Jayary Newsletter # 68
A Darker Romance
Unlike the Jaya which ends in tragedy, Nala and Damayanti's story is an uplifting tale of love and liberty lost and regained. It's meant to be a pick-me-up, encouraging Yudhisthira by recounting how others have lost their kingdom before him, only to win it back by force of arithmetic.
What if the story within the story was as tragic as the larger tale? What if Nala had ended his charioteer avatar with excellent gambling skills and won the dice game, only to find that Pushkara wasn't willing to hand over a kingdom because of an errant dice throw?
Worse, what if Damayanti had given up on Nala and remarried? What if her swayamvara was for real? Imagine a world in which Rituparna wins her hand and asks Bahuka-Nala to become her charioteer for life.
Even worse, what if Damayanti had succumbed to the snake and the hunter's assault in the forest and never made it out of the jungle? So many counterfactual possibilities. We can take them up one after the other if we want to recreate a Nala-Damayanti version of Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style.
I am not ready to go that far yet; I am still in the act of re-reading, not re-writing Nala and Damayanti's account. However, I think it can be reread in a much darker mood, a mood that matches the violence about to be unleashed in the main epic.
Dosas and Burgers
We don't know what Yudhisthira felt as he was hearing Nala and Damayanti's story, but we know that it was meant to raise his spirits. Let's make raise one more meta-level and ask ourselves whether there's any reason for us to read this story; is there some inner sadness that might be removed or at least temporarily banished?
I do have a reason, but first let me tell you an anecdote.
You might have heard of these Guinness book contests where people try to eat as many burgers or hot dogs as possible in ten minutes. We Indians love the Guinness book - I can't tell you how many random achievements are held by desis even as we return medal-less from the Olympics.
There was once a hot dog eating contest in which the organizer held a gun to the contestant's head and said if they eat less than ten dogs they're going to be shot. That went on for a few years until an intrepid restaurant owner marketed a different plan. He said "we don't have to eat hot dogs anymore! Dosas are tastier!"
Soon everyone realized the dosa entrepreneur was right and they set aside their hot dogs and sat down to eat their dosas. A few more years passed. People being people, they bored of eating dosas every meal. Some even had fond memories of sausages, frankfurters and hot dogs eaten beneath watchful guards carrying Enfield rifles.
Then one day, a new restaurant opened; it sold desi hot dogs cooked in ghee. No bullets for the laggards either. Everyone rushed to eat the exotic dish. The desi hot dog was such a hit that soon the country was awash in desi hot dogs, desi burgers and desi fried chicken.
Some traditionalists were aghast. How can you give up nutritious dosas for this foreign crap? Some of them got together and petitioned the government. After the third petition, the government created a new ministry of desi dosas and other handicraft foods with stalls near the state capital in every state. A more aggressive bunch started lynching people who were accused of cooking beef dosas for the crowd who wanted the best of both worlds.
Meanwhile, the desi industry was being run into the ground. Even the lazy bureaucrat who ran the desi dosa ministry ate his lunches in the burger joint across the street. Meanwhile, the mango man was left holding the bill for the boring dosas, the fattening burgers and the inedible dosa manchurian.
In case you were wondering that's the story of India's encounter with the west. We can't go back to prehistory. Nor, for that matter, can we eat our Vedic dosas during the intermission of anauthentic Nala and Damayanti movie with its obligatory bhangra pop scenes. On the flip side, KFC will kill us even faster.
So what to do? How to tell the story between the dosa and the burger? How can we make it palatable, even delicious and nutritious? If we can't tell a good love story, who can?
There's an ancient genre of instructional storytelling where the official recipient of the message is a king or a prince. Nala and Damayanti's story falls into that camp. The Panchatantra was a manual for princes. What about the Arabian Nights, told by a brave princess in conditions of extreme duress? The longest Parva in the Mahabharata, the Shanti Parva has Bhishma instructing Yudhisthira on the ways of power.
And how can we forget the Ramayana's ending where the dying Ravana imparts his wisdom to Rama? Minus the abduction of other people's wives of course - Rama figures out it's much easier to kick your wife out of her house than to bring another man's wife into yours.
Why is a king the target of so much instruction? I guess they have a tough job. There's no guarantee that genetics insures either wisdom or cleverness. Then again, the princely setting might just be a ploy to get us ordinary folks interested - if the lesson good enough for Yudhisthira, it should be good enough for me, right?
Now that kings have disappeared, we have to rewrite the instructional manual. We can't have it be written for deposed despots. CEO's are a better bet, as legions of gurus and snake oil salesman have discovered over the last fifty years. But why stop at the bosses? If the people are sovereign shouldn't the story be addressed to the people?
By people, I don't mean the wretched of the earth in whose name the jholawalas fight the good fight. I mean people as rulers, the species that's inherited this earth. How can we tell the story of Nala and Damayanti for this hyperobject?