Lanka is burning behind me. An entire empire made up of gold is now turning into ashes and a ghost. I try to calm myself, sink deeper into the leather seat of Ram’s Land Rover but fire and war both have a smell that demands attention one cannot avoid.
“That was some cool shit bro,” Laxman, my brother in-law, blurts out from the front seat.
“Yup,” replies Ram, my honorable husband.
There is a light shining in his eyes similar to the beam that blazed across his face the day he won me in Janakpur.
“When Sita reached adulthood, her father organized a betrothal ceremony with the condition that his daughter would marry the person who would be able to lift the bow that once belonged to Lord Shiva. Suitors from many kingdoms tried but failed until Ram lifted the bow with his left hand and broke it. Sita was then ordered to marry the victorious prince.”
There were arrows and a bow that day, too. No blood or bones, but that day too was a war of its own kind. Triumph, I suppose, is an obligatory virtue when you are a man and of his stature.
I suppose I should be joyous too. After all, my husband just rescued me from Ravan, the demon king. But there is grief in the air I am inhaling. Lanka is burning behind me.
“I hope they rot in hell now. All of them…” Laxman exclaims again.
His brother nods in agreement and pushes the accelerator harder. I can see him smirk even from the back seat. Ram, my husband, the epitome of morality. Ram, my husband, the epitome of piety.
An impulse to bathe in a cold stream is taking over me. I feel unclean, like a herd of monsters dancing on carcasses, eating decayed flesh and drinking dried-up blood. I want to vomit. Instead, I close my eyes. Sleep feels safer. There is no smoke there, no smell of burnt bodies.
I was in Lanka for five days and six sleepless nights before I began to notice it. Everything had been a fog until then. On the sixth dawn, however, the splendor of the place overpowered my anger, fear and everything else that came with being a woman under siege.
The first thing that stood out was gold, the abundance and the vibrancy of it. As a child, princess and then a wife to a man of royal lineage, I was accustomed to this metal. Golden bangles, necklaces, rings and bracelets filled my rooms, too. But no jewel in Janakpur or Ayodhya ever glowed like the gold in Lanka did. They were not just minerals but masses of miracles with lungs that listened to and loved whoever they chose. I remember shivering with cold and the golden wall in front me turning into an orange sun. I remember trying to starve myself and the golden chandelier above me melting into brown honey and dripping down my mouth. And I remember the many times when the golden curtains around me morphed into a yellow field of mustard plants. I had spent the happiest days of my childhood running into similar fields in Janakpur. The gold in Lanka, I promise, was alive and magical.
“Lanka was built by the divine architect for the gods but later seized by demons. Ravan’s palace was a massive collection of several edifices, each exceptionally beautiful and brilliantly constructed. Ashok Vatika, one of the gardens in the palace, was where Sita was made to stay, and was one of the most beautiful gardens of that time and a favorite of all the women in Ravan’s kingdom.”
Then there were the women of Lanka, each one of them more glorious than the gems they owned. These women walked around half-naked, heads held high, laughing loudly as and when they pleased. It was as if the physics of gender inferiority did not apply to their queendom.
The morning I met Shurpanakha, I was trembling with exasperation. Sister of Ravan himself, princess just like myself, yet a world apart from me. Her face was filled with dark patches, nails unkempt and hair barely on the head. She had the voice of ten old men and a belly that took up too much space. I saw her and thought, “How dare she?”
I felt a special kind of fury when she walked up to me next morning with her fingers full of priceless rings and her palms filled with self-esteem. Jealousy trumped fear. I spat at her and called her ugly. She laughed, loudly, with both her hands resting on her gut, and then lovingly left a plate of rice and coconut curry next to me.
The first time I saw Shurpanakha’s scorn was the following day. It was over the untouched plate of food sitting beside me. She ate all of it and looked at me with pity. She then threw the golden platter away and in her thundering voice screamed,
“Don’t you see how they want you to shrink?
Be thin, be gentle, softer, smaller,
‘Beauty’ is a synonym for how little boys feel big.”
I ate like a young boy that day, threw my bag of make-up, and learned to let laughter out of my body in its full glory.
“Do you want to change into something nice before people see you?” asks Ram, now in the passenger seat.
“I think I am okay,” I say.
“There is a mall around,” he continues and his brother drives towards the exit.
“Sure,” I say, and bid farewell to the women of Lanka. I imagine them frowning at me from the sky. I leave them there as clouds that choose their shapes, to spread and scream as they please.
The third splendor of Lanka, I do not have the courage to speak of. But if I did, I would have woven poems the length of the River Ganga for him.
“I wish we had brought that demon’s head back with us,” Laxman says.
“It would have been perfect for my display rack,” agrees Ram. “Ugly, but the generals would have loved it.”
There was compassion and curiosity and there were stars inside that head,
constellations and maps and men who made them.
There were gods inside that head.
And me, a little bit of me.
I bite my tongue.
“Ravan was the greatest devotee of Lord Shiva. He was also a great scholar, a popular ruler among his subjects, and a maestro of music. His ten heads represented his knowledge. He kidnapped Sita to exact vengeance on Ram and his brother Laxman for having cut his sister, Shurpanakha’s nose.”
The brothers celebrate their victory with more jests. I sink into the back seat. My head is full of questions. What if I had not left my ring for Ram to find me? What if I had asserted my desire to stay in Lanka? What if I had not rejected Ravan’s proposal? What if I had picked up the bow and an arrow? Whose heart would still have been beating and whose head would have become a war trophy?
My heart has answers that scare me. I imagine Shurpanakha laughing at me.
I do not have the mantra for bravery or the magic to travel across time. But if I did, maybe the finest gem of Lanka would have still been shining.
How to wash your shame away? The women in my bloodline carry this manual on our chests.
Take one bucket of cold water. Pour it over your head. Chant apologies at least three times each day. Replace God with your husband’s name. Get on your knees. Close your mouth, except when you are on your knees. Beg for forgiveness. Abstain from dreams. Swallow the names of all your lovers. Be clean for him. Be grateful for him. Never forget that he chose you when he could have chosen anybody else. Get on your knees. Repeat.
“Sita was an avatar of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. She was a paragon of wifely and feminine virtues. Her dedication, self-sacrifice and purity remain merits that all women are encouraged to reflect.”
“We are halfway home!” Laxman reminds us now for the third time.
“Let’s stop at the next gas station. I need to stretch,” Ram orders and Laxman obliges.
“Maybe there is a bathroom for you to fix your hair,” he continues and looks at me.
We stop at a gas station. I smell the air burning here too. The brothers get out of the car to stretch while I walk into the store. There is no bathroom on site for customers, so I just buy Ram’s favorite brand of chips with the last couple of bills I had hidden in my back pocket.
He thanks me with a peck on my cheeks. His lips are cold but I am thankful for the acknowledgement. It is the first time my husband has shown any sign of intimacy since our reunion in Lanka, or maybe even before. I try to calculate the days in my head. It had been months, even before I was taken to Lanka.
Maybe I am over-exaggerating. I have never been good with numbers, anyway. I tell myself that he is tired and that he is still in shock. After all, he just rescued me from Ravan, the demon king. I play a game of coming up with excuses. The better I get at it, the more successful my marriage seems. The women in my bloodline are good at this game. They always have been.
“It is not his fault,” I say. “I am a bad wife.”
We get in the car and continue driving. For the next couple of hours, I massage Ram’s shoulders from the back seat while he sleeps peacefully. I can tell because of the way he snores. I am good at detecting it.
Laxman drives quietly. We are halfway home. The empty packet of chips rustles next to me. I did not get to taste it. But it is not his fault, I remind myself. I am a bad wife.
The first time I saw my husband, I was overwhelmed with restlessness. Butterflies played hide and seek in my stomach and everything else appeared hazy. He was a handsome man with excellent taste in clothes and a keen eye for expensive shoes and foreign perfumes. My father bragged about his familial background. My mother gushed about the likes on his social media accounts. Love back then, I thought, was as simple as that.
So, when I was told to marry him, I happily obliged. I left my home for his, changed my name and my diet to match his mouth. I even followed him out of the palace and into the wilderness for fourteen years!
“When Dasharath expressed his desire to crown Ram, his second wife, out of jealousy, demanded that Ram be exiled into the wilderness for fourteen years. Ram accepted his father’s reluctant decree with absolute submission. He was joined by Sita and Laxman. When he asked Sita not to follow him, she said, ‘The forest where you dwell is Ayodhya for me and Ayodhya without you is a veritable hell for me.’”
I wore my wedding vows tight around my finger and sometimes even around my neck. I honored them out of respect to our relationship and to him…
“Can you stop making that stupid noise?” Ram yells.
“Sorry,” I say and stop humming. Laxman turns the radio on.
Do I love him? I have tried my best.
I lean forward towards his seat to hold him. He quickly moves away. Laxman turns the volume up.
When we stop at a gas station an hour later, Ram takes me to the side.
“We need to talk,” he says.
“Sure,” I reply.
The butterflies in my stomach are dead now. They have been for a while. Their skeletons now remain stuck in my lungs, making it difficult for me to breathe every day.
“We are home!” Laxman shouts, his body half hanging out of the car window.
The brothers get out and run towards each other. Ram hugs his sibling in a way he has never held me. The palace is adorned with flower garlands and candles. Signs that read “Welcome Home” are carefully hung everywhere.
I force a smile. It does not feel like home to me.
Laxman runs towards the front door. I fix my hair and try hard to fix my heart as well. Ram stands behind me and then gently grabs my wrist. This is the most tender he has ever been with me.
“Listen,” he says. “I don’t think you should come with us.”
There was a mountain next to my father’s palace. The General did not like it. He said it blocked his view, so he and his troops spent months mining it. This moment I am in right now, this is how the mountain must have felt before crumbling to dust at the hands of men who could not handle its enormity.
“You have been locked up by another man for far too long, and to be honest, I don’t think I trust you.”
“After reuniting with Sita, Ram asked her to undergo an Agni Pariksha, a test of fire, to
prove her chastity. He wanted to be rid of the rumors surrounding her physical purity.
When Sita plunged into the sacrificial fire, Agni, the lord of fire, raised her unharmed,
attesting to her innocence.”
“Then why did you rescue me? People died. Kingdoms fell to ashes.” Both of us are surprised: he by my questions and I by my ability to ask them.
“Now, I could not let another man steal my wife, could I? I cannot let the world think of me as a coward.”
“But don’t you love me?” I ask and regret it immediately. This is a frightening question.
“I have tried.”
Laughter erupts from where carcasses of butterflies lived. I let it out. I laugh the way women of Lanka had taught me, with my hands resting on my belly and until the tears smudge the eyeliner, leaving dark patches all over my face.
“You are crazy,” my husband says before turning his back to me.
He joins his family and I get inside the jeep. My pockets are empty but my palms are full of self-esteem. I drive. Clouds above me are screaming. They are spreading across the sky in shapes I cannot name.
Neha Rayamajhi is fascinated by religions, both as art and as political strategy. Some of her favourite writers are Toni Morrison, Laxmi Prasad Devkota, and James Baldwin.