For most of history, Anonymous was a woman. –- Virginia Woolf
Never trust the teller, trust the tale. –- D.H. Lawrence
Brihaspati, being the bookish sort, was the one who had suggested a library that would house the complete works of every person who entered the afterlife. Two and a half millennia ago the end of the world wasn’t quite around the corner but as Brihaspati pointed out, it would be easier to rebuild human civilization once it all ended if a copy of all that humanity was in one place for divine record and reference. The system he devised was simple: the moment an author, poet or musician died, their work was collected along with their soul. It was only in case of one or two people that this meant collecting copious amounts of work, so the death guards didn’t mind initially. Once films and video started being made, however, they started to feel the pressure a little more. But despite their complaints, directors and scriptwriters entered the Library’s catalogue.
The Library was a beautifully-designed building, courtesy Vishwakarma, whose interior was lined with a clever set of
expandable shelves since the heavenly architect had the wisdom to appreciate that man’s capacity to create was impressive even if the quality of the creations weren’t. A little more than one millennia after the Library’s collection had begun, Brihaspati realised he couldn’t manage the place alone and he began asking the sages for help. That was how Bharadwaj came to be the Librarian.
Bharadwaj, a disciple of Valmiki, proved to be just what Brihaspati had wanted. He was methodical, learned and he read, listened to or watched every single item that came to be entered into the library so that he knew what was in the Library, even if he couldn’t always immediately remember where something might be. That was why he was a little taken aback when one day a small, rotund man came up to him in the Library and asked where he could find “my Ramayana”.
“I’m quite certain that no personal copies are part of the Library’s collection,” said Bharadwaj to the little man. “But if you tell me which Ramayana you’re looking for, then I can check the copy to be doubly sure.”
“No, no, I’m talking about my Ramayana, the teleserial,” said the man, his eyes bulging. “Seventy-eight episodes in glorious technicolour, the most-watched mythological serial of all time!”
“The teleserial?” asked Bharadwaj. He was certain he had not received anything of the sort, ever.
The small man’s eyes bulged even more and Bharadwaj was glad of the fact that in the afterlife, one couldn’t suffer bodily harm (unless of course one of the senior gods got upset with you).
“Would you come back in a couple of days? I’ll check to see what has happened to this teleserial. What did you say it was called?"
“It’s the Ramayana only. Starring Arun Govil as Ram and Deepika Chiklia as Sita, famous wrestler Dara Singh as Hanumanji and character actor Lalitha Pawar as Manthara.”
“I see. And you are the director?”
“Yes. Myself Ramanand Sagar.”
“Excellent. Who was the writer in this serial?”
“Myself only. Also Tulsidasji.”
Bharadwaj’s head spun for a moment as he imagined Tulsidas and this man writing together.
“When did you say you made this teleserial?”
“1986. First episode is being aired on January 25, 1987.”
“I see. And this was shown in India, yes?”
“Doordarshan. But also there is DVD. It has huge international market. Everyone is loving it. Jai Shri Ram!”
“I see. Of course. Well, like I said, I will enquire about this, Mr. Sagar. Could you come back in a few days?”
“It is easily available, sir. Huge DVD sales. You should be able to get it in a day, maximum.”
“Mr. Sagar, I’m afraid things work a little differently in the afterlife. Please come back after a few days. It will be pointless coming before that, unless there is something else that you want to hear, see or read.”
Mr. Sagar wasn’t happy but he made to leave. Then he asked, “You have Mahabharat?”
“Which version are you looking for?”
“The teleserial only.”
“No, I’m afraid not.” Bharadwaj made a mental note to send word to Vyasdev that they had made a serial of his work. Given he was one of the immortals on Earth, maybe he could do something about it. “Was there anything else?”
Mr. Sagar left.
Bharadwaj stared at the clerk before him incredulously. “How long has this been going on?” he asked.
The young clerk fidgeted a little but said nothing.
“How much of what I think are collected works in the Library are actually selected works, chosen and selected by –-” Bharadwaj peered at the clerk. “Whatever your name is.”
“Tathagata, Bharadwaj sir.”
“Tathagata, thank you. With what authority have you been making the decisions of what is to be part of the Library?”
“On the authority of good taste, sir. Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana is ghastly. It doesn’t deserve to be considered a creative work.”
“Ah, so now I am to accept the aesthetic calls of judgement made by a junior clerk. Is Yama aware of what you’ve been doing? And how long have you been doing it?”
“Please don’t tell Yamaraj, sir. And not very long, sir, I promise. I really thought I was doing what would be best for everyone’s sanity, aesthetics and intellect.”
Bharadwaj saw the clerk looked rather genuinely contrite but this was a serious mistake, and so Bharadwaj remained firm.
“Your job, young Tathagata, is to see what creative works are attributed to each person whom Yama’s agents bring to the afterlife. Then you are to check to see that they are indeed responsible for the works they have been credited for. If this checks out, it is your job to procure the items for me. It is not your job to send me only the works you like. Do you understand?”
“The Library is not called Tathagata’s Collection. It is called the Library.”
“If I get wind of you doing this again, I will definitely be reporting you to Yama.”
“Please, sir, I was only trying to help. Sir Vishwakarma was saying only at the last Council Meeting how we are facing a shortage of space. When we have shortage of space, I thought we should keep only the good. Please, sir. Sir, I have seen a few episodes of the Ramayana; the fact that it became popular is the greatest proof that the end of humanity is near.”
“The point, young Tathagata, is not what we consider artistic or superior but what has been important. The point also is that your interpretation of your job is entirely incorrect. You are not an arbiter of quality; you are a procurer and your duty is to procure diligently and not partially.”
“Yes, sir.” He didn’t sound the least bit convinced to Bharadwaj, but the older sage was not one to persist with someone as obviously obstinate as Tathagata.
“I want all the episodes of Ramayana in the Library within the hour.”
“Within the hour!” Tathagata squeaked. “Sir, that’s very, very difficult.”
“Do it, Tathagata. Otherwise, I’m talking to Yama about your conduct and trust me, that will place you in a far more difficult spot. One hour, at best two, and I want all seventy episodes.”
“Seventy-eight, sir. There are seventy-eight episodes.”
“Yes, well, all seventy-eight of them. Oh, I also want the Mahabharata.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that for you, sir.”
“Why not? You dislike it more than you dislike the Ramayana?”
“No sir. The Mahabharata is marginally better, actually. But the director of the Mahabharata isn’t dead yet.”
“Oh. I see. Well, just the Ramayana then.”
“Yes, sir. If you’re sure.”
When Ramanand Sagar returned to the Library two days later, he found a small, flat screen perched on Bharadwaj’s desk. It was playing an episode of his Ramayana, the one showing Sita’s agnipariksha.
“You have got it!” he said, almost bouncing with excitement.
“Indeed, Mr. Sagar,” replied Bharadwaj. “I’ve almost finished watching the series too. Your work is quite ... fascinating.”
“Merely fascinating?” said a third voice. Ramanand Sagar realised it was feminine and he looked around for its owner. A tall woman unfurled herself from behind Bharadwaj and Ramanand Sagar wondered how he had not seen her when she had entered. She was quite a presence when she stood and yet, Ramanand Sagar realised he couldn’t think of words to describe her. There was nothing distinctive about her face, really, and yet there was something unnerving about her. The scalp under the fringe of hair semi-circling his pate prickled.
“My dear and respected Bharadwaj, this work was far more than fascinating,” she said. “It was positively educational.”
Her voice made Ramanand Sagar think of a glass of cold water getting beaded with condensation, or a river turning to ice.
“Thank you,” he said. “Myself Ramanand Sagar.” He did a namaste to the woman. “I am so glad you have liked my life’s greatest work.”
“This was your life’s greatest work?” Bharadwaj asked.
“Yes, sir. Before I had discovered the wonder of Shri Ram, I had done many things, many successful movies. But I realised once I made Ramayana that none of them mattered. The Ramayana was why I had been born.”
“This teleserial?” asked Bharadwaj.
“Yes, sir. To tell the world the truth and wisdom of Shri Ram. That was my destiny.”
“How noble,” said the woman. On the screen, a few men dressed as monkeys looked terribly disturbed. “And so you made this.” She waved a muscular yet graceful arm at the screen.
“This and also Luv Kush, madam,” said Ramanand Sagar.
“Luv Kush?” Bharadwaj attempted to not sputter. He was going to ask something but the woman cut him off.
“Well, isn’t that just wonderful!” she said. “A teleserial about Luv and Kush!”
“Yes madam.” Ramanand Sagar nodded his head enthusiastically.
“And it was also a success like Ramayana?” she asked.
“Well, it was not as successful but it was also very popular. Very high TRP ratings and good sponsors and advertisers also.”
“How lovely for you,” she said. She came round to the other side of Bharadwaj’s desk, where Ramanand Sagar was standing, and while talking she brought two chairs over. “I was telling the wise and erudite Bharadwaj that while watching your work, I would look at your Ram and want to just pinch his cheeks! Such a lovely, sweet face he has! Those doe-like eyes, the bow-shaped lips and the softness in him –- I just wanted to cuddle the little darling. I didn’t want to do that to Ram even when he was a toddler, and certainly not when he was fully grown.” She laughed and it was like the tinkle of wind chimes on a still night. Ramanand Sagar looked at the woman uncomprehendingly.
“Did you say –-” he began but was interrupted as the woman continued.
“Cuddle isn’t really what a woman expects to do when she sees a warrior, is it? But tell me, you must have thought to yourself, ‘How would the perfect mortal be?’ and then fashioned Ram upon him,” the woman continued. “Didn’t you do that?”
“Yes, madam, like that only. Also budget.”
“I knew it. I told Bharadwaj so, didn’t I?” she said excitedly.
Bharadwaj smiled noncommittally.
“I must say,” she continued. “I would never have thought after seeing your Ramayana that you would want to talk about Luv and Kush. Your audience must have been very unsettled.” She didn’t sit as much as drape herself over the one chair and leaned on Bharadwaj’s desk.
Ramanand Sagar gingerly placed himself on the other chair. “No, madam, audience was very ok and welcoming. I told you no? Luv Kush also had good TRP ratings.”
“Really?” she asked, with wide innocent eyes. “Your audience didn’t mind accepting that the perfect man Ram couldn’t father children and was forced to adopt Ravan and Valmiki’s sons as his own so that the line of kings would not be broken?”
Ramanand Sagar fainted.
When he came to, Ramanand Sagar realised he was slumped on Bharadwaj’s desk and that woman was stroking his head gently.
“Take your hand off me, you evil woman!” Ramanand Sagar screamed. “You lying, horrible witch! How can you say such things?” He turned to Bharadwaj. “How can you let someone so vile, someone full of such lies into this haloed place?”
“Well, Mr. Sagar, who are we to tell what are lies and what is the truth? You and I were never in the royal palaces. Manthara, on the other hand, was.”
“To be fair, I wasn’t in the palace when the Luv and Kush were adopted,” she said. “Your dear Ram’s dear brother Bharat had me kicked out, remember?”
“And for good reason!” Ramanand Sagar roared.
“By the way, I really don’t appreciate being shown as a ugly, hunchbacked creature,” Manthara said to Ramanand Sagar. “Do you honestly think someone who looked like that would be a queen’s companion? But I suppose I should actually take that complaint to your guru, Bharadwaj. Valmiki and his bright idea of making the tale poetic.” Manthara snorted. “He must have said something like I had no backbone as a comment about what he thought about my sense of morals. This man decides it means Manthara actually has no backbone.”
“Or a slightly bent one,” Bharadwaj offered. “I think you got off easy, frankly. The sight of his Ravan with ten heads is still making me feel a little nauseous. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to balance ten heads?”
“You can’t,” said Manthara. “Eleven can be balanced but ten has to be lopsided.”
Ramanand Sagar looked at his two companions confusedly. “What do you mean? Ravan had ten heads! It says so in the Ramayana,” he said.
“See? This is why poetry is lost on mortals,” Manthara said. “Darling, he didn’t mean Ravan actually had ten heads. He meant he had the intelligence of ten men.”
Bharadwaj nodded. “You have to remember, it didn’t begin as the Ramayana. Valmiki was actually writing Ravan’s story. He was what many considered perfect: endowed with the lineage of his grandfather Pulastya, who was one of the Saptarshi; his father was the great sage Agastya; he was blessed by the gods and was a great military leader who had never lost a battle; he was gifted in every way, and yet destined to fall.”
“And fall to a nobody, really,” Manthara added. “Because who was Ram and who had heard of his little Ishvaku clan? The word means sugarcane, for crying out loud. Who names their family after sugarcane?”
“This, Manthara, is just the kind of thinking that brought Ravan defeat,” Bharadwaj said. “His pride, which made him disregard what all his advisors told him.”
“With due respect, when you say things like this, it becomes obvious you lived in the jungle all your life,” Manthara said, snorting. “A king’s advisors’ job is to listen and tell him what he wants to hear. That’s why he’s paying them.”
Bharadwaj laughed. “Yet Ram listened to his advisors, even if they were animals like Jambuvan or a traitor like Vibhisana.” He looked at Ramanand Sagar. “You made a good choice when picking Tulsidas as your writing partner, Mr. Sagar. The old man could see what made Ram a purushottam or the perfect man: his humility."
“What’s this?” Manthara raised an eyebrow. “Am I seeing Valmiki’s disciple say that Valmiki got it wrong?”
“It isn’t about wrong or right, Manthara. It’s about how time changes the way we see a man. Tulsidas wrote of the one who had created Ram Rajya, a prosperous kingdom of happy citizens. Of course there would be more reverence. Valmiki was writing of a young king who had just about settled into his throne.”
“He was also writing about the husband of the woman he had, shall we say, a certain affection for?” Manthara said dryly. “A man who took pleasure in destroying a woman just because he could –-”
“He was not wanting to destroy her,” Ramanand Sagar interrupted. “It was to prove her purity, for her sake only he said.”
Fury glittered in Manthara’s eyes but her voice was calm when she spoke. “I was actually talking about Ram with regard to Ravan’s sister Soorpanakha, Mr. Sagar.”
“He didn’t destroy her,” Ramanand Sagar protested. “He only cut off her nose.”
Manthara stared at him for a moment and then turned to Bharadwaj. “See what I mean? Poetry is wasted on humans.” Taking a deep breath, she smiled at Ramanand Sagar. “Tell me, Mr. Sagar, what is the colloquial phrase in Hindi for having one’s honour besmirched? Is it not, to have their nose cut off? So perhaps it is a possibility that when Soorpanakha expressed her interest in Ram and his brother, they didn’t actually cut her nose off but rather did something that would destroy her reputation?”
“Like what?” Ramanand Sagar asked her.
“Think about it. I’m sure you’ll come up with a few options eventually for what kind of action would ruin a girl’s life forever. And when you do, remember that your purushottam Ram actually laughed about it with his brother afterward. Laughed about it.” Manthara’s face twisted with disgust. “And then, of course, there’s his generosity towards his wife: first humiliating her, for her own good of course, in front of an entire army of beasts and then exiling her when she was pregnant. A fine man, your purushottam,” she sneered.
“Ah, but according to you, she was pregnant with Ravan’s child,” Bharadwaj inserted smoothly. “In that event, surely he’s allowed to feel some amount of betrayal.”
“Ravan’s child?” With that squeak, Ramanand Sagar fainted again.
He felt the sprinkling of water on his face and realised where he was.
“How can you say that someone as pure as Sita-mai would ever do anything like that with that rakshas Ravan?” Ramanand Sagar howled, jack-knifing off the table upon which he’d been slumped. “How can you tolerate her saying such things, Bharadwaj-ji?”
“Goodness! He’s like a jack-in-the-box, isn’t he?” Manthara said, putting a glass of water on the table and wiping her hands on the towel Bharadwaj handed to her. “Just tell me one thing, Mr. Sagar,” she said to Ramanand Sagar. “Ram and Sita get married in the prime of their youth, yes? They remain together for more than 14 years but there is no child. Less than a year after she has been in Lanka for a few months, she’s pregnant. Who do you think is more likely to be the daddy? The man who cared more about his brother than his wife or the rakshas who had already fathered children?”
“This is nonsense! Absolute nonsense! She was an avatar of Lakshmi and such things you are saying about her! If she had been impure in that way, how would she have not been burnt by the fire of the agnipariksha?” Ramanand Sagar asked, triumph in his voice at having found a way to stump Manthara.
“Yet again, Mr. Sagar, allow me to remind you that Valmiki was writing poetry,” said Manthara in a weary tone. “Which suggests that agnipariksha didn’t actually mean stepping into flames but rather a trial by fire. Perhaps a trial that involved the questions and accusations being flung at her by her husband? Perhaps she answered them so well that she convinced all those gathered that she was indeed pure, for example. Like most beautiful women, Sita was quite adept at convincing people of things.”
“It is sin to even hear you speak!” Ramanand Sagar clapped his hands over his ears.
“It’s certainly impossible to prove,” Bharadwaj said calmly.
“Although, let’s not forget Ram’s father had trouble producing children too, and he had four wives. Not that infertility is necessarily a passed-on genetic trait, as far as I know.”
“If it hadn’t been Ravan’s child, do you think all of Ayodhya would have rejoiced that Sita was being thrown out?,” asked Manthara. “Would Lakshman have agreed to leave a pregnant Sita in the woods? Wouldn’t someone from Mithila have protested at their princess being treated this way? But no one said a thing. No one did a thing. Except Valmiki, who welcomed her into his ashram.”
“He was a great sage,” said Bharadwaj.
“He was, I’m sure,” Manthara agreed. “He was also probably besotted by Sita. After all, Kush is the only child he ever fathered, isn’t he?”
“What are you saying?” Ramanand Sagar wailed again. “Luv and Kush were twins!”
“What nonsense,” Manthara said abruptly. “Kush was born years after Luv. What was that story? That Sita asked Valmiki to watch Luv while she bathed and because he couldn’t find Luv, he made a replica of Luv, out of grass and named him Kush?” Manthara laughed. “Another tangle of rubbish poetry that one of you must have come up with,” she said to Bharadwaj. “What must have happened is that Luv toddled off and there were Sita and Valmiki, alone. Next thing you know, she’s pregnant with Kush. Am I right?” she asked Bharadwaj.
“How would I know? I’m just the librarian,” Bharadwaj replied.
Ramanand Sagar stood up from his chair. “You, Bharadwaj-ji, have gone mad as have you madam Manthara. It is probably because you are surrounded by all these books and nothing else. You are speaking sin and you are surrounded by sin and you are tempting me to sin with every second I stand here. And I will not stand for it. I am going! Jai Shri Ram!”
With that he left.
Manthara stared after him. “Tempting him to sin? Is he now confusing himself with Christ?”
“No, I think you’re just persuasive,” Bharadwaj said with a smile.
“What I never understood was why Valmiki gave Sita up,” Manthara said some time later, while watching episode seventy-five of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana in double speed.
“Gave her up? I'm disappointed in you, Manthara. I would have thought you at least would have thought twice before assuming Sita was a parcel to be claimed or given up,” Bharadwaj said, from behind a shelf that he was arranging.
"Oh please. Rama came to claim her and your Valmiki gave her up."
“Read what he wrote." Bharadwaj made his way on the rolling ladder to the desk where Manthara was perched. "He understood Ram needed heirs and was happy to give him the boys but when Ram asked for Sita, the great sage wasn’t agreeable. That’s what led to Ram suggesting Valmiki had a more intimate relationship with her than he was letting on.”
“Which he denied, didn’t he?” Manthara said with a laugh. “Liar.”
“He said his relationship with her didn’t breach propriety, which could either mean that your theory is simply salacious gossip and he did indeed fashion Kush out of grass into which he breathed life –-”
“Listen to yourself!” Manthara chuckled. “Sita, the daughter of the earth, has a son who is named after grass, and the one to breathe him into life is Valmiki. This isn’t poetic euphemism?”
“Or,” Bharadwaj continued smoothly, “it could be argued that considering how long Ram and Sita had been separated and how platonic their marriage was, Valmiki’s conduct towards Sita shouldn’t be considered improper. Ram had, after all, abandoned her.”
“Yet he asked for her again, and again he demanded she, how was it that your Sagar described it? Proved her purity.”
“Maybe he loved her in his own way,” Bharadwaj suggested.
“He had a bizarre way of showing it. Purushottam indeed!”
Bharadwaj stepped off the ladder that whirred back to a corner and sat at his chair. He pressed the pause button so
that on the screen was a frozen image of Arun Govil wearing a rhinestone-studded crown made of golden foil. “Manthara, if Sita deserves to be seen as more than just a wayward wife in your telling of the Ramayana, then Ram deserves a more complete telling as well. He may not have been the best husband but he was a good brother, a fine friend and an excellent king. He won a battle that few could have predicted would end as it did, and he won it responsibly and honestly. He brought happiness and glory to his kingdom, creating a legacy of justice and peace that has remained in people’s minds after so many millennia. You must acknowledge this,” Bharadwaj said gently.
“Why?” Manthara asked. “Why must I? Who has acknowledged Sita? Who made any effort to remember her story beyond that of Ram? Her story got smothered because Ram had to be mankind’s hero. It may not be his fault but here’s the truth: she had as her husband a man who would not give her children, Bharadwaj, and not for a day or a week or a month but years! More than three hundred retellings of this one man’s story and none of them consider the wife without whom there would have been no battle for Ram to fight and no one to continue his legacy.” Manthara shook her head.
“It’s probably a blessing in disguise, you know,” Bharadwaj said, switching off the screen at his desk. “Ram isn’t an easy character to understand but Sita’s much more complicated. Can you imagine how someone like Mr. Sagar would have shown her?”
Bharadwaj asked with a cheeky grin.
“Oh, she’d still have been something exquisite,” Manthara replied, a tight smile stretching her lips. “That was the amazing thing about Sita. Nothing blemished her. Not the accusations of being barren, not the snide remarks about being unable to keep her husband interested, not even the taunts about infidelity.” She laughed bitterly. “Look at Mr. Sagar’s idea of Sita, after all that. A paragon of virtue with alabaster skin and an angelic expression. I, on the other hand, make one mistake and become a hunchbacked, squint-eyed, barely human-looking beast.” Manthara was quiet for a moment. “Thank you for calling me to see this teleserial.”
“Thank you for coming and raising the hackles. It’s been a bit dull at the Library for a while,” Bharadwaj replied.
Manthara smiled and lowered her head in a bow. “At your service. I’ll take your leave now that the entertainment of the week is over.”
“Thank you again.” Bharadwaj started scanning the Library to figure out where he could house the seventy-eight episodes of the Ramayana. “Oh, and Manthara, if you’re looking for recommendations for films and teleserials, ask that young clerk of Yama’s, Tathagata. Good eye for quality.” She said something in response but Bharadwaj didn’t really hear it. All his energies were focused on finding a place in the Library for the Ramayana while in his mind he was remembering Ramanand Sagar’s face as he listened to Manthara. “So disappointing that this is what we have to do to make the Ramayana fun nowadays,” he muttered to himself, still looking for a suitable spot for Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana.