I’d like to share something that I’d written a while back as my little ‘ommage to the master of humor, PG Wodehouse himself.
This is a re-telling of a story from Mahabharat, about Pitamaha Bhishma and my conjecture of how he came to take a terrible oath of celibacy. The tale is written in an irreverent Wodehousian style and might seem a tad too irreverent to some. My apologies if this offends you, though I do sincerely believe that it will not offend. I count myself among the many admirers of Devavrata who was renowned for his sagacity and resolve.
If you haven’t read Wodehouse, you must go out and get a copy of anything by him immediately. If you have read the master, I’m sure that you just raised your eyebrows on hearing the ‘Wodehousian writing style’ claim. I hope this brings a few smiles and maybe even a couple of laugh out loud moments. As for whether it matches up to its billing, I’ll leave it you to judge. There’s a comments section and I’m sure you’ll let me know.
The entire story is about 8,000 words or so long. To make this readable, I’ve split the story into five parts and will publish them on alternate days on What Ho! starting May 1. Here goes!
Devavrata: A Man of His Word
As the sun set over Hastinapura on another Friday, it observed the denizens of the proud city quietly winding down, satisfied with their week’s exertions. A cool breeze wandered curiously about the city, discovering its spacious streets and the nooks in its sturdy walls.
As the shadows grew longer, traffic at the Cosmic Eye, the local watering hole, began building. Regulars that evening would not have been surprised to sight the Venerable Vyasa at the bar, engaged as usual in discourse with cohorts. The Uninformed Reader might react with justifiable astonishment and raised brows upon hearing about the sighting of saints in hooch serving establishments.
“Venerable Vyasa, sipping margheritas in a tavern? Saints, with souls filled to their gills with bliss, seeking intoxication from the worldly Tabula Rasa? Rubbish, I won’t have it!” she may exclaim.
It is entirely possible that mention of venerable sages raises visions of extraordinary men with souls forged in the white-hot fire of experience and quenched in the ice cold clarity of wisdom. One rather imagines their lives to be filled with unperturbed calm, spent in hushed contemplation of the Great Illusion of Life, unyielding to the temptations that hold allure for ordinary mortals. But, the Uninformed Reader must note that even the souls of great men require the kind of solace that comes only from a jaunt to the nearest public house and indulging in a robust tipple every now and then.
That evening, the discourse among the venerable gentlemen had started predictably with a debate on the relative merits of Shruti and Smriti. By the third round of drinks, they had found their groove and settled into an intense discussion of the Brahma Sutras. As the evening threatened to age into middle aged maturity, the conversation unexpectedly veered towards the discomforting subject of the Modern Young Man.
“The days of gentlemen are past. Decency lies moribund and morals are deceased. There is no regard left for courtesy and honor. The Modern Young Man has even less regard for his word,” the Irascible Muni glared down at his Soma-on-the-Rocks.
“One must agree with this assessment. Morals have retreated into the shadows of obscurity. In these dark days of Dwapara, Dharma stands but on two legs”, sighed the Morose Maharishi as he beckoned a refill of his stiff Amrit-and-Tonic as though to pre-empt an approaching doomsday.
“While evidence suggests that the Modern Young Man is not on the straight and narrow, our pessimism might still be overdone. There is much good that is remnant. Why, my once removed step-cousin, Devavrata, comes to mind as a fine example of a upstanding Modern Young Man with impeccable morals and unimpeachable integrity. While Dharma stands on two legs, but two sturdier lower limbs we may not see for ages to come.” The quiet voice of Venerable Vyasa lent steadiness to the proceedings as he downed his third Tabula Rasa calmly.
Although temporarily intrigued, his audience listened with practiced disinterest and lack of conspicuous gusto. To men who look at proof and pudding as mere duality of the cosmic coin, enthusiasm does not arise easily. And, so Venerable Vyasa rolled on relentlessly, much like the chakra of time.
Dev, (did I mention that we are cousins) was the son of King Shantanu, and grew up a handsome, strapping young man. By the ripe age of sixteen, he wielded the bow with uncommon skill, and mastered the art of shooting through series of metallic rings into eyes of various aquatic and aviary species, blindfolded and with very little advance notice. He swung the mace with such natural grace that even poetry in motion might have a hard time matching his elegance. Nimble feet, brawny arms and a steely grip ensured that he was not to be trifled with in the wrestling pit. Ruthless gladiatorial skills with the sword belied his gentle nature and impeccable manners.
It is not uncommon for Mother Nature to withhold some favors to compensate for others that she bestows. The astute reader may have noticed that imposing height and muscles of steel are gifted to men resembling gorillas. Extraordinary beauty is cursed with inexplicable and tragic lack of sagacity. In the rarest of cases, nature breaks her own rules to demonstrate the containment of perfection in a single specimen. Tall, handsome and wise, Dev embodied singular perfection, and was the pride of Hastinapura and the envy of the Gods.
Even the godliest of lives are not immune to the surreptitious influence of Fate, who chose a breezy spring morning to make her presence felt in our young prince’s life.
It was customary for King Shantanu, once he had completed a light round of morning calisthenics and had followed it up with a heavy dose of carbohydrates, to develop an inexplicable craving to seize the bow and quiver, leap into the nearest chariot and dash off to the nearest jungle to fire a few rounds of arrows at the local wildlife.
Of life’s little pleasures, there are few that compare favorably with the thrill of the chase as crisp air fills the lungs. That morning, as the chariot crossed the jungle and approached the mighty Ganges, a strange noise filled their ears.
“Do you hear that?” the king enquired. “Does that not strike you as remarkably similar to the sound of an elephant gurgling by the river banks?”
“Yes, Sire, the resemblance is indeed striking. It is distinct gurgling that I hear,” replied the royal charioteer.
The king trembled in anticipation, as he drew an arrow in the direction of the unsuspecting mammal. A momentary doubt prevailed, and he paused to wonder.
“Or, then again, could it be an old man filling his pot with water?”
The charioteer paused and listened.
“Sire, now that you paint this different picture, it does appear entirely plausible that the sound emanating could be that of an elderly male engaged in the domestic chore of gathering water in an earthen vessel.”
“And if that were to be the case, it would be imprudent to fire off a few arrows in that direction, I’d imagine. I’m willing to wager that fossils are unlikely to react favorably to unannounced deposit of sharp metallic objects into their posteriors.”
“Sire, it will undoubtedly cause unpleasantness unwise if your arrows were to inflict damage on unsuspecting elders. Perhaps, you will be advised to remember old King Dasharatha, who found himself in an unfortunate predicament after having rashly discharged a full quiver without investigation.”
“Yes, I recall hearing that tale when I was a stripling lad. Wasn’t the old king cursed with lifelong rashes all over his behind or something equally foul?”
“Sire, the circumstances while similar in some regards to your recollection, differed in that King Dasharatha’s arrows struck an old gentleman’s son and caused his unfortunate demise. Upon which…”
“There it is again”, the king interrupted hastily. His interest in hearing the remainder of the sordid tale evaporated upon repetition of the gurgling audio.
“Sire, if I may suggest, you may consider proceeding on foot to gain full possession of the facts at hand. That may prove useful in choosing a course of action”
“Good thinking, my man. Take good care to protect that noggin of yours. It is indeed an object to be treasured. A fact finding mission is what this calls for. I will proceed on this stealth mission immediately.”
The king alighted and treaded cautiously towards the river, taking care to avoid rash collisions with lumbering pachyderms. As he peered out from the bushes, the landscape was distinctly devoid of wildlife. But it was not entirely devoid. His keen eyes caught glimpse of a female kneeling by the banks, engaged in filling her pitcher.
King Shantanu thoughtfully scrutinized the scenario, trying to note similarities between the kneeling woman and elephants to rule out any possibility of misjudgment. Although there was no prima facie evidence to support resemblance to elephants, the woman was undoubtedly robustly possessed of broad shoulders and ample girth. If a wandering poet had described her as a cross between an Amazon queen and a sumo wrestler, the king would have readily concurred, along with gifts of pearls and lapis lazuli.
As the king watched in idle curiosity, his heart thumped with an oddly increasing rhythm and his nostrils twitched in accompaniment as blinding insight dawned. His court poets often babbled about how the light spring breeze carried Cupid on its wings. As he gazed upon the serendipitous Amazon, the king knew that was no idle babble. The woman was a certified goddess in human form. Lesser men would have dawdled. But, Shantanu was not a dawdler, especially when confronted with goddesses in human form. He sprang lightly from the bushes and sauntered confidently towards the object that had possessed his senses.
Meanwhile, the Amazon had taken notice. She suspended her immediate activities and looked up in alarm at what appeared to be a rhino rapidly charging in her direction. As the unidentified charging object came within sight, she was relieved to note that she was soon to be in the neighborhood of a middle aged male, who appeared to bear the ravages of inordinate luxury and unrationed nutrition. Soon, a breathless king and the Amazon were within a range of proximity that allows conversation.
“I am Shantanu. Err, the king Shantanu”
The king broke the uneasy silence. The Amazon remained silent and unsure. It was jarring to be filling one’s pot one moment, and then look up to find the place swarming with kings.
[ To be continued. ]