. Traditional Bon beliefs harbour an inherent fear of outsiders and usually, travelers are not allowed to stay the night, except in the Bodh Viharas.
Shabri, old and alone, lives in a dirty, tumbledown shack. This is the reason that she is an outcaste, says the narrator. (Kinnauri women take pride in their neat, tidy, spotless mud houses). This untidy, careless old hag, knowing that Ram is on his way and must pass her hut, gathers ‘kulre’, a local berry, to present to him. ‘Kulre’ grows on the sun-baked, steep rocks, where only the sure-footed mountain goats or nimble young girls dare to tread. Ram knows this and in appreciation for the risk that Shabri has taken to feed him the wild fruit, he eats his fill.
After eating, he questions her about her solitude and the reason for her living so far away from habitation.
Shabri laughs and says that if she did not live here, who would take care of the huge rock nearby. Then she adds “I am not a man like you to wander here and there. I am a woman and am bound to my duty.”
“But why is it your duty to take care of a rock, which is quite capable of looking after itself?” asks Ram, bewildered.
“Not the rock, I look after the people who pass this way. If they do not treat the rock with respect, a great misfortune would befall them.”
Ram is even more confused and asks “Is this some holy rock, or a place of worship?”
“Oh Ram, you men are so lost in your own world. This is Ahilya, the loyal and learned wife of Rishi Gautam, who in his anger at her infidelity, cursed her and turned her into a rock. (Here, the entire episode of Indra tricking Ahilya by taking Gautam Rishi’s form, is narrated). Later when Gautam realized her innocence, he did not know how to reverse the curse and left it to you.”
Ram is nonplussed at this “Why me? What am I supposed to do? I have my wife with me and I am an honourable man!”
“Oh Ram! Stop jumping to conclusions, especially the wrong ones. You are not expected to do anything with the rock, only step on it.”
Ram is skeptical. Should he turn a woman back to human form? A woman turned into rock by her husband? Suppose the husband were to get angry again? Whom would he curse this time? Laxman, always the careful one, warns his brother, telling him not to get caught in this sentimental blackmail. “We have been thrown out of a luxurious life and now it seems that we would have the life of stones. Just leave these rocks to their fate and let us proceed.”
Ram is convinced and walks away with Laxman, only to realize that Sita is not following them. He turns back and asks, “Oh Sita, we have finished our business here. We have eaten and rested. So what are you waiting for now?”
“I wait for my husband Ram, for how I can I leave without him?”
Ram is flabbergasted and Laxman, as usual, angry. Sita then explains: “My husband would never turn down a poor woman’s request. He would also never let an innocent woman be punished endlessly and not be her saviour.”
Seeing that Ram is not convinced and still not willing to step on the rock, she shoots the final barb: “Or maybe you have doubts about your own self, maybe you are not capable of redeeming this woman and are afraid that you shall stand exposed… That is why you do not wish to stand the test. And that is why you see I do not follow you as a loyal wife should. You just might be an impostor, like Indra.”
Hearing this, Ram comes back and removing his hemp rope shoes, steps barefooted on the rock. The rock immediately turns into Ahilya, who thanks Ram, but blesses Sita. Her blessings are in the form of a set of clothes that never become dirty, never tear and never become old. These are the clothes that see Sita through her long confinement in the Ashoka Vatika, when she is abducted by Ravana, the king of Lanka.
The introduction to this series can be read at http://kiskikahani.openspaceindia.org/manyramayanas/stories-from-the-hills-i-sitas-abduction-by-ravana/
More wonderful stories from Himachal on our Many Ramayanas all this month.
Noor Zaheer writes both in English and Hindi. She has written My God is a Woman, Mere Hisse Ki Roshnai (Hindi Academy Award), Barh Urraitte, Surkh Karavan Ke Humsafar, Ret Par Khoon, Patthar Ke Sainik, and Aaj Ke Naam. Noor has translated Peter Shaffer’s A Royal Hunt of the Sun and Tennessee William’s A Street Car Named Desire to Urdu for legendary theatre director Ibrahim Alkazi, Shakespeare’s Titus to Hindustani for National School of Drama and adapted M F Hussain’s autobiography for stage for Nadira Babbar. Noor has worked intensively in Himachal Pradesh on the tribal performance tradition and Buddhist influence. She is also the recipient of the Times Fellowship, the Senior Fellowship of the Culture Department, Govt. of India, and was writer in Residence at the Sahitya Akademy. At present she is translating early women’s writings from Urdu to English for the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts and working on her next novel in English.