The queen had been cast out, abandoned in the forest on the orders of her husband. No one knew what had become of her. Perhaps she had slipped on the muddy banks of a river and been borne away by the current. Perhaps she had trudged through the trackless wilderness, her delicate feet lanced by thorns, until she succumbed to thirst and exhaustion. Perhaps wild beasts had ravened her. Great with child as she was, she could have met with any number of calamities.
Sita’s exile was my doing. My name is Durmukha. I was a harem attendant to King Dasharatha, and now I serve his son Rama in the same capacity. My duties are not onerous. I while away the hours, watching the discarded concubines of the late king quarrel over the possession of a prized scrap of silk or a jeweled cummerbund. Sometimes, though, I am asked to take up heavier tasks. Such was the case when Rama asked me to go into the city and elicit the opinions of the citizens, whether high or low, regarding his rule. I did as he asked. Everywhere I went, Ayodhya’s inhabitants voiced the same refrain – the young king had obliterated their memories of the old, such was his virtue. Yet underneath the praise, a discordant note sounded. They harbored doubts about the queen. During Rama’s sojourn in the forest, she had been abducted, and it was some time before her husband recovered her. Her demon captor was known as a great seducer, and might she not have yielded?
When Rama called me before him, I was tempted to keep the people’s calumny to myself, but when he turned his gentle gaze upon me, I found that I could not. I realized my mistake as soon as I stopped talking. His expression hardened and he set his mouth in an implacable line. I hastened to add that those who had maligned the queen were persons of no account: gamblers, washer men, women with no claim to chastity themselves. He would not hear it. He raised a hand to silence me, and turned to his brother Lakshmana. By the next day, the queen was gone.
After Sita’s banishment, the king remained sequestered in his quarters, showing himself only to a chosen few. We attendants despaired of ever seeing him again, and when he did re-emerge, his appearance shocked us. He was gaunt and his complexion, which had once possessed the brilliant dark luster of sapphire, was overlaid with a sickly pallor. Without ceremony, he approached me. “Come with me,” he commanded. “I wish to survey the city.”
I led him through the palace gates and into Ayodhya. No one recognized him, splendor-dimmed as he was. The city’s lineaments were unchanged. Its boulevards were wide and gracious, its white walls pristine. The pleasure-tanks dotted here and there were strewn with lotuses and waterfowl. There was only one difference: the absence of women. The Ayodhya of my youth had rung with the voices of women day and night – young girls shrieking in play, wives calling their husbands in to dinner, female artisans advertising their wares. None of that remained. As we made our way into the heart of the city, we caught a glimpse of a respectable matron accompanying her husband, but she made not a sound, and her eyes were fastened upon her lord’s feet, as if tied there by an invisible string. I couldn’t help but think the queen’s exile had something to do with the city’s new stillness. If a paragon like Sita could not escape blame and censure, what hope had ordinary women? Perhaps they found it more prudent to hide themselves away. I glanced at the king to see what he made of the change, but his face was impassive.
The scene grew livelier as we entered the merchants’ quarter. We passed stalls offering sweetmeats, bolts of silk, spices. I urged my lord to stop and sample the goods on display, but he shook his head and pushed his way through the throng. He paused at the entrance to an alleyway. A hand was beckoning him, the fair hand of a woman. Surely this was some courtesan, more brazen than most, attempting to inveigle him. I pushed past the king, ready to rebuke the woman, but when I had her in my sights, I stopped short. She wore the austere white garb of an ascetic, and her hair was arranged in a simple topknot. The king bowed in reverence, and I followed suit. Without a word, the woman turned and motioned for us to follow.
As we trod the narrow passageway, I studied our guide. Holy woman she may have been, but her body had a sensual allure that belied her vocation. Ascetics, whether male or female, are sinewy and hollow-cheeked, with eyes that burn with fervor. This woman’s gaze was cool and languid, and her broad flanks swayed as she placed one foot in front of the other. The king was discomfited, I could tell, though he made no outward sign.
We stopped at an alcove. The woman moved towards a veiled figure in the darkness, and pulled its cover away. I couldn’t stifle a gasp as the figure came into view. It was a statue of Sita, sitting cross-legged, life-sized, and a perfect likeness in all respects. The figure was fashioned out of a pale gold that captured something of Sita’s lambent complexion. It wore a grave expression and its eyes were closed.
The king stood still for a moment, lost in contemplation. The ascetic smiled. “Take her, my lord, she is yours. She was made to serve as a replacement for your precious wife!”
Rama tore his eyes away from the figure and regarded the woman. “I thank you, mother, for this gift. The workmanship is as fine as any I’ve seen. But you must know there is no woman on earth who could replace Sita, much less a lifeless statue.”
“Lifeless, you say?” The ascetic beckoned to me. “Touch her hand.” I approached and did as she asked. I expected the metal to be cool to the touch, but instead it was infused with a subtle warmth. What’s more, the palm was moist and the fingers curled at the pressure from my own. The ascetic nodded to Rama. “Now you, sir.”
When Rama placed his hand in the statue’s, the most astounding thing happened. The figure got to her feet and turned her face towards the king. Her eyes fluttered open and she drew her lips back in a smile, revealing pearly teeth. Rama stepped back and cried out, such was his wonder. It was then that I understood. This was no mere statue, but a mechanical doll, a contrivance known as a yantra. Where the holy woman had acquired the skill to create such a device, I could not say. She turned to the king. “You see, my daughter recognizes her husband. Lead her home. She will follow you, as a wife should.”
My lord nodded. He took the hand that he had dropped in fright, and we set out for the palace, I in front, Rama behind, and the golden woman bringing up the rear. We took a circuitous route through the dense honeycomb of side streets, so as not to attract the attention of the populace. When we arrived at the palace gates, Rama halted and placed the yantra’s hand in mine. “Install her in private rooms, away from the women. Await my further instructions.”
I obeyed. The doll lapsed into insensibility as soon as I found lodgings for her. In truth I was relieved, for she discomfited me.