After a few weeks of continuous gambling, Nala has nothing left to lose. His kingdom, his ministers, his palaces and jewellery are all gone. His children have been spirited away to safety along with a deadly chariot, which will come handy later. All he has left are the clothes on his body and his wife, Damayanti.
Of course, it's the wife that the brother wants. Pushkara asks Nala to stake her. We don't know whether his game face looks like Prem Chopra or James Bond, but it's villainous. What's with these men and their brother's wives? It's one thing to go after your enemy's women like Ravana or Paris but coveting your brother's wife has got to be a bad idea.
Fortunately, Nala isn't like Yudhisthira. He refuses to bring Damayanti into the arena. Instead, the vanquished king takes off his finery and leaves the city with his wife. It's going to be a long and hungry exile, for Pushkara has warned his subjects not to feed or clothe the wandering couple. No one comes to Nala's aid.
Interesting isn't it. Nala might have been the greatest of kings, kind and benevolent but once power changes hands, no one comes to his aid even if they might feel like doing so. Of course, we also know how he lost power: by losing his mind. We know that power buys loyalty. A defeated king has a chance only if he's seen as a victim of malice or bad luck. Why would anyone support a loser?
There's an existentialist myth that men are born alone, die alone and for the most part they live alone. Think Camus' murderous stranger or Holden Caulfield's teenage angst. Existentialism is gendered like everything else: it's always men who are born alone and live out their lives trapped in a bubble of their own making. Can you imagine a woman wandering alone on a beach and murdering a stranger on a whim? While permanent isolation was considered characteristically human by the existentialists, it's a historically limited experience; rare before the modern era everywhere and rare outside the west still.
Having said that, Nala's experience in exile comes close to the existentialist anti-hero's isolation. Unlike Camus' stranger, whose alienation is unremarkable - the story of everyman - Nala's alienation descends from a divine curse, from his possession by Kala. Having lost his wit and wisdom under the influence of divine madness, Nala is abandoned by his friends and well-wishers. Nala's loneliness is the enforced alienation of the powerless, of the man behind bars. Only Damayanti stays by his side.
Not for long though. Just as his subjects have deserted Nala, he deserts the one person who is attached to him. The epic supplies a reason: "why should she suffer with me?" says Nala, talking to himself as Damayanti is in an exhausted slumber. "Wouldn't she be better off by herself, at her father's or in some other king's service?" While Nala's reason is somewhat convincing, the epic doesn't believe it. It says "the Kala possessed king abandoned his wife, leaving her all alone amongst the snakes and the beasts." Even the oppressed find time to injure someone more powerless.
Time and Memory
Kala, as we know, is time, and we know that time destroys everything. Love dries out, memories fade, friends turn into enemies, enemies turn into allies and everything and everyone turns into dust. That's the effect of time on the external world. What about the internal world?
Nala's fate offers a clue. Kala enters Nala's being and turns the king against himself, makes him forget who he is. It's an ancient rebuke to Descartes' famous Cogito Ergo Sum. If time makes you forget who you are, then either the premise or the conclusion of Descartes' claim is mistaken. Either there's no I who is thinking or there's no I who exists. However you look at it, the necessary link between thinking, being and the self is broken.
When a man has forgotten himself, can he remember anyone else? Jaya's answer seems to be in the negative. Nala leaves the forest rest house that offered shelter to the royal couple. Wrenched from love's soft grip, Nala abandons Damayanti while she is sleeping on the rest house floor and vanishes, leaving her to the mercy of the forest and its perils.
Nala is no longer himself, he's an automaton at the command of Kala. Not a happy automaton, for he remembers Damayanti at every step. His love for Damayanti calls him back, not once, not twice, but three times. Their love is strong but unfortunately, Kala is stronger.
When Damayanti wakes up, she notices Nala's absence. She's all alone. Perhaps he went foraging for food? Not a chance; she knows the man's possessed. If he's gone he's gone.
For a while, Damayanti gives way to her grief. We don't know what she's grieving for - is it her abandonment in the forest by her husband after their exile or is it her abandonment in the city when her husband loses his mind and then his possessions? She knows that Nala has vanished once he starts gambling away his kingdom and doesn't listen to his advisors or his wife. It's only a matter of time before he abandons her too.
After voicing her sorrow and her anger, Damayanti realizes she has to negotiate the forest on her own. Her queenly existence hasn't prepared her for the dangers of the jungle. In rapid succession she falls prey to a hungry python and then to the hunter who rescues her from the python's clutches.
It's an interesting contrast of images: while Draupadi's clothes are uncoiled by Dushasana, and she escapes her fate when Krishna makes the coil infinitely long, Damayanti is crushed by the python's coils and escapes only when the hunter chops the snake's head off.
When he does so - out of kindness - the hunter notices the beautiful woman underneath the serpent and falls in lust immediately. Damayanti knows what he wants even as the hunter inquires after Damayanti's health. Fortunately for her, the hunter is no Dushasana: he is burned to cinder by Damayanti's fierce chastity. Or perhaps that's the story we are being told. In the real world things turn out differently.