Continued from …1
Life went on. The wheels of time rolled on.
It was one of those days that I first started looking at Indra with new eyes. He had come back to the ashram for a visit. One day I was sitting on a rock near the river where I had gone to fetch water when Indra came to the river for a swim. The sound of his diving into the water penetrated the world of my reveries and quickly turning my head in the direction of the sound, I noticed Indra rising up from the water.
For a moment I had a feeling I was looking at male beauty – male beauty personified.
I had seen Indra bathing in the river many times in the past. But never had he fascinated me like that.
Suddenly Indra seemed the centre of the universe. Everything seemed to revolve around him.
I was being drawn to him irresistibly, helplessly. My entire being clamored for him. Deep down within me I knew Indra was not my fulfillment but my death, my humiliation. I was being drawn into the vortex of some dark, abysmal non-existence from which nothing escaped. Indra was a whirlpool of darkness. And yet I wanted Indra. I wanted to be taken by him. I wanted to surrender myself to him, to be consumed by him, to be swallowed by him, to be annihilated by him, even as a moth offers itself to the burning fire at night.
Indra was now standing before me, his whole body wet, water dripping from his hair, from his chest, from his limbs. Magnificent Indra. Magnificent male.
Sadyasnata – freshly bathed, just bathed. The sadyasnata male is no less desirable to the female than the sadyasnata female is to the male, I discovered.
I looked up into his eyes. Long. Wordlessly. As he stood looking into mine.
And then I shook. Shook all over, a sudden fear possessing me, exulting fear, intoxicating fear, maddening fear, fear that at once made all my senses stop functioning and made all of them sharp as never before.
I had a feeling a word spoken would explode me. The sound of a leaf falling from the nearby tree and I would explode. The smallest movement and I would explode. I had become so intense that if he so much as stretched out his hand at me, I felt I’d explode into a million pieces.
Time stood still. The sun in the sky had stopped. The wind wasn’t blowing. I knew even the plants and trees around me, the grass around me, had ceased to grow, had ceased to breathe. As I had ceased to breathe.
The pulsation of life within me had ceased. And yet I had never ever been so intensely alive. An eternity lived in a moment.
And then I found myself getting up and walking away.
We hadn’t spoken a word.
But I knew I had been transformed by that moment. I had been made new. I had been made whole. I had suddenly become what I really was. A woman. Not in the physical sense, not in the social sense, not in the sexual sense that Gautama had made me. But in a spiritual sense, in an existential sense.
In that moment I metamorphosed once again. In that moment I received into me the agonies and ecstasies, the desires and cravings, the hopes, the passions of ten thousand generations of women. These had been poured into me.
I was now sufficient unto myself – whole, complete and sufficient. I felt healed – healed of all that was inflicted upon me since sage Gautama took me for a wife.
I felt like a virgin again – pure, sacred, inviolate. And inviolable.
Early the next morning, while the sage was away for his bath, Indra came to me. And I received him, took him into myself.
I did not feel I had violated anything by my taking Indra into myself. I did not feel I had wronged the sage in any way. I felt as though I had always been Indra’s – sage Gautama was the outsider, the intruder. Adultery was what the sage and I did together not what Indra and I did. Sin was what the sage and I did together. Our coming together was what was repugnant. But Indra and I belonged to each other. I felt I had always been waiting for him – even as the earth awaits the rains so that she could bathe in the ecstasy that inundates her and the seeds in her could sprout.
Indra came to me day after day while the sage was away for his morning bath and ablutions. He came to me at that sacred hour when the scriptures forbid men and women uniting – the brahma muhoorta. He came to me as the first rays of the sun reached to thrill the earth each morning, as the fore-glow began brightening the eastern sky. At the hour full of mystery and magic, the hour full of wonder, and he filled that hour with ecstasies.
I knew this could not go on. I knew we were bound to be discovered. I knew suffering would follow – unspeakable suffering. And yet we kept meeting morning after morning.
As days passed, a suspicion grew inside me. Did Gautama know what was going on? I had started observing subtle changes in him. The sage had begun to grow withdrawn. He was never very fond of talking, was always reserved, but he had always been more lively and cheerful when he was near me. I felt that he had not only been not talking to me as much as before, but had perhaps been avoiding me.
Were these changes real? Or was I imagining them? I did not know.
Besides, I myself had changed since that first encounter with Indra by the river. Maybe it was my dread of the sage, or maybe it was my guilt – but whatever it was, I had definitely begun to avoid Gautama.
I was now living in two worlds. One was a world of unrealities, in which I lived with Indra constantly. The time I spent with him each morning was short, but in that world of unrealities, I lived perpetually with him. It was a world of brightness, almost ethereal brightness, a world full of vivid colors, fantastic shapes, full of fervent touches and smells almost consuming in their intensity, a world of burning passions, fascinating emotions and feelings, a world filled with unbelievable ecstasies. The other was the world of realities that intruded into this world occasionally, though as a physical presence it was always there, far more real that the world I had brought into existence with Indra. It was a world that oppressed me, that made it difficult for me to breathe, a world from which I shrank away in horror, which I wanted to disappear, cease to exist, so that I would be liberated into the world of Indra and me for ever.
I knew the two worlds could not exist together for too long – one or the other had to end.
And then one day it happened. The sage was returning from his bath when some of his disciples told him: “How great you are, Master! Great indeed is the power of your austerities! You are standing here before us and yet you are inside with your wife!”
That is when I became Ahalya – the unploughable one. On the day his disciples told him that.
The sage’s curse.
Did he discover about Indra and me on that day? Or had he known it all along and was tolerating it, accepting it, admitting his failure to give me what I deserved, out of his guilt, acting only when his disciples taunted him about it? I never discovered. And, in any case, it did not matter any more.
The sage had already cursed me.
I accepted the curse. Deep in me, perhaps I was relieved. For I had always known the curse was coming. I had known it even before that first morning when Indra had come to me. I had known it that day when I sat on the rock and Indra stood before me, our eyes lost in each other’s.
Perhaps I wanted it to come – come as soon as possible, so that I would be relieved of the anxiety of waiting for it to strike me. Also, perhaps, the intensity of the world, the world in which I lived with Indra, had begun to frighten me. That was a life no woman could live for long, endure for long.
I became Ahalya. Ahalya – the unploughable. Earth that is cursed to be barren forever. Earth that receives no rains.
Perhaps I was relieved for another reason too. After Indra had touched me, had taken me, I did not want the sage to touch me anymore. Now he wouldn’t.
The sage cursed Indra too.
I did not receive rains anymore. The winds were the only thing that nourished me now. Hot winds. Dry winds. Moisture less winds.
I had become a desert. Uninhabited, neglected by men, forgotten by them, invisible to them.
I shall not touch you any more – that is what Gautama had said. I do not need you any more, that is what Gautama had said. Your presence is repugnant to me, that is what Gautama had said. Before he walked away leaving me behind. Before he went to the mountains for tapas.
He had declared me unfit for ploughing. And his declaration made me land unfit for ploughing. Accursed earth.
Repent, he had said. Purify yourself, he had said. Purify yourself through repentance and tapas, he had said. Purify yourself through your loneliness and suffering, he had said.
The creator had played a trick on me. The creator had dealt a blow to me, had betrayed me. He had given me to the man I considered my father all the years of my growing up. My beauty had been punished. My youth had been punished. My womanhood had been punished. All for no fault of mine. Except for that I was a woman, and beautiful.
Youth should be the reward of youth, not old age. Young life should unite with young life – not with old age.
I knew I had sinned by men’s standards. But my crime, my sin, was that I gave in to the longings of the young life in me, to its young cravings. What I had done was to answer the call of life from within me.
I searched deep within me – and I found no sin in me, no hala. They say ahalya also means without fault, impossible to find fault with, without blemish. I found it impossible to find fault with me. I was without blemish. Ahalya.
But I felt deeply guilty, too. True, the sage should not have taken me for a wife. Perhaps, he should have given me to Indra, who had always loved me. Or to someone else, maybe that emperor that the sage talked about when I was a child. Or to someone else. He should not have taken me for himself.
But I couldn’t help feeling guilty. For, I had betrayed him. He was my husband, whether I liked that fact or not.
So when the sage pronounced me guilty, made me ahalya, unploughable, I did not protest. I did not plead for myself. I accepted his curse. And I lay without receiving rains, subsisting on the winds, accursed earth where only barren winds blew. Fallow. Dead.
Until all longing for rains ceased in me. Until the earth in me no more thirsted for rains. Until Indra and our love became just a long ago memory.
By the time the two youths came to me I had become luminous, they say. I was lit up by the glow of my austerities, they say.
Suffering is a kind of penance. Self-denial is a kind of penance. Burning within is a kind of penance.
The two princes of Ayodhya were very young then. Two adolescents. Rama, the elder, was clearly the leader. It was he who had come and touched my feet first. And then Lakshmana did the same.
They were my first visitors in ages. The world had rejected me all these years.
And then they came. Life touched me once more. And I felt I was alive once again.
I welcomed them to the ashram and offered them hospitality. The ashram came alive once again.
And then Gautama too came back to me.
That was eons ago.
I am an old woman now. With no hungers of youth.
Gautama and I live quietly in our ashram. Two very old people. Sufficient unto ourselves.
At times when I think of my past I wonder if Indra ever was. Indra and all that followed.
I feel I have been living like this with the sage always.
Gautama and Ahalya – two very old people.
Gautama and Ahalya – the bright, scorching sun and the fallow, unploughable earth.
We were never made for each other. Though we were given to each other. Which, perhaps, was our tragedy.
In my old age, I often think of the worlds to come. This world, following Gautama, named me a sinner. But will I be treated as a sinner in those worlds too?
I do not know. But I know one thing. If they asked me there if I had lived the life that was given to me, if I had used that most precious gift of all and not thrown it away, if I had been true to my innermost instincts and impulses, if I had been true to my flesh and blood, if I had been true to the woman in me, then I’d say, with all honesty:
Yes, I have. Yes, I have. Yes, I have…