Jayary Newsletter # 62
Having escaped from the python and the hunter's clutches, Damayanti finds herself alone in a forest teeming with tigers, elephants, demons and ghouls. How will she survive her ordeal? Who will protect her? What do we make of the man who left her alone in that condition?
Amazingly, Damayanti doesn't spend time venting her anger. Instead, what follows is one of the longest sections in this parva where Damayanti bears full witness to her grief. She's missing her husband and lover and she doesn't know where he's gone and where she can find him.
She carroms from grove to grove, asking tigers and other wild beasts where Nala is hiding. The beasts have no time for her grief; who knows what sorrow they're carrying? She chances upon an ashram and asks the rishis if they know Nala's whereabouts. The rishis assure her that Nala will return to his full glory and then they vanish, taking the ashram with them. Is she in a dream? Is her entire tale of misfortune a dream? We don't know.
Reading the section makes me understand why Bollywood movies have songs, for some emotions can only be expressed in verse. Who hasn't loved and lost a friend, a partner, a son or a daughter? And who hasn't felt the poverty of prose when only poetry can express our anguish? It's perfectly fine to pause the reign of narrative for song.
Human conceit says nothing wrong happens without a reason, even if it's a malevolent reason. It's so much more gratifying to believe that the gods are working against us than to believe that our failures are entirely due to chance. Especially if the human in question is a hero or otherwise powerful. How can such a person be defeated by the roll of dice? Especially a fair roll of dice?
The role of chance is even more suspect when misfortune piles upon misfortune. A python crushing the life out of Damayanti is bad luck. Being saved by a hunter with lust in his eyes is misfortune. When she escapes the first two dangers and finds a caravan of kind strangers she feels her luck is turning.
Alas, the very next day the caravan is destroyed by a herd of wild elephants: their horses, elephants and men crushed under the elephants' rutting feet, their wares scattered in the lake, the traveling merchants are forced to recreate their fortunes from scratch.
Surely that can't be due to chance? Why were they so unlucky? Why did their fortunes change overnight? It's obvious to the surviving travelers that Damayanti is the source of their woe.
Fortunately, Damayanti is one step ahead; she reasons that she's the epicentre of bad luck and vanishes into the forest before she's lynched.
As she's making her lonely way through the forest, Damayanti asks herself "Why am I such a loser? Whom did I wrong?" and doesn't find an obvious answer to her question. "I haven't ever hurt anyone, in word or deed, or even in thought, so why am I beset by calamity? Did I offend someone powerful?"
As soon as she asks the last question, the answer is obvious to her. It's her spurning of the devas that turned the wheels of fortune against her and Nala. Why did she choose a mortal over a divinity? We tend to view luck as a liberating and joyous force, but it can be dangerous too.
A heroine can invite divine luck and shift the inexorable law of karma in her favour, but she can also invite divine retribution and end of up headless in a gutter. Proximity to power has its advantages and disadvantages. You're much more likely to be poisoned if you're the king's second in command than if you're a farmer in the boondocks.
Fortunately, Damayanti avoids the worst of fates and ends up the servant-companion of the princess of Chedi. Her terms of employment are clear: she won't wash anyone's feet, she won't submit to any man and she will be treated with respect.
Her employer, the Queen Mother of Chedi agrees to these terms. Why does she do so? Hasn't there always been a glut of employable young women who won't complain about their treatment? Why hire an uppity servant.