Short story

The clay girdle

Print edition : June 21, 2019

The selected story is from “Puranic Tales for Cynical People” by Parashuram; Translated from Bangla by Pradip Bhattacharya and Shekhar Sen (Indialog Publications, 2005) and was originally published in Bangla as “Kardam Mekhala” in “Chamatkumari Ittadi Golpo” (1958).

Parashuram, the author, is the pseudonym of Rajshekhar Bose (1880-1960), a Padma Bhushan and Sahitya Akademi Award winner. With his battle-axe the pen, Parashuram satirised society, conflating the colloquial with the classical. He compiled a dictionary in Bengal, and wrote contemporary versions of both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Shekhar Sen, the translator of this story, retired as a Major General from the Army and is a Vishisht Seva Medal awardee. He has published articles in various books, journals and newspapers.

Vishwamitra and Menaka were sitting on the shore of Pushkar Lake. Menaka was combing her long flowing hair. Vishwamitra was sitting facing the opposite direction, and was immersed in deep thought.

After a long silence, Vishwamitra drew his brows, flared his nostrils and said, “Menaka, remove yourself from my vicinity. I can’t stand the smell of your oily hair.”

Menaka, too, frowned and said, “Oh, you can’t stand that smell now, is that it? Only a few days back you used to lie with your face buried in my hair. Do you have any idea what I apply to my hair? Dhanwantari has prepared this hair oil for me by mixing fifty different fragrances grown in Malaygiri, in coconut oil. Even gods, demons, gandharvas and men are bewitched by this fragrance, and you cannot stand it! Now why are you sitting there with a sullen face? Why don’t you say what is actually on your mind?”

Vishwamitra said, “You are a stupid apsara; you have no idea about the properties of matter. The best of fragrant hair oils gets spoilt when it comes in contact with humid air. Women may not have any feeling in their noses, but others do.”

“So, how is it that you didn’t get this bad smell till now?”

“I must have lost my mind. I, like a greedy dog, mistook a bad smell for divine fragrance; your crooked, poisonous snake-like plait appeared to me as a flowery vine; the unclean and impious touch of your body seemed immensely pleasurable to me. But that disgusting fascination has now disappeared. Menaka, I don’t need you any more. So get lost.”

Menaka said, “You lost interest in just six months, did you? When I came to your ashram, you dropped all your ascesis, lost control and became lecherous. But I carried out all the duties of an apsara without any desire and without hesitation. I suppressed my abhorrence and tolerated your disgusting hirsute mien, the vile touch of your hairy chest and the foul smell of your body which stinks like a tiger’s. O stout ex-king of Kanyakubja, you and your forces were thrashed soundly when you went to steal the cows of Vashisht. At that time you wailed, ‘Fie on Kshatriya power, the actual power is that of the Brahmins!’ Then you immersed yourself in fierce meditation to gain the powers of a Brahmin and become a Brahmarshi. But as soon as I appeared before you on Indra’s orders, your head turned and all ascesis went haywire. You could not protect yourself from a mere apsara. Perhaps now it is clear to you that even the powers of a Brahmin are nothing against the powers of an apsara; many sages have eaten dirt before us. So, listen to me carefully: give up your attempts to become a Brahmarshi and try to become an apsara.”

Vishwamitra said, “Foul-mouthed apsara, go away!”

“Okay. But what do you propose to do about the baby in my womb?”

“There can be no connection between me and the child of a divine prostitute. You will do whatever needs to be done.”

“I thought I knew all about the Vedas and the Puranas. Don’t you know that an apsara never rears children? We just slip away after delivery and that is the well-accepted norm. Rearing a child is the duty of the father and not the apsara.”

Vishwamitra hit the roof. He said, “You have wrecked my ascesis, clouded my judgment and ruined my character. Sinner, get out of here and take the sin that is growing in your womb with you.”

At this, Menaka picked up a lump of clay from the edge of the water of Pushkar and began rolling it in her hands.

Vishwamitra asked suspiciously, “What are you doing?”

She shaped the lump of clay into an elongated snake-like form and said, “Rajarshi Vishwamitra, I have carried your son for four months in my womb. I have to carry it for another five months. It is not fair that only I carry the burden of your evil deed while you freely roam around with a light body. You too have to bear a burden. Take this.”

Menaka threw the elongated roll of mud forcefully at Vishwamitra. It wound itself around Vishwamitra’s waist and hung there like a girdle.

Vishwamitra was startled, made a face and said, “Oh!” Then he tried hard to take the mud girdle off but without success. He jumped into the waters of Pushkar and rubbed at it with both hands in an attempt to wash it off but the deadly snake-like girdle did not melt even a little. It hung around him like a rope of snake.

A thoroughly dejected Vishwamitra came out of the water. But he did not see Menaka anywhere.

He sat down and again tried to resume his ascesis but could not concentrate. The unrelenting touch of the mud girdle disturbed his concentration and his mind became totally unsettled. He left his ashram and went on a tour. He travelled from the Himalayas to the south sea and bathed in the waters of many holy places but the girdle was indestructible. This way, five years and a half elapsed.

One day, while wandering, he reached the banks of River Malini. On seeing the clear waters of the river, unblemished like the eyes of a crow, hope rose in his mind. He put his upper garment on the bank of the river and went down in the water. He bathed and washed for a long time but nothing happened to the girdle. It neither dissolved nor budged. At last, very depressed, he started coming out of the water but could not, and sank into the mud up to his knees.

He was very scared and started shouting. In the forest nearby, three little girls were playing. One of them was aged five and the other two were seven or eight. On hearing Vishwamitra’s cry for help, they came running. They, too, began shouting and called out, “Aunty, aunty, come quickly, someone is drowning.”

Aunt Gautami was plucking ripe hog plums from a huge tree with a long hooked pole. She came running on hearing the girls. Coming to the river, she told Vishwamitra, “Don’t move or else you will sink further. This pole is pretty strong. I am sticking it deep into the mud, hold it and stay calm. Anu and Priya, run and bring the mat on which I sleep.”

In a short while, Anu and Priya brought the mat. Gautami spread it on the mud and said, “Now, slowly, put your feet on the mat. Don’t hurry. I am pulling the pole from the mud. Now, hold it carefully with both hands.”

Vishwamitra held one end of the pole. Gautami started pulling slowly, holding the other end and the girls held onto her waist. Vishwamitra gradually climbed onto the bank and said, “Gentle lady, you have saved my life. Who are you, kind lady? And who are these divine little girls?”

Gautami said, “I am Maharshi Kanva’s sister, Gautami. These two are Anu and Priya, Anasuya and Priyamvada, the daughters of rishis Pippal and Shalmal who live in the ashram. And this small one is Shaku, the adopted daughter of Maharshi Kanva. My brother’s ashram is on the bank of this river. Respected one, who are you?”

“I am the unfortunate Vishwamitra.”

“Oh! You are the royal sage, Rajarshi Vishwamitra! However did you get into this fix?”

Anu and Priya started jumping and singing, “Arre, Vishwamitra Muni has come re, Shaku’s father has come re, he will now take Shaku away re!”

Shakuntala howled, wept and clasped Gautami.

Gautami rebuked Anasuya and Priyamvada: “Shut up, naughty girls! Why are you scaring the little one?”

Vishwamitra asked, “Little girl, do you know who your father is?”

Shakuntala said, “My father is Kanva Muni and mother is this aunty.”

Anasuya and Priyamvada jumped up again and said, “Go on, stupid! Everybody knows and only you don’t! Your father is this Vishwamitra Muni and your mother is....”

Gautami punched them on their backs with her fist and said, “Get out from here. The Rajarshi’s clothes are wet. Go get some dry clothes from your fathers. And tell your mothers that a guest has come and he will eat with us at the ashram.”

Vishwamitra said, “There is no need of dry clothes; my upper garment hasn’t got wet and the lower garment will dry up on its own. And please don’t arrange for food, I am not hungry. Respected Gautami, where did you get this child?”

Gautami pulled him aside and told him in a low voice, “Menaka delivered her and left her on the bank of the Malini. Maharshi Kanva went for a bath in the river and found that a flock of swans, cranes and other birds were guarding the newborn child by spreading their wings over her. His heart was filled with kindness and he brought her to the ashram. Since she was protected by the birds or shakuntas, we have named her Shakuntala.”

Vishwamitra said, “Little girl, please come and sit on my lap.”

Shakuntala began to cry again and said, “No, I won’t. You are not my father, Kanva muni is my father.”

Vishwamitra sighed, “You are right. I am not your father and Menaka, too, is not your mother. You have no relationship with those who forsook you. You are the daughter of those who have looked after you since your birth. Young one, tell me, what kind of toy do you want? A silver swan or a golden deer or a peacock made of emeralds and blue diamonds?”

Anasuya pursed her lips disdainfully and said, “We hardly care! We have real swans, deer and peacocks.”

Priyamvada said, “Our swans quack, our deer jump and peacocks dance. Can your swan, deer and peacock do these things?”

Vishwamitra said, “No, they can only glitter. Shakuntala, come with me. A hundred princesses will wait upon you, a thousand maids will serve you, you will sleep on an ivory bed cased with gold, you will eat food which even gods do not get and you will play with your friends on jewelled grounds. I will make you the queen of a great kingdom.”

Gautami said, “How will you do that, may I ask? You have already gifted away your kingdom of Kanyakubja to your sons and become a sage.”

“Let my sons enjoy the puny kingdom of Kanyakubja; I don’t want to snatch it away from them. I will conquer the entire world and the seven seas by the power of my arms and my ascesis and make my daughter the empress of that kingdom. I will rule as her regent till she gets married. I will get her married to an incomparably handsome, gifted, strong and wise king or prince and resume my ascesis once again.”

Gautami said, “What do you say, Shaku, would you like to go with this Rajarshi?”

Shakuntala started crying again: “No, no, I won’t.”

Gautami said, “Rajarshi Vishwamitra, why are you developing an attachment to one whom you had forsaken even before her birth? You have no control over your senses. You lost your religious judgment in the case of Vashisht’s Kamadhenu, you became mad on seeing Menaka, now you are overwhelmed with affection on seeing her daughter. If you are keen on the welfare of this girl, then why are you bothering her? Let her be. Discard all feelings of attachment and go away.”

Vishwamitra said, “Shakuntala, will you come with me if I take your aunt with us?”

Gautami said, “What nonsense! Why should I go with you?”

“Respected Gautami, I want to marry you. Marry me and be a mother to my daughter.”

Anasuya and Priyamvada started jumping and shouting, “Aunty’s groom has come, re!”

Gautami said angrily, “Vishwamitra, you have become a lunatic and have lost all sense of balance. Don’t talk rubbish, and go away.”

Viswamitra pleaded tearfully, “Shakuntala, come and sit on my lap just once. I will immediately leave thereafter.”

Gautami said, “Go, Shaku, go and sit on his lap once. Don’t be scared. See how much he loves you!”

Shakuntala sat on Vishwamitra’s lap apprehensively. He put his hand on her head and said, “Little girl, may the gods, yakshas and rakshasas protect you, may the vasus make you as wealthy as the earth, may knowledge, beauty, fame, self-possession and forgiveness reside in you...”

Suddenly Shakuntala jumped up: “O my god...auntyyyyy...!”

Gautami was startled: “What’s wrong, dear?”

Vishwamitra stood up. His girdle of mud slipped and fell from his waist and wiggled about on the ground.

Priyamvada shouted, “Snake, snake!”

Anasuya said, “Non-poisonous snake!”

Gautami said, “Merely a water snake. See, it is slithering away into the river.”

Vishwamitra said, “It is not a snake; it is Menaka’s curse. It has finally released me after such a long time. Daughter, your divine touch has set me free from my curse, my sin and my grief. I bless you that you be a queen of a great king, and the mother of a great emperor. Revered Gautami, I am leaving. Let happiness be yours and let the memory of my visit be erased from your minds.”

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reprinted courtesy Indialog Publications