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A Tale Told Well

When I was a child of three, I loved to be told bedtime stories like most children of that age. I was never tired of listening to that very moving episode from the Ramayan, which set in motion the epic narrative of how Rama became the ideal king of all time.

The tale was about young Shravan Kumar, who was so devoted to his aged parents - they were blind hermits - that he carried them to various pilgrimage centres for the purification of their soul. But it was not his devotion that endeared me to this lad. What inevitably brought tears to my eyes was his tragic death. And this is where we are introduced to one of the main characters of the Ramayan - the uxorious king, Dasarath, who was the father of Rama. Like all royal personages, he loved blood sport, and, one day, he entered a dense forest in search of quarry. Magic was a part of ordinary life then. Dasarath was carrying in his quiver an arrow, which, not unlike the heat-seeking missiles we read about today, could easily track down a prey by following the trail of noise made by the hapless creature.

According to the version of the classic tale I had heard, Dasarath's ears pricked up as he heard what he thought was a deer drinking water. Immediately, the king extricated from his quiver the arrow that targeted sonic waves and, in a matter of moments, the missile was flying towards the source of the sound. Dasarath was expecting to hear the last cry of his kill, but instead the silence of the forest was shattered by the heart-rending scream of a young boy.

The king ran to the spot from where the scream emanated and he found, to his horror, a bloodied teenaged boy lying on the ground, writhing in pain. Before he breathed his last, the lad told Dasarath that he had come to fetch water for his thirsty parents, and the sound his arrow gravitated to was the gurgling noise made as the pitcher was dipped into the water. He requested the king to carry the pitcher to his parents. Which he did.

The blind hermit and his wife were beside themselves with grief and anger as Dasarath begged for mercy acknowledging his mistake. But the blind hermit would hear nothing of that, and cursed the king that he, too, would feel the great pain and anguish of losing his son. And his curse came true.

While I found the tragic tale absolutely engrossing, I knew even at that early age that it was just a story. However noble the protagonist may have been, and however skilfully the verse may have been composed in anustubh chhanda, as the epic famously was, it was nothing but a piece of fiction. Whether it emanated from the imagination of either a single poet or several is debatable, but as Aristotle had explained in Poetics, such works are removed from reality. Even if for argument's sake one accepts that the Ramayan had a certain basis in reality, the verse that we read today transmogrified that as the creative juices flowed - like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. When Picasso said, "Everything you can imagine is real", he meant a different reality altogether. But like the characters in Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, some befuddled people confuse reality and acting, or to stretch the point, reality and fiction, and they find the two indistinguishable. All over the world, there are thousands who cannot tell religious texts like the Ramayan apart from history. When they do so deliberately, it could mean trouble. They want to perpetuate a lie.

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