Jayary Newsletter # 67
The Story Tree
The movie is almost over; Nala and Damayanti are reunited. It's only a matter of time before Nala uses his newly found probabilistic skills to regain his kingdom. And then there's nothing to do except to marvel at the royal couple's beauty and wisdom until time, the destroyer of all things, has his way with both of them. There's a lesson lurking in fine print: arithmetic can help us conquer physical time, but it's no match - not yet! - for metaphysical time.
Fortunately, we don't have to wait around while Nala and Damayanti die of old age. Or for the universe to end in heat death. The movie is a movie within a movie: when the final credits roll onto the screen, we know that the camera is going to fade away from Nala's serene face and shine its light on Yudhisthira's creased brow.
What lessons on kingship will Dharmaraja learn? Is he going to be happy or sad after hearing that others have also loved and lost as he did? Is he going to sign up for Statistics 101? If he does, who's going to teach him? Duryodhana has Sakuni heading his analytics team, but we don't know who is managing Yudhisthira's data gathering operations. I am guessing that role is rightfully Krishna's, but I am not sure.
The epic hides its mysteries.
Isn't that one of the great charms of the epic, that it's a universe of stories? When we peel one layer off, there's always another one with a fresh coat of paint underneath. Every drop of blood shed by the demon Raktabeeja gave rise to another Raktabeeja who fought just as fiercely. The Jaya is like a floral Raktabeeja; every time we pull out one story from its recesses, it springs forth into a fully formed tree.
The story ends quickly, as if Vyasa is done with love and eager to return to Yudhisthira's preoccupations with war.
Nala leaves Vidarbha with a noisy retinue and newly acquired gambling skills. Arriving in Nishada, Nala challenges his brother Pushkara to a game of dice.
Nala to Pushkara: "I stake everything I have on this single throw: Damayanti, my soldiers, myself. Stake your kingdom or fight with me on the battleground. One of us will be the unchallenged king for the rest of our lives."
Pushkara is more than happy to play the dice. It's Damayanti he wants for he has everything else. Plus, he favours his chances against Nala.
Of course, we know that fate is on Nala's side now. Pushkara hasn't been improving his understanding of the law of large numbers while Nala has been reading the latest papers on fat tails and uniform convergence. In one throw Nala regains everything he's lost. With a sly smile, Nala whispers to Pushkara "it wasn't you who won against me four years ago! It was Kala!"
Fortunately for Pushkara, Nala is magnanimous in victory. Instead of enslaving his brother, Nala embraces him and accompanies Pushkara on a celebratory procession to the principality that's been reserved for his brother. May be it's just Vyasa telling us that this feud is over and it's time to get back to the main story.
As Vyasa's spotlight moves back to the exiled Pandava king, we have a decision on our hands: should we follow Vyasa as I promised a couple of months ago, or should I reread Nala and Damayanti's story as I promised last week. Either way, I am keeping one promise and breaking the other.
Now that Nala and Damayanti have been returned to the collective story consciousness, we can look back and inspect the tale with a professional eye. Suppose you had discovered the lover's chronicle in a musty old book in one of those condemned bookstores in Bangalore, would you rush to the closest movie studio and pitch the story to the waiting producers or thrust it away in a mental corner as cute but fanciful account?
Note: By condemned bookstore I don't mean a bookstore that's been condemned, but a store full of condemned books. It's different from a used book store which resells books as individual objects. A condemned bookstore occupies a Trishanku space between a used bookstore and a kabadiwala where books are sold as much by weight as by content.
Nala and Damayanti has many things going for its blockbuster chances - not least the possibility of casting the leading stars as its hero and heroine. Who would I cast? If I had an entire array of Bollywood stars at my disposal, I think I would go for Dev Anand and Madhubala. Damayanti is harder to cast: she has to be vulnerable and strong at the same time. Perhaps Rekha. If I was going international like Peter Brook, I think I would do Will Smith and Salma Hayek.
But: is it really a love story? Duh - of course it's a love story, isn't it? I am not so sure. I am thinking of a darker, more noirish Nala-Damayanti which resembles the Tamil epic Silappadikaram with Damayanti playing Kannagi with a detective twist.
So many choices. As you can see, I am definitely of the "dash the script to the producer" persuasion. But why?
A Charming Romance
So what's so special about the Nala-Damayanti story? You could say it has everything: love, family, conflict, defeat and restitution and in that it's a complete story as stories go. We can relate to their tale of love and loss even today, for it's mostly a story about humans despite the crucial role played by a jealous divinity. The divinity is not one of the usual suspects such as Indra and Agni, but Kala, who is a personified version of time. Who doesn't struggle against time, and even when we win a reprieve, who doesn't know that our victory is temporary?
One reason why Nala and Damayanti's story is charming is it's detective elements: where's Nala? what made him turn into a loser? Then there's the role played by chance and the struggle against the ravages of time.
Nevertheless, it's real charm is because it's a romance, a love between two near equals (remember how Nala cooks for Damayanti?) who fall in love and remain in love despite all the troubles that visit them. Don't we all wish such happiness?
Having said that, I think the love between the two could be darker; in a different time, Damayanti would have had a second swayamvara a lot sooner and for good reasons. Or else, as I suggested at the end of the previous Jayary, Nala's loss could have ended in tragedy. What if his brother had killed him?
These are some of the questions that come to my mind as I begin re-reading their story.