Vaikunth, abode of Devas.The bow felt awkward in his hands. He picked an arrow, remembering all the lessons that he had been given… repeatedly. The arrow quivered between his fingers; and before he could pull the bowstring and nock, the arrow went tumbling to the rocky surface beneath. Amongst the muzzled laughter of Devas, his father Brahma and his brother Prajapati were left indignant with the miserable display by their kin.
Brahma signaled to Suketu, the captain of his household guards. Suketu plucked the bow form Narada’s nervous hands, nocked the arrow with deft fingers, drew the string and released the arrow with a ‘thrum’ that resounded for a moment in the silent grove, and a bird dropped from the branch overhead. A cocky smile flashed across Suketu’s homely face.
Had Narada’s whole attention not been drawn to that weird ‘thrumming’ sound of the bow, he could clearly see the disgust in his father’s eyes and stifled chuckles of fellow Devas. Not that he cared much for the later.
“Prajapati, lead the party back to camps.” Brahma commanded, “And as for you Narada, you will stay here and practice with that fine bow till you manage to stop embarrassing yourself, of which you seem overtly fond of.”
Narada could neither hear his father’s command nor his derisive taunts for the strange thrumming sound of the bowstring was the sole object of his attention, and his whole being was echoing with it.
Pushkar 8½ months later-“Where have you been Narada?” asked Saraswati. She had been consumed by the preparations and had squeezed out one small moment of solace. She was humming a new raga, when Narada had entered her atelier.
“I was away…roaming…Mrityuloka (The land of mortals).” replied Narada feigning remorse.
“Again? You just can’t stay at place, can you? Your father would have taken you to task had he not been busy with this grand Yajna.”
“Yajna? Again? But why?” Narada asked, in an irked voice.
Because of your father’s ambition to be worshiped the way Shiva and Vishnu are, she wanted to reveal but thought better of it and said- “Your father has slain the demon Vajranabh and wants to purify the land before establishing it as his permanent seat. Shiva has Kailash, Vishnu has Ksheersagar, your father shall have Pushkar.” said Saraswati and regained the lost thread of enquiry-
“Don’t try to distract me Narada. What have you been doing in Mrityuloka?”“I have been busy developing a new musical instrument.”
“New instrument? Show me.” Saraswati got curious.
“Here you go mother, give it a try. By the way, I have named it Veena”
Saraswati smiled, observed the ‘Veena’ for a moment and plucked a string. A sweet note woke up yawning from the board, peaked for a moment and slowly mingled with the susurration of a distant foamy brook.
“This voice is so true and pure. This is almost the sound of the soul. But how?” asked Saraswati with a genuine surprise in her voice.
“I made it myself mother” replied a proud Narada. He could sense the approval in his mother’s voice.
“Really? Where did you get the idea from? You are lying, aren’t you Narada?” Saraswati asked, mussing his black hair.
“I never lie …to you. I got the idea from this bow” chuckled Narada showing a bow to his mother, and drew and release the bowstring in quick narrow successions, and the sound of ‘thrum-thrum-thrum…’ rang.
“See, mother? You get the idea, don’t you?”
Saraswati’s eyes widened with the dawning epiphany.
“Ingenious!” Saraswati exclaimed, bemused with his son’s melodious invention. “Tell me more”. The music had taken over. She had forgotten his wild ramblings.
“You remember that day; father had taken me to the woods. Archery lessons. You know how I am with those devices of war. Sire asked me to practice till, ‘I know how to hold a bow’. And hold a bow I did; but only to experiment with that sound. See…”
He again let go a resounding thrum from his bow.
“Then, I collected five bows and arranged them in order of increasing tautness, and mother, each bow produced a different thrum. The sounds had a pattern. I kept making changes and then… I could hear the nodes… and internodes.” He was breathless with excitement.
It became my routine to retire to the grove early in the morning and practice with my ‘bows’ till the night. As the hunting party moved from a jungle to another I continued my experiments.” Narada paused for so long as it took to quaff the chalice of ‘Madhupark’ that Saraswati managed to offer him between his (as she’s been doing since he was a boy) unending talks, and continued-
“I had taut my five bows together with a clutch and I had a crude instrument of my own. I wanted to play it. But you know father. So I went to the Mrityuloka. I met some wonderful folks over there, musicians, poets, raconteurs. I can’t figure out why we Deva care to condescend to the mortals; especially when their scholars are as learned as ours, their foods as delicious as ours and their Sura (divine wine) has the same sweetness as ours. Ma, they are highly friendly.”
“Friendly, eh? That’s how you put it?” a stern voice, thundered...
Narada took a fumbling turn to behold his father Brahma, accompanied by Prajapati and Indra.
“Friendly? Is that what you say? Friendly?” Brahma repeated the word in a tone that rendered the word an abomination, “Devas are not friends of humans. We are their gods, their benefactor, their patrons. We are supposed to be worshipped, not befriended by these mortals.” He looked down upon the mrityuloka.
Narada received all the talking to with filial ears and a resolute, rebel heart and unflinching gaze.
“Narada! Don’t say a word, please son. My lord…” Saraswati tried to intervene only to be sidelined by her husband.
“Enough of these never ending prattle! It was perhaps imprudent of me to expect of you to become a Deva worthy of the homage. I must have assigned you tasks in proportion to your abysmal capabilities. You’ll march with the ladies of the party, poets, jugglers and acrobats, and escort them safely to the Yajna site” Brahma decided, pointing to the south-west direction.”
With flaring eyes, and a heave of anguish, Brahma left with Prajapati and his retinue of guards. Indra however chose to stay behind. He approached Narada and parted his plump dark lips to speak- “Um…That ‘Sura’ of mortals, you were speaking about, perchance have you still got some of that with you?”
Narada just stared vacantly at his face with enraged eyes. Indra received the cue and proceeded to leave with his immense belly bobbing about.
Finally, at the Yajna site…The bleak night ushered a golden sunshine to herald the dawn of a day of hope. Mother Nature laced a filigree of divine mist over the Stream of Saraswati (river) in the valley, entwined like the chants of richas composed by pure hearted Rishis. On this beautiful morning, Narada approached the Yajna site and asked Pūsan, the lord steward of Yajna, to make arrangements for singers, acrobats and all other camp followers.
“And Devi Saraswati? I was led to believe she’d be reaching with you.” asked Pūsan.
“Well, she was supposed to, but being travel-sick she decided to rest along with Aunt Annapurna and Aunt Usha, at a grove not very far away. She will be here by the afternoon, well before ‘Muhurt’.” Narada replied. But the truth was that she decided to stay back for some hours in a nearby village, heeding the prayers of a local poor poet who beseeched her to accept offerings and listen to his compositions. Who, if not Saraswati, was ever so gentle of heart among Devas as to grant boons to so ordinary a Human. His mother was not called ‘the goddess of learning’ for naught.
“As my Devi wills. Oh! And your father requires your presence in the Yajnshala at once”, Pūsan departed with a friendly nod.
He moved to the Yajna pavilion to behold his father in a splendid armor of gleaming Ayas (high strength alloy), adorned with countless gemstones. To his right was a row of Devas at the head of which sat the obese Indra, sipping Soma from an adorned chalice, sharing a joke with the Apsaras. To his left was a row of some renowned and some not-so-famous bards, headed by Vashishtha who seemed to be basking in the grandeur.
Vashishtha rose and proclaimed, “I Vashishtha, son of supreme father Brahma, announce the commencement of this great Yajna to absolve the land of Pushkar. An Yajna, of unmatched grandeur. After it is concluded, Pushkar will be the greatest city the world has known, with her splendid ports on Saraswati on one side and a thousand wells, lakes and fertile lands on the other. As the protector guardian of this great city, my father shall be worshipped in the realm of mortals and immortals alike. All who second this proposal step forth and offer your ahutis (homage) in this sacred fire and sing to the glory of Devas.”
One obsequious bard rose after another, bestowing hymns adulating Brahma, venerating Devas, glorifying Soma and things that titillate Deva-senses. After the hymns were over, every bard offered gifts of fealty to Devas on behalf of their respective clans.
“O lord Brahma, accept this giant fish as my gift to you. Flesh of this one fish enough to fill many a bellies. These giant Jalkapi (dolphin) inhabited the depths of Saraswati. Never in living memory has this fish been sighted near the shallow waters. But what is it if not for your blessed arrival to this land that giant fishes are offering themselves voluntarily to dispel the hunger of your children, O supreme father!” said Shakti, a bard from fishing villages situated by the river. Brahma smiled feebly and raised his hand as a gesture of acceptance.
“O Nabhija! (One born from the navel) I offer you this basket full of white lotuses. Mighty Devas! Behold this miracle. Never in the living memory have lotuses bloomed in the waters of Saraswati. What is it if not one of the miracles inundated from your presence in Pushkar”, crooned the second bard with folded hands. Brahma accepted the lotuses with a grim gesture. He clearly didn’t like the epitaph ‘Nabhija’, a reminder of how he was regarded by some as inferior to Vishnu.
A third bard mounted the stage-
“O Hiranyagarbha! Allow me to offer these pelts of wolves, crocodiles, bears and tigers. What is it if not for your holy presence that these vicious savages, known for naught but afflicting grief on gentler species, are attacking and killing each other in hundreds and thousands by the shore of Saraswati. Now all their sins are absolved as their skins will decorate grand citadels built in your name.” said the third bard affirming his devotion to Brahma, while Brahma looked pleased for the first time.
All these offerings made in the name of hyperbolic devotion got Narada vexed. His mind refused to believe these unusual sightings of lotuses and peculiar animal behavior were results of the Brahma’s benedictory presence. Something was amiss. Narada’s thoughts scattered with the sound of next bard.
“O Chaturbhuj! I beseech you to accept this lamentation of swans I trapped near Pushkar Lake. What is it if not for your holy presence that this beautiful bird, which is your emblem, has decided to abandon the shores of Saraswati and swathed the lake” announced the bard, while the gathering of Devas let out a collective sigh of amazement eyeing the hutch filled with live swans. Brahma’s amusement was palpable.
Vashishth announced-“Now that representatives of mortals have proclaimed their obeisance, I invite Lord Brahma and his wife Devi Saraswati to mount their seats by the pure fire so that offerings can be made to all the Guardians of the creation (Lokpal).
Brahma mounted the seat and looked around for his wife only to find no trace of her. He looked at Prajapati with questioning eyes burning with anger.
“Where is mother?” asked Prajapati to Narada.
“She’ll be here soon, she promised.” replied Narada anxiously. “Just wait a bit.”
“This is an insult to this pious gathering of exalted Devas. How can we claim supremacy over three realms if we cannot perform the rites of Yajna well within auspicious muhurta. The wheel of Dharma neither stops nor waits for those too lazy to value the time” Brahma spoke in an impatient voice full of scorn “Prajapati! Indra! You go out there and bring the first lady you find to be seated by my side as my wife.”
“You can’t do this” murmured Narada.
Brahma stared hard at Narada with a chilling gaze that arrogantly retorted-“I can and I will”
Within moments Indra returned with a girl who seemed as bewildered as a sheep amidst a gathering of butchers.
“What is your name girl?” asked Brahma
“Gayatri” the girl sheepishly replied as Indra and Prajapati made her to sit by Brahma.
Brahma, ever the martinet, poured Ahuti in the sacred fire and the rituals began. Gayatri became second wife to Brahma.
Yajna was over; the smell of burnt sandalwood mixed with incorrigible stench of burning animal fat filled the air, choking Narada.
“Narada! You are a poet or at least some mortals consider you one.” Vashishth said, and the audience let out a loud sneer , “Would you not recite some or any of your odes in praise of our father and our glorious race, O brother dear?”
“Of course I will” rose Narada and mounted the stage, adjusted the strings of his newly invented instrument and began to sing-
Would a pillar of granite,
When it is over-burdened
Bend or buckle at any point
rather than splinter and fall?
Likewise the noble ones
when their honor is confronted
would lay down their very life
and submit not to the tyrannous.(A poem by Tamil poet Avaiyaar)
An ominous silence pervaded, to be pierced by slow claps. Every gaze turned to the entrance where Saraswati stood.“Splendid, Narada!” said a teary eyed Saraswati.
“Splendid? Hah! Sluggardly mother and rebellious son; always showering each other in mutual admiration. Have a seat, Saraswati. You can benefit from knowing that the Yajna is over you too shall be worshipped along with me.” Brahma said proudly.
“Oh! Dear husband, spare me this generosity. Unlike you, being worshipped has never been my ambition. And don’t build high hopes, for a person who cannot honor his wife and finds a new one as conveniently as one finds a goat or sheep, can not deserve to be worshipped.”
“Now a lady will decide whether I deserve to be worshipped? What would you have me do? Roam the land wailing for you like penurious Shiva or be tied to my bed besotted with you like Vishnu is with Lakshmi? Pushkar will be the greatest city with her magnificent port and fertile lands, a paragon of prosperity, richer even than Adiprayag established by previous Brahma. And I will be worshipped in three realms as her guardian deity, whether you like it or no.”
“There will be no ports, no fertile lands, and no wealth. O! my lord husband. You will be lucky even to be remembered within the confine of this place, let alone three realms. All you drunk with self exaltation may call it my curse. But it is an obvious truth the plain harbingers of which lay all around to be seen by those who have eyes to see. Saraswati will be dead before long. Yes, Saraswati will be dead!” Saraswati said with a half smile and a half wail, and left.
“Father, we must stop her” implored Vashishtha, “Did you listen what she said? She plans to die. It will be an ugly blotch on our face. Stop her.”
Narada knew better than to believe that a lively person such as mother would commit suicide. Then why did she mean? Obvious truth, the plain harbingers of which lay all around to be seen by those who have eyes to see…
And it all became clear in a moment…
“Hahahahaha…” Narada laughed at what he failed to determine was whether a comedy or a tragedy?
“Silence, Narada!” hissed Prjapati, only to rouse a new bellowing laughter.
“Hahahahha…you fools, you blind fools” Narada managed to collect his paraphernalia between his laughs somehow and got up to leave.
“You cheeky swine! How dare you laugh at me?” Brahma bellowed, “I denounce you. You are not my son. I will have your name expunged from the canon. You are not to set foot in Devalok…No one will worship you, there will be no offerings in your name…You hear me?” screeches of Brahma followed Narada for some distance and died out afterwards. Narada had left Devalok, laughing.
“You are a rebel, you know that son?” asked uncle Vishnu with a beatific smile dancing on his face.
Narada returned the smile and remained silent after long hour of narrating the tale of what transpired at Pushkar.
“Son, Devi Saraswati would have called me a fool, had she been present here, but I cannot help but ask, what did she mean by- Obvious truth the plain harbingers of which lay all around…” asked aunt Lakshmi, the docile wife of enigmatic man sheepishly.
“Hah! That is my mother, dear aunt, cryptic and obvious at the same time. You remember the hymns composed by those sycophant poets?”
“Tell me aunt, do lotuses flourish in moving water?”
“No, only in stagnant water”
“Does Jalkapi ever trod the shallow waters of the river shore?”
“No, such a giant inhabits the deep waters”
“Do swans abandon their habitat just like that?”
“No only when…” Lakshmi stopped as all the pieces fell in place.
“Water becomes stagnant, Jalkapi are found ashore probably to escape the foul water with lowered supply of Praanvayu (oxygen), lamentations of Swans immigrate to lake for want of fresh water. The signs are irrefutable; the truth is- Saraswati the river is drying. My mother is Vaani, the sound of the world, she will never leave the world voiceless. She is alright.”
“Be that as it may, Narada, but what do you wish to do rest of your life son?” enquired Vishnu scratching a mosquito bite on his arm.
“What I have always wanted to do. What I was born to do-roam the lands, compose music, tell tales…”
Narada looked at the calm, milky water of Ksheersagar Lake for a long time. A new tune sprung up in his mind. He adjusted his Veena, cleared his throat and recited a song of such sublime beauty that moved Vishnu and Lakshmi to tears.
Picture credits: Veena Player, By Maqbool Fida Hussain, Contemporary