Jayary Newsletter # 63

Context is Everything

Context is everything. There are bacteria that help you digest food when they're in your gut but turn into septic poison when they exit the gut and enter your blood. Birds that peck ticks and other insects off the skin of large mammals also peck at open wounds. It all depends on deshakala.

Nala gets a first hand lesson in deshakala as he wanders the forest after abandoning Damayanti. Noticing a snake caught in the middle of a raging fire, Nala rushes to save it from the flames. It's no ordinary snake; it's Karkotaka the king of the Nagas, who's been frozen at that spot for ages because of Narada's curse. Only Nala can release him from that curse.

Karkotaka bites Nala as soon as he's rescued from the fire. You can never trust a snake can you. Except that the bite isn't intended for Nala, but his tormentor, who will suffer from the snake's poison until he's exorcised. The poison turns Nala black (it's the original anti-Fair and Lovely cream) so that he can pretend to be the charioteer Bahuka and gain employment with Rituparna, the king of Ayodhya's.

Rituparna is an expert diceman; he will end up teaching Nala how to game the system in his favour. In return for what? Horsemanship, I suppose. Charioteers seem to play a mixed role in the epic. They're lower in the social scale, yet both Karna and Krishna are charioteers. Skill with horses must have value even if it's secondary to bearing arms.

The Taming of Chance

The philosopher Ian Hacking has a wonderful book called The Taming of Chance in which he details how the fuzzy concepts of chance, fortune and uncertainty were slowly turned into the precise understanding of probability and statistics.

There are many factors that helped turn the pre-modern world into the modern world. One myth starts with the Copernican revolution that overturned man's centrality to the scheme of the universe. I am not convinced by that myth, for reasons that will take me too far afield so let me stop with the briefest of summaries of my disagreement: our modern world coincides with the cresting of the anthropocene, of near absolute human control over the rest of the earth. Despite what the Copernicans say, we live in the most anthropocentric of eras, not the least.

Instead, let me offer an alternate theory: the taming of chance is the central fact of the anthropocene. We do so in a hundred different ways: social institutions that encourage the rule of the law, insurance and social security policies that make old age and death more bearable, vaccines and pesticides that deliver health and food with some reliability.

What we have gained in reliability, we have lost in richness. Coincidence and contingency don't convince us either in science or in literature. What's the likelihood that a passing brahmin would run into Damayanti while she's sunning herself with her mistress? What's the likelihood that Nala will run into the one snake whose bite will turn him into a charioteer? Literature depends on the suspension of disbelief - unless it's explicitly mythological or fabulous - and today we can't suspend our disbelief in the face of piled on coincidences. How do we tell our fables today then?

Nadir

As every second rate writing coach will tell you, every story needs a conflict to get us interested and a resolution of that conflict to keep us happy. It's true that life is one thing after another and then we are dead, but stories pretend otherwise.

In Nala and Damayanti's story, the conflict arises from the clash between gods and men: how can a mere mortal aspire to what's the gods due? That conflict plays itself out in two climactic moments, one for each protagonist: the first moment is when Nala loses his kingdom to his brother; the second moment is when Damayanti finds herself abandoned by her saviors after she's abandoned by Nala and assaulted by a python, a hunter and some wild elephants.

Damayanti's climax is drawn out in comparison with Nala's, but it's her choice of Nala over the gods that sparks the conflict. Like Draupadi, Damayanti's story points to a time when women must have had more agency than they do in the main storyline.

Damayanti's serial abandonment is the lowest point of the story. From then on, we know that things are going to get better for both of them, as the imaginary rishis tell Damayanti and the Naga king tells Nala. While they are yet to become king and queen, they're only one step removed from the throne: Nala is the king of Ayodhya's charioteer and Damayanti is the princess' companion.

It's only a matter of time before they're revealed as who they are in real life and then they can go on to live happily ever after.

A Wedding in Reverse

The North Indian Hindu wedding has a certain rhythm to it: the groom arrives on horseback, the bride and the groom circumnavigate the fire seven times and then the two leave with the bride in all her finery, given away by her father to her husband. As a thousand Bollywood movies have shown us, it's a time of sadness; the departing bride cries the entire way as she leaves her parental womb for another nest where her womb will be tested. It tells us that marriage is primarily about labour and property and that a woman's body is the fulcrum around which revolve the economic, sexual and political order.

Damayanti enjoys that departure in reverse. A visiting Brahmin recognizes her beauty and asks if he could wipe the dust off her brow, for if she's Damayanti, she has a birthmark that identifies her to anyone who can see it. When the dust is removed and the birthmark duly revealed, it's clear to everyone that it's Nala's wife who's been serving the Chedi princess. Fortunately, she's been treated like a friend, not a servant.

Restored to her full majesty, Damayanti asks that she be returned to Bhima's kingdom to be reunited with her children. A long procession of soldiers and maidservants accompany the royal palanquin back to her father's home in a reversal of the wedding procession.

I have been thinking that before photographs, thumbprints and other likenesses, how did people validate their identity? Anonymity cuts both ways: the ancient king could slip into a commoner's clothes and mingle with the masses in a way that Barack Obama will never be able to do so, but if fate or misfortune separates you from your throne, how do you prove that you are indeed the king? Did royal babies get a secret seal or tattoo that marked their identity?