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  Surpanakha — 2  

  Looking Back
  Vol II : issue 2

  Amit Chaudhuri
  Cass Sunstein
  Dibyendu Palit
  Vinay Lal
  Only in Print

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TEMPTATION, ink on paper,

Amit Chaudhuri

Ram and his younger brother Lakshman had gone out into the forest to collect firewood; she saw them from a distance. Her mouth went dry and she snorted with nervousness; then she recalled how she’d become more beautiful than she’d imagined, and tried to control these noises she inadvertently made. She thought, looking at Ram, ‘He is not a man; I’m sure he’s a god,’ and was filled with longing. When they came nearer her, she lost her shyness, and came out into the clearing.

“What’s this?” said Ram softly to his brother, pretending not to have seen her.
Lakshman glanced back quickly and whispered, as he bent to pick up his axe, “I don’t know — but this beautiful ‘maiden’ smells of rakshasi; look at the gawky and clumsy way she carries her body, as if it were an ornament she’d recently acquired.”

“Let’s have some fun with her,” whispered Ram. He’d been bored for days in the forest, and this overbearing, obstreperous creature of ethereal beauty, now approaching them with unusually heavy footsteps, promised entertainment.

“Lord…” she stuttered, “…Lord… Forgive me for intruding so shamelessly, but I saw you wandering alone, and thought you might have lost your way.” Ram and Lakshman looked at each other; their faces were grave, but a smile glinted in their eyes. They’d noticed she’d ignored Lakshman altogether. It amused and flattered Ram to be on the receiving end of this attention, even if it came from a rakshasi who’d changed shape; and it also repelled him vaguely. He experienced, for the first time, the dubious and uncomfortable pleasure of being the object of pursuit. This didn’t bother him unduly, though; he was, like all members of the male sex, slightly vain. Lakshman cleared his throat and said: “Who are you, maiden? Do you come from these parts?”

“Not far from here,” said the beautiful woman, while the covering on her bosom slipped a little without her noticing it. “Lord,” she said, going up to Ram and touching his arm, “let’s go a little way from here. There’s a place not far away where you can get some rest.” Within the beautiful body, the rakshasi’s heart beat fiercely, but with trepidation.
“I don’t mind,” said the godly one slowly. “But what’s a woman like you doing here alone? Aren’t you afraid of thieves?”
“I know no fear, Lord,” she said. “Besides, seeing you, whatever fear I might have had melts away.”
“Before I go with you,” conceded Ram, “I must consult my brother — and tell him what to do when I’ve gone.”

Surpanakha said: “Whatever pleases you, Lord,” but thought: ‘I’ve won him over; I can’t believe it. My prayers are answered.’

Ram went to Lakshman and said: “This creature’s beginning to tire me. Do something.”

“Like what?” said Lakshman. He was sharpening the blade of his knife. Ram admired the back of his hand and said moodily: “I don’t know. Something she’ll remember for days. Teach her a lesson for being so forward.”

Lakshman got up wearily with the knife still in one hand, and Ram said under his breath: “Don’t kill her, though.”

A little later, a howl was heard. Lakshman came back; there was some blood on the blade. “I cut her nose off,” he said. “It,” he gestured toward the knife, “went through her nostril as if it were silk. She immediately changed back from being a paradigm of beauty into the horrible creature she really is. She’s not worth describing,” he said as he wiped his blade, and Ram chuckled without smiling. “She was in some pain. She flapped her arms and screamed in pain and ran off into the forest like an agitated beast.”

Crying and screaming, Surpanakha circled around the shrubs and trees, dripping blood. The blood was mingled with the snot that came from her weeping, and she wiped these away without thinking from her disfigured face. Even when the pain had subsided a little, the bewilderment remained, that the one she’d worshipped should be so without compassion, so unlike what he looked like. It was from here, in this state, that she went looking for Ravan.

p. 1 p. 2

  A prominent Indian writer and scholar, Amit Chaudhuri’s recent honours include the LA Times Book Award for 2000. He writes in English and lives in Calcutta