Time and Number
Bahuka aka Nala chariots his way toward Vidarbha with Rituparna in tow. The horses are running so fast that a yojana passes between the time when Rituparna's upper garment flies off and the shirtless king asks his charioteer to stop and recover the piece of cloth. There's no turning back.
A few minutes later, they pass a Vibhataka tree. Rituparna says to Bahuka: "do you know that the tree has four crore leaves and twenty three hundred fruits?" Nala-Bahuka is astonished at the king's computing facility; it will come in handy when he has to play a return game of dice with his brother. Bahuka suggests a deal: if the king will teach him the art of counting, he will teach the king the art of horsemanship.
Not a bad trade. The king agrees and in a twinkling of an eye the two exchange skills. No ten thousand hours of mathematical or equestrian practice for them. I wish I could trade skills at that speed.
As soon as Nala gains mastery over numbers, his energy rises and ejects Kala out of his body. The time-lord emerges coughing and spitting; he's been digesting the Naga Karkotaka's poison for days. Nala is about to curse the exorcised occupier when Kala begs him not to; that every future listener of Nala's story will be redeemed if the charioteer-king refrains from cursing the time-lord.
Nala stops his lips from moving. Why? Is it his desire to go down in posterity? His innate kindness? Or is it that he possesses mathematical skills that will tame chance for eternity?
I underestimated the Jaya, thinking that it didn't know about the laws of probability. Looks like I was wrong: Rituparna's numbers will help Nala conquer time and chance.
The Reader's Dilemma
We know how Nala and Damayanti's story is about to end even if we don't know the details. In short: all's well that ends well. And then what? I guess it's back to the Yudhisthira in the forest; time to plot the Pandavas return to power even if it takes many more years.
I have a different problem: how to read Nala and Damayanti's story? What kind of question is it: didn't I just read it? In fact, didn't I just read and write about it? Sure I did, but that's an uncritical idea of reading, of reading as a uniform act that doesn't differentiate between a text composed five thousand years ago and the latest Pokemon Go manual. We can't imagine reading to be an unstructured field, as if the ability to register letters on paper is enough to consider oneself a successful reader. I call that the "ordinary fallacy," i.e., that reading is an ordinary act.
By the way, we don't expect to be ordinary readers of scientific or mathematical texts. No one considers the reading of Grothendieck's works on algebraic geometry to be the same act of reading as reading War and Peace, even if we agree that both are fantastic creative achievements in their respective realms.
Once we set aside the ordinary fallacy, it's clear that we can't read Nala and Damayanti as ordinary readers. How else can we make sense of time-possession, the interplay between chance and destiny, the relationship between gods and humans? To read those episodes as factual would be a lie, for we don't believe in such facts anymore. To read those episodes as myth is another lie, for that's to condemn the insights as primitive fancy. So what do we do?
You might say, fair enough, but why ask that question of Nala and Damayanti? Why not ask it of the epic as a whole? What's true of the lover's story is true of the Jaya isn't it? Yes, in principle, but once again look at our task as a task of reading: it's hard enough to pass one's eyes over the entirety of the epic, let alone read it. The story within the story of Nala and Damayanti is easier to grasp with our reading minds and in doing so, we can begin the task of rereading and rewriting the lover's predicament as a way of making the story our own.
The Mahabharata is the story of all existence, not just of this human family or that species of god, but of all existence as such.
It's not a revelation, i.e., a disclosure of the truth from up above. It's most definitely our story; we are bound in it, we live in it. The story lives within and through us; it's something we already know even if we don't know how to give it expression. That's Vyasa's dharma, the poet who expresses what we are already, the poet who wraps our lives so tightly within the story that no gap is left between us and the tale. Even then we need reminders and so the Viswarupadarshan before the war exposes in a flash what's been indicated throughout.
Why are we so forgetful? Perhaps because we are not ready for that darshan. We are not ready even to be ready for that darshan. Fortunately, the epic helps us by suggesting pieces of the whole that serve as footholds.
Everyone has their own path up the mountain. In my travels so far, I have discerned three footholds: the story of Garuda, the snake sacrifice and the story of Nala and Damayanti. Of the three, Nala and Damayanti's story is closest to us, for it's about humans falling in love, falling out and then crawling their way back. I am thinking I need to reread it once again after this round's finished as a way of crawling my way up the epic.
Almost to the Finish Line
I said to myself that I am going to reread and retell Nala and Damayanti's story like a ruminant extracting nutrition in stages. I got ahead of myself for I have to tell the story first. To be frank, I have been delaying this section, for it's the most delicious part of the lover's tale: we know that Nala and Damayanti are about to be reunited but we don't know how.
It's most Damayanti's doing. She calls for a swayamvara in a day's time knowing that the only person who can get to Vidarbha at express pace is Nala; who else can command his chariot at that speed?
When Rituparna arrives in Vidarbha, he sees no signs of a swayamvara. There's no sign of festivity, no competing rajas, no fanfare. The visiting king is puzzled but concludes that the swayamvara is over and some lucky king has won the bride. He proceeds to congratulate Bhima on a successful wedding, except that Bhima doesn't know a thing - remember that the whole event has been hatched in secret by Damayanti!
Fortunately, Bhima allays Rituparna's anxieties by inviting him into the royal palace and entertaining him.
Meanwhile, Damayanti is on the lookout for Nala. She sees Rituparna alight from the chariot along with Bahuka and Varshneya and wonders which one of the three is Nala. Surely it can't be Rituparna - Nala wouldn't be able to impersonate a ruling king. It has to be Bahuka or Varshneya. Which one of them is it?