Saturday, October 10, 2009
Ahalya’s Story: Parched Earth, Pouring Rain 1
I had always known Indra. I grew up watching him. He was one of the sage’s students. And I was the sage’s daughter. Or at least so I thought. For, I had known no father other than Sage Gautama. I had always thought I was born in the ashram, born to the sage. It was only years later that I discovered that this was not true, that I was only brought up by him.
The discovery disturbed me highly. And brought up a number of questions to my mind. Who, for instance, was my father then? Who was my mother? Why did they give me up? Or is it that something had happened to them? Where did the sage find me? An endless number of questions.
One thing I was sure of. That they hadn’t given me up. I was an orphaned child – not an abandoned child. To be an abandoned child was shameful – and too painful. No, I wasn’t that. I was orphaned. Something had happened to my parents and I was orphaned. And the sage had found me and brought me up.
One day I gathered the courage to ask the sage some of these questions. I overcame my awe of him and asked him the questions that were foremost in my mind. Who were my parents? Where did the sage find me?
How old was I when I raised that question? I do not remember. Maybe six, maybe seven. And the sage looked at me sweetly and smiled, treating me as he had always done – like a little baby. And he told me a story – not a word of which I believed, of course. It was the kind of story grownups always told children – especially a grandfather told a granddaughter.
The sage told me that I was created specially by Brahma, the creator. No, I was not born of man and woman. The creator chose all that is most beautiful in all creatures and out of that he created me. “That is why,” he told me, “you are the most beautiful child in the world. And when you grow up, child, you are going to be the most beautiful woman in the world. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the mightiest emperor in the world himself would be tempted by you.”
How prophetic the sage was!
Another time I pestered him, sitting in his lap and pulling at his long beard, with all his disciples watching, he told me that Brahma created one thousand women first – and from each of these women he selected the most beautiful part and out of these he formed me. And the sage added – “the one who gets you for a wife will be getting all that is best in a thousand women. He will be marrying a thousand women in fact.” And he laughed.
I, of course, never believed any of these stories and kept asking him the same questions again and again. He told me many more stories about my birth. Once he said I was the daughter of the earth. Another time he said I was the earth itself.
I never learnt who my parents were. What I came closest to believing was that I was the daughter of King Bhadryashwa and the Apsara Menaka.
But I doubted even that was just another story and the search for my parents – that is, the desire to know them, the question who they were, remained in my heart.
In those days I often asked Indra that question. We were friends then, though Indra was older to me, much older. I asked him if he knew who my parents were. And he too repeated the stories that the sage had told me. When I rejected one of the stories told by him, he told me another. And when I rejected that too, yet another – just as the sage did. And Indra too ended every story he told me with – “that is why you are the most beautiful girl in the whole world, and that is why when you grow up you are going to be the most beautiful woman in the whole world.”
And then he added: “And that is also why when you grow up I am going to marry you, make you my wife.”
I pushed him away from me when he said that. I was deeply embarrassed. Shy. Marriage was something every girl had to do – but a girl did not think of marriage before it was time for it and certainly I did not like Indra talking to me about it.
Indra finished his studies and left our ashram. It was only years later that I met him and by then I had become the wife of the sage whom I had looked upon as my father all my growing up years.
I had asked the sage how I could be his wife. I had asked him how he could have me for a wife when he had brought me up in his ashram and he had always treated me as a daughter – even as a granddaughter. And he said the creator, Brahma, had given me to him as a daughter when I was a child and he had looked after me as such. And now, he said, when I had become a woman, the same creator, pleased with his self-restraint, had given me to him as his wife. He had rewarded his self control towards me by giving me to him as a wife.
I wanted to ask Brahma if restraining oneself from one’s daughter, not being tempted sexually by one’s daughter, was an act of such merit that it deserved to be rewarded by giving the man the same daughter as his wife.
Besides, it was as though I had no say in these matters. That my opinions did not count. That my feelings did not count.
As though the creator could give me to whomever he wished – as a daughter to bring up, or as a wife. And if they so desired as both to the same man, one after the other.
And in any case, I did not believe this creator story, the story of the creator giving me to him as his wife, anymore than I believed the other story of the creator specially creating me and giving me to the sage for bringing up.
I do not know what a man feels about making one’s own daughter his wife. But I do know what a woman feels when she is forced to make her father her husband.
It is disgusting. It is revolting. It is obnoxious. It is against all that I hold sacred in life. Only animals do that.
The day he announced he was taking me as his wife obeying the order of the creator, something broke in me. I could feel it breaking in me – physically feel it, though I did not know what it was that broke in me.
Upanayana, it is said, gives a second birth to a person. I was already twice born with the upanayana the rishi had performed for me, the sacred initiation of the thread that I had undergone with the sage as my guru, by which act he had become my father in yet another sense. And now, with my marriage to him, I had been reborn once again.
For, marriage is a rebirth to every woman.
In marriage, a woman gets a new father and a new mother, new brothers and sisters, new uncles, aunts and grandparents, and a new home. It is like being born again.
But in my case I was reborn in a different sense, too. The rishi’s announcement had broken me, had killed me.
And then I was reborn again.
But the new I was completely different from the old one.
The old I was an ephemeral creature. A creature born of airy substances. Of one woman’s smile, the glow in another woman’s eyes, the gait of a third woman, the sweetness in yet another woman’s voice, someone else’s laughter. But she had no soul, no substance. She was not a person.
She was a thousand things that men found beautiful in women. Made up of a thousand things that male fantasies of women consisted of. She was the stuff of their longings, of their dreams. But she was not real, she was not a woman. She was not a person. Dreams are not persons. Fantasies of women are not women.
That day, the day the sage took me as his wife, a new I was born.
This I was made of flesh and blood. She was a person. A female person. A woman. And as a woman, she was heir to all that was real about women – not just what men found beautiful in her, not just what men fantasized about her, but all that was real about women.
A woman of flesh and blood. And an heir to all women’s heritage on the earth and the heavens.
On that day I grew roots into the earth. On that day I discovered in me arteries linked with the sky, with the air, with fire and water. I was floating in the air so far – suddenly I grew roots and these roots began nourishing me, filling me with longings I had so far never known, with thirsts that I had so far never known. It was as though I had just remembered who I was, discovered, realized, who I was and what I was meant for. I began receiving powerful, life-giving messages from deep within me, a fire was ignited in me, a fire that thirsted for many things, but above all
I had suddenly discovered great strength within me – strength and courage. The strength and courage to be what I am, the strength and courage to desire what I needed, the strength and courage to go after what I desired and to get it. I had never felt fettered before – but now I suddenly felt I had always been in fetters, fetters so fine I had never realized I was in them – and suddenly I felt free of those fetters.
With freedom came longings – longings of the earth in me. Longings of the earth that thirsted for rain, life-giving, life-sustaining, life-generating rain. When the wind blew I did not want it to be just a wind, a wind that soothed and refreshed you, that cooled you, but I wanted it to be a wind that brought seeds that would sprout into fresh life.
I had discovered my kinship with the night and the earth – the fecund night and the fecund earth.
I suddenly wanted to belong – no, not just belong, but to be thirsted for.
My insides had suddenly begun to speak to me – in the language of life, in the language of women, in the language of women everywhere – the language of passion, of dreams, of instincts and impulses…the language of the earth, the language of the night.
It seemed as though so far I was leading an ephemeral existence, living in a dream world, and suddenly I had become real.
Rishi Gautama adored me. And I hated his adorations. I hated his attentions. I hated his look. I hated his touch. His very presence grew repugnant to me. For, all the time he was with me, something deep within me whispered – this is an unholy union, this is a union that should not be. Incest – my mind screamed. This man was my guru – my guru and my father.
And yet I submitted to him. I wanted to get up and run, but I lay there, not a muscle in my body moving.
Gautama’s was an old man’s love for a young woman – the obsessive, compulsive, adoring, self-sacrificing, self-surrendering, self-effacing love.
And yet with the control developed by ages of penances, he controlled himself, restricting himself to the days and hours that tradition permitted. Sex was to be limited to the ritu period, the fourteen days following my ritual bath after my periods, that is, to those fourteen nights.
And I? While I hated his very touch with all my being, my body began longing for it with hunger in every inch of it. My muscles, my nerves, my flesh, my blood, began longing for it. I had begun living for what I hated, what I detested, more than anything else in the world. The very thought of what disgusted me more than anything else filled me with thrills. I dreaded with every cell in my body the days the rishi could take me and I longed for those days with every cell in my body. It was as though I was not one person, but two. Twin selves, twin bodies. I often wondered which of the two was more real and I knew both were equally real. The rishi had transformed me from a girl to a woman and it was that newly born woman in me that was seeking fulfillment.
I knew the fulfillment my body sought, my senses sought, my instincts and impulses sought, my existence sought, will not come through the rishi.
For, to receive that fulfillment in the arms of a man, the woman has to give herself to him – give herself to him totally and completely, freely and happily, in an act of celebration. But I couldn’t give myself to the rishi. Part of me rejected him, part of me detested him. There was no celebration in me.
Which did not prevent me from becoming a mother, though.