Bride of the Forest: The Untold Story of Yayati’s Daughter

By Madhavi Mahadevan

Click here to buy Bride of the Forest: The Untold Story of Yayati’s Daughter The forest was already a lush, tangled dream. In the runny light of dawn what appeared surreal to the girl’s eyes was the city of Pratisthan – the yellow of its brick walls, the disarray of its streets. The citizens were still abed. The network of narrow, paved alleyways was silent but for the sighs from the night just spent. However, the smells lingered and gossiped of the frenzied drinking and dancing, of clandestine desires and sated hungers, of enticement, seduction and indulgence. In the street of the courtesans, bruised garlands of marigold and jasmine drifted in sluggish drains. A tambourine lay in a pool of vomit. At the city’s intersections stood enormous clay lamps that had burned bright all night, but now held curls of blackened wicks, like stillborn worms. The only signs of life were the lean, brown stray dogs scavenging through animal innards and fishbone.

As the sun rose, honeycombs of gold-coloured light appeared on the flat rooftops. The people of Pratisthan stirred listlessly to life. The pious, who had been up long before sunrise for their ritual ablutions, returned from the ghat. Susurrations of grass brooms echoed across courtyards. Mothers yawned as they washed their babies and spooned millet porridge into the pink mouths. Holy men in tawny robes knocked on doors and wordlessly held out their wooden begging bowls. Yodelling calls, from vegetable vendors selling brinjal, bitter gourd, pumpkin, jackfruit and greens, flitted from street to street, reminding the girl of birdsong in the forest.

Her throat felt dry and scratchy. The new cloth bodice wound around her budding breasts chafed against her skin. Sweat trickling down her neck stung like ant bites. She glared resentfully at the woman in whose wake she had trudged these past three days. Some time ago, she had arrived at the conclusion which every child, at a certain age, reaches: that she was a foundling. This woman, she had decided, was not her real mother. The word ‘father’, however, was a complete mystery to her. She hadn’t even known she had one until three days ago, when she’d been abruptly informed, ‘You are now going to live with your father.’

‘Where does he live, this father of mine?’

‘In a web of his own making.’ Her mother had laughed but, typically, did not explain.

The girl’s face had clouded with misgivings. As one nurtured by the forest she knew that a web was intricate – a spider’s web. Beginning with just a single fine silken filament exuded into space, all it announced to the world was an intention. Yet, such was the industry, craft and intelligence of the spinner that from one thread could arise many elaborate creations: a snare for preys, a hideout from predators, a haven for young ones. What web had this unknown father spun? She asked, ‘Why do I have to live with him?’ When her mother did not reply, a note of anxiety entered the girl’s voice. ‘Will I ever come back to this forest?’

Speaking as if to herself, her mother said, ‘No one leaves entirely. There is only a fragment to return to.’ Seeing something, not in the child’s face but in the far-off future, she added with uncharacteristic gentleness, ‘The forest is yours. It will be here for you.’
***
It was late in the night when he finally had the time to see the woman and the girl who had waited at the palace gates all day. He was seated on the ancient throne when they were shown in. At first, he had no memory of the woman though she reminded him, ‘You came many years ago to hunt in our forest.’

‘Your forest?’

‘Don’t laugh. It was my mother’s before it was mine.’

‘And is this girl your daughter?’

The woman flashed him a look. ‘She is your seed. That makes her a princess of the Ailas.’
It was ridiculous. He would have openly scoffed, but the defiance in the woman’s face – like an evil eye – warned him to be careful. Hadn’t a woman’s anger shattered his own life? Women, in his view, were strange, unreliable creatures. Could it be possible that this woman was making it up? It was true that he had often hunted in the forest, sometimes staying there for days. True, too, the he had slept with women from the untamed tribes that lived in it. There was something different about those women, an earthiness that he’d found refreshing after the smooth, practised ways of the royal courtesans, the submissiveness of concubines, the claustrophobia of the palace. There had been a period, years ago, when those wild nights of intoxication in the forest had been so many that memory had fused them inseparably into one kind of coarse pleasure. Was this girl an outcome of that time? A princess of the Ailas, he echoed silently. ‘Are you quite sure that she is mine?’ he said. ‘I don’t see any of the Aila features in her.’

‘If you can’t provide for her, just say so… She is no burden to me, O king.’

He flushed at the scornful tone. The woman studied him for a long moment then, without another word, turned around to leave. He noticed the lifelike tattoo of a deer on her back and had a flash of a memory – of tracing it in kisses. A recollection arose of a forest dweller he’d met, a shaman reputed for the efficacy of the spells she cast to ward off evil and the good luck charms made from feathers, claws and bones of dead birds. The woman had not lied… The girl was following her mother out of the hall. He felt oddly disturbed by the sight of her trailing like a submissive foal. It was as if the ancestors were suddenly crowding him, whispering in his ear, raising a clamour. He could not make out what they were saying, but he sensed the urgency. ‘Wait!’ he cried.
They stopped, but only the girl, rearing her head as if struck, turned to look at him.

‘Come here,’ he said.

She stepped from the shadows into the pool of light shed by the flaming torches that surrounded the royal seat. He saw that she was on the cusp of womanhood. Her body had the bony gawkiness of a child, but in the straight-backed posture, the slender long column of her neck and the developing angles and planes of her face there was a forecast of beauty. Her eyes gravely returned his gaze. They showed no awe but were cool and watchful. The quality of stillness in one so young struck him as unusual. He had a feeling that he seen it somewhere before – a kind of bred-in-the-bone poise – but he couldn’t say where or when. Had it been a dream, a carved image or a real face? Had it been a human or an animal?

He was searching for something to say when her mother spoke. ‘She will be fruitful. Her womb will bring forth males. Four sons.’

‘Is that what her stars say?’

The woman gave a mocking laugh. ‘It is what your stars say, Yayati… When the time comes her sons will ensure your safe passage into the next world.’

He frowned. What did she mean? Sons were what a man needed to ensure that his lineage continued. He, Yayati, already had sons. Five. He had paid off his debt to the pitris, his ancestors, so that, when the time came for him to leave this world, they would welcome him into their golden heaven, Pitralok, instead of banishing him to Put, the hell reserved for men who had died sonless. Yes, he had done his duty. The woman was clearly mad, and he was foolish to fall for her nonsense talk. He regretted the impulse that had made him call the girl back, but the woman was gone… Now there were only the two of them in the room, the girl and he. What was he to do with her? Should he request the queen mother to accept the child in her household? He could probably persuade her, but she had troubles enough of her own.

An angry brahmin’s curse had transformed Nahusha from a human to a serpent. The transgression had been his alone, but Viraja, his chief queen, too, had paid the price. While he waited in the wilderness to be freed from the curse – by a far-off descendant named Yudhisthir – she had been at a loss about what to do with the rest of her earthly life. There had been a fleeting suggestion that, as a devoted wife, she could share her husband’s fate and that she could do this by requesting the powerful rishi who had uttered the curse to repeat it for her as well. The idea was novel, but Viraja had a horror of snakes – an absolute phobia. To assume the form of one was unthinkable. Kill me this instant, she had pleaded, and become so hysterical that she had to be sternly reminded that she was a manasi kanya, the born-of-the-mind daughter, of the pitris themselves and, therefore, faultless. As such, she was expected to lead the way when it came to feminine virtues like submissiveness, chastity, devotion and prudence. Besides, there was the more practical concern of bringing up her six sons, ranging in years from eighteen to eight. Viraja, much to her secret relief, had stayed on in the palace.

Soon after Nahusha’s banishment to the rock, a second tragedy had devastated the royal family: Eighteen-year-old Yati, who was Yayati’s elder brother and the crown prince, had refused to ascend to the throne. I am taking the vows of brahmacharya, he’d declared. From his father’s example, he said, it was clear that power, combined with a decadent lifestyle, could destroy a man. He’d decided that he wanted neither. He was firmly reminded of his duties – a long life of renunciation is not the duty of a kshatriya – but no argument could undermine his resolve. He insisted that his locks be shaved, jewels and rich garments exchanged for the single white loincloth of a sanyasi. Armed with a begging bowl, a water pot and a sturdy wooden staff, he had set off for the forest without a backward look. Nothing was heard of him ever again.

Now the question that is the bane of the rich and the powerful loomed large: Who would inherit? The mahamantri and the council of ministers had pressed Yayati, the second in line, to ascend to the throne; it could not lie empty, they insisted. The raw fifteen-year-old boy was bewildered by this abrupt change of direction in his hitherto carefree life. In the days preceding the coronation, the deference he received from others filled him with a strange sense of fatalism, as if he were a sacred bullock being prepared for ritual slaughter before the goddess. The coronation itself was not a happy event for anyone. When the gem-studded gold crown was placed on his head, and he was led by the rajpurohit to the throne, Yayati couldn’t get rid of the feeling that he was an imposter. The sight of his mother weeping copiously throughout the ceremony had further shaken his confidence. He could have used her support, but Viraja seemed barely able to keep herself together.

In time, however, she had come around to the view that Nahusha’s rockbound existence was a metaphysical conundrum, a duality. Her husband was both dead and alive. Twinning her lifestyle with his, she alternated between the pared-down existence prescribed by the shastras for a widow, and the entitlements of a royal consort. Over the years, she had slowly become a relict, still living in the long-ago, but haunting the here-and-now with her eeriness. There were periods of seclusion, dietary restrictions, plain dressing and devotional song. And there were other days when she did up her hair, flaunted her fine jewellery, celebrated festivals with royal pomp, gave elaborate feasts, donated generously to brahmins, sat in the sabha and issued diktats. She managed her dual life with aplomb, but Yayati was never quite sure which persona he was likely to encounter from one day to the next. He considered his mother harmless, but also felt that she would not be the right mentor for a child who seemed more a feral creature than human. That left him with just one option – the queen. Yayati’s face clouded. He didn’t relish the idea of broaching the matter with his wife. Glancing at the girl who had been foisted on him, he asked irritably, ‘Do you even have a name?’

Her fists clenched tight, giving no indication of how close she was to tears, she said, ‘My name is Drishadvati.’

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