Jayary Newsletter # 71

The Trojan Agent

Nala and Damayanti's troubles start when Nala encounters the gods. Agni and Indra and Yama desire Damayanti, just as Nala does. In fact, they have a clever plan: knowing full well that Nala and Damayanti are fated for each other, they make him their emissary.

It's a Trojan horse within a Trojan horse move. The gods make him their agent so that in doing so, Nala becomes their servant rather than their competitor. Nala agrees to do so since that will give him the magic powers to enter Damayanti's quarters without being noticed. Both sides are playing games.

Games and gambling are closely related, so much so that most forms of gambling are also games. Gaming offers a way for the clever to compete against the strong. If you set aside any preconceived notion of right and wrong, isn't that what happened between Sakuni and Yudhisthira?

Is Nala clever or is he strong in his chess match against the gods? On the surface, neither. All he has is love, and he's lucky in that Damayanti loves him back. It's her cleverness that rescues Nala from his gambling debts, both against the gods and against his brother. Of course, she has to pay for her cleverness: how can a mere woman take on the gods and win?

The Measure of Man

At the end of the Lord of the Rings, when the bad guys have been defeated, the elves, dwarves and wizards realise that the age of the immortals has ended and the age of men is about to start. Evil, aka Sauron, has been defeated but even in victory it's defeat for everyone else except for one species.

Here's what I am thinking: as human beings consolidated their hold over the earth, they slowly drove everyone else to the sidelines. The animals were the first to go, driven into the shrinking forests as they were replaced by farms and cities. The gods might have been the next, replaced by the One God in some places and by nothing in others.

There's no measure of mankind but man.

Nala and Damayanti's story appears right in the middle of that transition. The gods are still powerful and can hound anyone who flouts their mandate but at the end they have to give in. By the end of the story, the gods are umpires rather than players.

The Jaya lies further along the conquest of the earth; the gods are almost entirely gone: only Krishna remains and he's already on his way to becoming the god of all gods, whose truth is only visible to his chosen human friend and partner Arjuna. The idea of humanity is viable only when the conquest is over.

By the way, without humanity there's no such thing as "human rights" or any of the other good things we cherish. It's only by ending the age of others that we inaugurate the age of man.

Damayanti and Nala

Damayanti.

We don't call the story Damayanti and Nala, but that's what it is; not just because I am projecting my present day moral concerns on the past but also because that's how the story is told.

Most of the action in the story happens to Damayanti. She's the one who outwits the gods and selects Nala over the divine trio. While Nala has a relatively easy transition from being king to pauper to charioteer, Damayanti undergoes one trial after another.

After Nala leaves her, she's almost swallowed by a python, molested by the hunter who saves her from the python and then the party of merchants who lend her a measure of security is assaulted by a herd of wild elephants.

That's only the negative side of the ledger. On the plus side, she's the one who figures out how to draw Nala out of his hiding place - from ordering a fake swayamvara to finding the right Brahmins to carry her message, it's Damayanti's doing.

So here's a thought: if Nala and Damayanti's story is told to Yudhisthira as a tale of a man who lost even more than Dharmaraja did, perhaps Damayanti and Nala's story should be told to Draupadi as the tale of a woman who lost more than Draupadi did.

Fair is fair.

Anti-Babel

One of the great myths of the twentieth century, perhaps the greatest one, was the idea that all humans speak the same language, that all stories are ultimately one story. This idea runs through Turing's universal computer, Chomsky's universal grammar, Campbell's universal myth and any number of lesser redactions of the anti-tower of Babel.

Of course, every idea has it's origins in India, doesn't it? We had spacecraft while others were riding donkeys and when they weren't busy traveling to Mars, the ancient rishis encoded the mysteries of quantum mechanics in metered verse.

Why verse? Why not prose? Don't ask me.

If there's only one language and only one story, then it's obvious that the Jaya is that story, told in the only language that remains when the gods remove the power of speech from every other tongue.

Actually, why wait for an entire language. It's said that once when the gods, demons and humans went to Prajapati for advice, he uttered a syllable in response: DA. The answer to all their woes were found in that one syllable. All languages and all stories are buried in that one syllable. The one that stands for all: isn't that the essence of the anti-babel myth?

Researchers in Texas and elsewhere are building single pixel cameras, thinking that the one pixel could stand for the whole visual world. They should go to Brahma for advice: he demonstrated a long long time ago that one syllable is enough.

I have to say that the anti-babel has lost its hold after possessing me for decades. Like Nala freed from the clutches of Kala, I want to look beyond monolithic unity. That's why I want to retell Nala and Damayanti's story as told to Yudhisthira as the story of Damayanti and Nala as told to Draupadi. I knew I was looking for a clue, a sign of some sort while rereading D and N's story. I think I have found one in the inversion of the cast.

Having said that, I don't think I can start the retelling without preparation. Today's Jayary is the 250th of the year. Time to get back to the main story.