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.
At first, Rama would have no truck with her beyond what was strictly necessary. She was present on those ceremonial occasions that require a queen. She sat by the king’s side, eyes downcast, her fingers lightly brushing his arm. Her movements were so minute that only those who knew what she was (that is, the king and I) could register them. To everyone else, she was just a beautiful statue. Some of the bolder nobles laughingly congratulated Rama on the ingenious way he had fulfilled the vow he had made as a youth – that of taking only a single wife.
I have long pondered that vow, unprecedented among royalty. Humble folk must confine themselves to one spouse, and even those more highly placed may do so, if they happen to be uxorious or they have powerful fathers-in-law whom they do not wish to antagonize. With kings though, matters are different. Just as a number of tributaries flow into the sea, a monarch should be surrounded by scores of women. That was the case with the former king, Dasharatha. Rama’s mother, Kausalya, may have been the chief queen, but she wasn’t the most favored, and I don’t think she had her husband’s exclusive attention for more than a week. I remember an incident I witnessed when Rama was just a lad. Kausalya was having her hair dressed by a saucy, dark-eyed chit whose name I no longer remember. The king entered the room, no doubt with some question for his queen, and caught sight of the girl. Without a word, he took her hand and led her off. She reappeared half an hour later, disheveled and triumphant, and started braiding her mistress’s hair as if nothing had happened. Kausalya was too well-bred to show her displeasure openly, but I never saw the girl again.
When Rama married Sita, that miraculous princess born from the earth’s furrow, those who had wrinkled their brows in consternation at his oath now claimed that they understood. Sita was such a treasure house of virtues, what man who possessed her could wish to seek out another? I, who am intimately acquainted with the inner workings of the harem, know better. Sita’s merits, great as they were, did not impel Rama’s vow. It came about because of his own desire to be, if not a better man than his father, a different one.
As Rama spent more and more time in the yantra’s company, I had further occasion to reflect on the differences between the old king and the new. Dasharatha was a man who could give himself over entirely to women – had he not banished Rama thanks to a promise he had made to Kaikeyi, his favorite queen? Rama lacked this capacity, or if he had it, he suppressed it. He loved Sita, there can be no doubt about that, but he kept a part of himself aloof from her. Even after he returned in triumph to Ayodhya, his exile over, his wife in his arms again, he didn’t surrender fully to the happiness he had earned. It was my task to watch over Rama and Sita when, royal duties over, they retired to the private garden that had been built expressly for them. They would wander hand in hand among the fruit groves, as closely united as a word and its meaning. One minute they would be conferring happily, dark cheek pressed against fair, and then Rama would seize Sita’s chin and turn her face towards him, searching for I know not what. Sita, for her part, would regard her husband with tremulous eyes, as if fearing his displeasure. He would sigh and turn away, shrugging off the brush of her fingers.
He did not rebuff the yantra in the same manner. If anything, she forced him to pursue her. Whenever he entered her presence she would bow deeply, hands folded, but her deference ended there. When he walked with her in the garden, she would run ahead and look over her shoulder to make sure he was following. The doll did not possess the power of speech, but her lips and eyebrows were eloquent enough. Rama would snatch at her garments and she would elude him, moving with all the grace of a dancer. When she did allow herself to be caught, she would run her burnished hands through his curls, before leading him to a stone bench. There she would recline, Rama’s head in her lap.
I did not like this. Pampered and cossetted wives can be headstrong, but they know their limits. This creature exhibited the willfulness of a courtesan, one of those fatal women who unmake kingdoms. I knew Rama had been unmanned when I came upon him on his knees, cradling her foot in his palm. “A thorn,” he said by way of explanation, when he became aware of my scrutiny. If he were not my master, I would have cursed him aloud for his foolishness. Can a thorn pierce metal? My anger was stirred, too, at the thought that this soulless puppet was receiving the homage due to the true queen, who had been cast away as if not worth a straw.
That night, I stole into the room where the yantra was stored. Even now, I cannot say what I planned to do. I only had the inchoate notion that the doll’s influence over the king must end. She only ever truly came to life in Rama’s presence, so I felt no fear as I approached her. When I reached out my hand though, her eyes flew open, startling me. I stumbled backwards and exited the room without turning around. Once outside, I crumpled against a wall, blood sounding in my ears.
I never tried to harm the yantra again. As the years deepened, so did Rama’s devotion. The real Sita had loved animals, and, as if in remembrance of her, Rama appointed craftsmen, in Ayodhya and beyond, to create a menagerie for her facsimile. Silver-bellied deer gamboled in grass fashioned from emerald, while copper-throated birds serenaded Rama and his consort with songs so piercing and plaintive one would avow they emerged from the throats of living creatures. Increasingly, Rama left the governance of the kingdom in the hands of his brothers and ministers, while he hid himself away with his playfellow. Those who were not privy to the truth declared that the king was still prostrate with grief over the loss of Sita, despite the passage of time. Only I and a select few knew otherwise.
Often I have wondered why Rama chose to withhold his affection from his legitimate spouse and lavish it on an imitation instead. I think I have the answer. The yantra’s waywardness was all a show; she fled from the king, but she always yielded in the end, for she was created for him. A flesh-and-blood woman cannot cleave to her lord so absolutely. The most dutiful of wives may harbor unfulfilled hankerings; the most chaste may yearn for another’s bed. Rama turned away from Sita, not because of any wrongdoing on her part, but because she, like all mortals, possessed the capacity for wrongdoing.
A dozen years had passed since the queen’s exile. Life in the palace still trundled along, although the question of the succession remained a vexed one. Perhaps to shore up his power, Rama ordered a horse sacrifice. The finest stallion in the kingdom was let loose to wander for a year, open to all challengers. If, after the allotted time was up, the steed had eluded capture, it would be guided back to Ayodhya and ceremonially killed, in token of Rama’s undisputed might.
Not three days after the release of the horse, unexpected reports began to trickle back to the city. The stallion had been detained at the hermitage of a sage named Valmiki. That is astonishing in itself, but, what’s more, the steed’s captors were lads of no more than twelve. One, it was said, had a complexion of the purest moonlight; the other was as dark as the enveloping night.
Rama himself set out for the ashram to investigate. When he returned he said little, but decreed that a ceremony would be held there in a week’s time, open to the citizenry at large.
He came to me to discuss preparations for the transport of the queen’s mother to the hermitage. I could tell he was only half-listening as I expounded on the advantages of a certain kind of chariot over another. When I had finished speaking he turned to me. “She is alive,” he said, in a voice not much louder than a whisper. “The boys are my sons.”
I had had an inkling of this, but hearing it spoken aloud still caused my heart to leap. Rama became more animated. He rose and began pacing the room. “Once the people see that my beloved is pure, she can return. If she makes her vow in front of all, I can take her back with an open heart. Surely we will not be denied this?” The king looked younger, almost boyish as he talked. I was gladdened, for here was the possibility of real happiness, not the counterfeit form he had found in the arms of the yantra.
On the chosen day, I was given a place close to the head of the procession. Rama led the way, of course, the doll by his side. He caught my eye and smiled. “What will my beloved think of her co-wife?” The puppet, insofar as she had any expression at all, looked bored and sulky.
Behind the nobles the people followed, on foot, on horseback, in palanquins and oxcarts. It seemed as if every last inhabitant of Ayodhya was present. No doubt this is what the king intended. We arrived just as the sun reached its zenith. Even so, the tree cover near the hermitage was so thick that the light barely penetrated. In spite of the festival atmosphere that prevailed over the gathering, I felt a curious sense of foreboding. I wasn’t the only one. When I looked over at Rama, mounted high on his dais, his face was tight with unspoken tension.
When the crowd had quieted sufficiently, the august sage Valmiki led the two boys out. If anyone had questioned their paternity, one look would have been sufficient to quell any doubts, for their countenances united Rama’s majesty with Sita’s sweetness. Without preamble they began to sing, their voices putting the inhabitants of the king’s mechanical aviary to shame.
Their ballad had never been heard before by any citizen of Ayodhya, yet it was familiar to all. It told the tale of a favored prince, cast out of his kingdom due to the machinations of a jealous stepmother, and the faithful wife who accompanied him. In spite of the harshness and privation of forest life, they learned to be happy, until the wife was snatched away. Her sorrowing husband launched a great war to reclaim her, but once her abductor was vanquished, she met with unkindness at her lord’s hands. She was rebuked harshly before a gathering of his allies, and, unable to bear the humiliation, she hurled herself into a funeral pyre. She did not meet death, though; Agni, the fire god himself, delivered her out of the flames and attested to her purity. Satisfied, her husband took her back. A brief period of contentment followed, until suspicion alighted upon her again, and she was driven out.
“And now, Rama, it is up to you to decide the end of the story,” Valmiki said as he went to fetch Sita. There were tears in Rama’s eyes as she came into view. Without jewels, with her hair in a simple braid, she was exquisite. I had always taken the yantra to be a faultless copy, but compared to the original she was showy and coarse.
Rama’s voice trembled as he addressed his wife. “Sita, I ask you to prove yourself before the gathered people. Do so, and you may take your place as queen again!”
When Sita replied, her voice could scarcely be heard above the soughing in the trees. “If I have loved only one man, if I have dedicated myself to him, body and soul, may the gracious earth receive me.”
With a crack like thunder, a seam opened up in the ground before Sita’s feet. Slowly, before all our astonished eyes, a throne emerged. The woman seated upon it had flowers in her hair and skin the color of rich, loamy soil. Every man, woman and child present knew without being told that this was Bhudevi, the broad-breasted earth goddess. I had seen her before, as had the king. She had appeared before us as the ascetic who had given the yantra to Rama. I do not know how I could ever have mistaken her for a mortal woman.
The goddess drew Sita towards her and seated her on the throne. Side-by-side, mother and daughter began their ceremonious descent into the bowels of the earth. Silence reigned until they disappeared from view. It was broken by a roar from Rama as he approached the spot where his wife last stood. He fell to his knees and dug his fingers into the dirt. He pleaded to be admitted into the underworld himself, so that he could live beside his love. He threatened to raze the earth’s hills and harrow her valleys until she agreed to hand Sita back to him. No reply was forthcoming, and, little by little, his howls dwindled into sobs.
When the king had composed himself, we traveled back to Ayodhya. The boys came with us. They have been installed as Rama’s successors. I cannot say they respect him as sons should respect their fathers, nor does Rama love them as Dasharatha loved him. The king and his heirs-apparent do their duty to each other, and perhaps that is enough.
What else is there to say? The world is a sadder place without Sita in it. When she left, she took something with her, some intangible quality, call it mercy, or pity perhaps. She took something else too. The animating spark that once inhabited the yantra has flown. Her eyes do not open when Rama enters her presence, her fingers no longer reach for him. She is cool, marmoreal, lifeless. When she sits beside him on state occasions, as she still does, it is clear to all that she is nothing more than a golden doll.
I have often thought it cruel for the earth goddess to deny Rama solace like this. But perhaps that was her plan. She whetted his desire and snatched away its object, leaving him more bereft than before. This keen-edged punishment seems out of keeping with the compassion that Bhudevi is known for. But who can fathom the ways of the gods? We twist and turn at their command, without ever knowing it. In their hands, we are all yantras.
Bindia Persaud was born in Georgetown, Guyana, grew up in the north of England, and now resides in Ontario, Canada, where she works as an editor. Her work has appeared in Zetetic: a Record of Unusual Inquiry, Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal, Gone Lawn, and the Bloody Key Society Periodical.