Excerpt from Vanara-The legend of Baali, Sugreeva and Tara
09 January 2019
His mother was in the hands of a man who was not his father. He was dressed like his adoptive father, wore the sacred ashes like him, but this man was younger. The eight-year-old could not control his tears. She was kissing him when he stumbled into his mother’s room with a sparrow-nest he had found. There were three sparrow-chicks in it and they were twittering sweetly. His brother had climbed high up the palmyra tree for the nest when he had insisted that he wanted it. He wanted to show it to his mother and ask her for some millet to feed the chicks. The boy stood transfixed at the doorstep — blushing, embarrassed, afraid and angry. He was old enough to know that his mother was cheating on his father. They still weren’t even aware that he was there. He wanted to run away, yet he stood there transfixed. He needed to scream, but no voice would come out of his throat. He gulped, and his mouth felt dry. Hot tears streamed down his cheeks. Unwittingly perhaps, he must have let out a sound. The man turned his face towards him. Their eyes met for a moment and the man scowled. The boy felt scared and looked at his mother. His mother hadn’t opened her eyes. Her face was filled with a beauty and pleasure that the boy had never seen before. She stood, wrapped in the man’s arms, her lovely face thrown back and her lustrous black tresses falling down like coiled snakes, kissing her waist.
‘Run, monkey.’ The man’s bark made him shudder. His mother opened her eyes, looked at the man and followed his gaze. The boy saw his mother’s eyes widening in surprise and then blood draining from her face. The boy’s thumb went into his mouth. The sparrow’s nest he had been carrying carefully so far, fell from his hand. He saw his mother hurriedly prising away the man’s hands from her waist and rushing towards him. The boy removed his thumb quickly. He knew his mother was angry. She was going to scold him for sure.
He was too old a boy to suck his thumb. ‘I’m sorry, Amma,’ he mumbled. ‘Sugreeva.’ She stood before him, her face flushed red. The man chuckled from behind and tightened his dhoti. ‘Tell me, Ahalya, is this brat my son or his?’ His mother didn’t reply. She was now leaning before him. She placed a warm damp hand on his shoulders. Poor sparrows, the boy thought, looking at the nest that lay scattered on the mud floor. He should not have brought it here. He should not have come here at all. The birds were chattering in fright. His mother lifted his chin and for a moment he stared deep into her eyes, which were brimming with tears. Sugreeva was aware of her misplaced clothes and her untied hair. He turned his face away to look outside. His skin burned with shame. His vision turned hazy and the Tungabhadra river that simmered in the summer sun faraway appeared as if it had dissolved into the sky. His brother might be swimming there. He wanted to see his brother. He would know what to do. ‘Son, don’t tell anyone.’ He heard his mother’s voice crack. ‘Oh, why should he tell the old man, dear.’ The man walked towards them. He stepped on the nest carelessly and crushed the chicks. The boy turned away, horrified at the dying squeaks of the birds.
The man cursed and kicked the nest away from his way. As he approached, he leaned before the boy and glared at him. Sugreeva was watching the sparrow-chicks twitching in their death throbs. ‘Keep your mouth shut, boy,’ the man hissed. Sugreeva kept looking at the chicks that lay lifeless now. A breeze that wafted from without flurried the feathers and a few loose ones flitted in circles, a finger breadth above the floor. ‘Look here when I speak.’ The man slapped Sugreeva hard. His mother held the man’s wrists. Sugreeva glared back defiantly. ‘You’re scaring me, boy,’ the man chuckled. His mother tried to say something, but the man raised his palm and she fell quiet. She tied her hair into a bun, stood up and walked away from them. Sugreeva wanted to get away. He tried to run, but the man held his wrist tight.
‘Listen, you are not to speak a word about this to anyone. It does not concern you, so why are you bothered?’ ‘Indra, please,’ his mother cried from the corner. She was not facing them. She was arranging the manuscripts of his adoptive father, Sage Gautama, in a neat pile in the corner. But Sugreeva could sense that she was tense. ‘This monkey needs to know that he can’t squeal. Not that I’m scared of your old man, that impotent fool, Gautama, but I don’t want him to spread the word and make our meetings difficult.’
He turned back to Sugreeva. ‘Boy, she fed you and many urchins like you when you were hungry. She is the mother of the ashram. She will do what she pleases. So you will keep your mouth shut, understand? If she wants to sleep with anyone, that is her business.’ Indra shook his shoulders. Sugreeva looked at the dead sparrows. A teardrop traced its way down to his chin. ‘Please, don’t make it worse. He is just a child. Let the boy go. He won’t tell anyone,’ he heard his mother say. ‘He daren’t. No one crosses the King of Devas. I have a doubt that this brat is one among my many sons. I don’t know how many women I would have bedded so far and this monkey-faced brat might be one of them,’ Indra chuckled. ‘That’s enough.’ Ahalya rushed to them and freed Sugreeva. She dragged him out and slammed the door shut. Sugreeva heard Indra laugh from inside. Ahalya took him aside. His mind was still with those dead sparrows. He had made a mistake.