It’s a common story. Nothing special about mine, except that it takes place in a palace. An ageing wife gives up her figure for the sake of the kids and never gets it back. She has pride of place in the household, but she’s humiliated in her absence by mistress after mistress, weekly.
Like this new one, an authentically fair-skinned north Indian, no talcum powder needed. He must have been thrilled to find her that far south. He always had a taste for fair skin, flying his aerial chariot past the Himalayas to scavenge for milkmaids. Some of the girls he brings home look as white as albinos, with bizarre, sea-coloured eyes and hair the colour of dandelions.
How could I have ever satisfied, all by myself, with this one body made of nutmeg and sunset, ten husbands in one? Even one king would have kept a quota of co-queens and concubines. With Ravana, multiply that by ten.
Multiply by ten, too, a woman’s pleasure in his arms and arms and arms. One night, two whole years into our love, he finally felt close enough to me to show me his heads. He locked the door, clasped his hands, chewed his lower lip. He couldn’t bear to look me in the eye. ‘Ravana,’ I said, ‘tell me what is wrong.’ He said he wanted to show me his real form, but he feared my reaction. I said he could take off his face like a helmet and show me the head of a donkey, and I would kiss him on the lips.
Weeping with shame and hope, trusting me and me alone—none of the others; only me—he brought them all out. They slid out of his neck and lined up like books on the shelf of his shoulders. When they had all emerged, the row curved a little, extending well beyond his shoulders. They stayed together, against gravity, by the same miracle of physics that suspends a brick arch. He explained to me later how every head exerted a force on the ones next to it, and how the two bookend heads were conjoint at the earlobes.
I kissed each face on the mouth because they were all his. He was Brahma’s great-grandson. The trait of four heads had gotten amplified in him, thanks to the fresh infusion of his mother’s demonic blood. I knew—and he knew, after those ten true love kisses—that what he felt for his other women wasn’t love. This was love: Me luxuriating on my back, arms straight overhead, feet flexed; him turning himself so his leftmost head kissed my hands and his rightmost kissed my feet, and the heads in between kissed every other part of me. The arms came out a few minutes later. Several of his hands hadsixth, seventh, sometimes eighth digits—at the ends of his spider legs, smaller spiders. His twenty hands stroked all my skin at once, no part of me neglected. Loving Ravana in that form, I touched pleasure’s ceiling. My body’s sum total of nerves could take in, at one time, no sensations more numerous or more intense. Beyond that bliss lay moksha. I was yoked to him forever.
I wonder if this latest beauty, Sita, knows what she is missing by holding out. So many mistresses have come and gone, and my silly jealousy doesn’t get any better. Why be jealous at these transients when I stay on? She is holding out on him, and that inflames his desire.
She lifts her face from her hands and gasps at my dark face and arms.
‘You have nothing to fear from me, Princess Sita. I am Mandodari, Queen of Lanka.’ I wait. ‘No matter, you don’t have to stand.’
‘Is he here?’
‘You mean my husband?’
‘You were expecting a visit from him?’
‘Dreading one, more like it.’
‘You have nothing to fear from him.’ My eyes devourher
face with envy. Unplucked eyebrows, peeling sunburn on her arms, and she is still exquisite, like some illiterate village girl on a mountain path. ‘Of course, you know that. You seem to have gained a great deal of control over him.’
‘I live here in constant danger.’
‘Of what? Mosquito bites?’ I don’t like how she talks up her plight.
‘Of your husband.’
‘My husband? Has he so much as kissed you? Answer me.’
You held out, you made all these self-destructive requests, went on hunger strikes—and hehonoured all of your requests. He didn’t touch you. A man as impressive as he is . . . You should be ashamed.’
‘Ashamed of what?’
Playing innocent, is she? Ravana would never force her— it would humiliate him—so she knows she is safe, knows she can play games.
‘Let’s talk about something else. Do you have any children, Sita?’
She doesn’t answer me. ‘I have two. Indrajit and Akshaye.’‘Why are you here?’
‘I wanted to see you. I know he took a considerablerisk
bringing you here. I had to see what you looked like.’ ‘You have no idea what kind of risk he took.’ ‘You are well worth it.’ ‘Help me escape.’
Her audacity stares me in the eyes. ‘Escape? But this is paradise compared to where you were before.’
‘I don’t care about the pretty scenery. Help me get back home.’
What is her game here? She confuses me, not just with her words but her frenzied look. ‘Why would you want to leave Lanka?’
She shakes her head in disbelief and frustration. ‘Because I’m being held here against my will!’
‘I will not allow you to spread false stories about my husband.’
‘You know he kidnapped me, right? He threw me over his shoulder and flew off with me.’
‘A man as impressive as Ravana doesn’t need to kidnap women, married or unmarried.’
‘How is he so “impressive”? He visits me every so often and tells me the stories behind his scars. I’m not impressed.’
‘That jawline of his,’ I say defiantly. ‘The symmetry of his face. Admit it.’
‘You know what else is symmetrical? Karma. A bad king with a strong jawline will end up getting punched in the face by a good king with a strong arm. Karma is coming for him. Rama is coming for him.’
‘I think I will leave now, Princess Sita.’
‘Why did you come here in the first place? You can’t possibly be happy about my arrival here. You came here to see your latest competitor for the king’s time. His new obsession.’
‘Don’t flatter yourself. He is not obsessed with you.’
‘Does he visit you every afternoon? Does he spend two hours talking at the wall of your disregard? I don’t say a word to that boastful demon. “I beat Indra.” “I captured the Seven Sages.” Do I care? I’d catch a nap, but I don’t trust him.’
‘How—how rude!’‘Look there. More fresh flowers.’‘Roses,’ I whisper, by reflex. ‘I keep them to feed the deer. How many times has he
betrayed you, in all your years of marriage?’
'All your years? I stroke reflexively the places where I havecoloured my greys. Do I look so old? ‘This once, Queen Mandodari, why not betray him? And better yet, by betraying him, you’ll be saving Lanka. If you don’t care for that cause, consider how you’ll be saving your marriage, too. Because if I don’t get out of here and back to my husband in time, you’re going to end up a widow.’
‘Rama has no reason to harm my husband. You came here of your own will, after all.’
Sita rises to her feet, flushed and feigning indignation. ‘That is not true!’
‘My husband offered to take you up in his sky chariot— none of you young girls can resist it—and you agreed. Everyone in Lanka knows it. As soon as you got here, you insisted on holding out. What are your demands, anyway? Do you want him to make you First Queen of Lanka in my place? Keep waiting. It’ll take more than a mouthy Indian slut to oust me!’
‘Lanka is yours to rule over, you credulous idiot. Those are all lies! Who’d you get them from? Ravana?’
‘It’s common knowledge!’ I resist the urge to slap her effrontery; she has a feral look and a murky unwashed smell, and I fear my hand might end up bitten. ‘You were stuck in that cottage after your husband dragged you along into fourteen years of exile! You two were only married for what—two years? Not enough time to have a baby. If you’d had one, you could have forced Rama to let you stay back, for the baby’s sake, in the palace. But you didn’t have a choice, did you? Naturally, you were thrilled when a rich, six-foot-seven stranger offered to whisk you away. No one blames you for that. It’s this perverse holding out that strikes everyone asbase and scheming.’
‘I had a choice. I chose to join Rama in exile, just as Lakshman did. My sister was going to come, too, but Lakshman begged her not to—he feared she might divide his devotion. No, Mandodari. The only place I got dragged to was Lanka. Your husband abducted me. And he’s going to get his comeuppance soon. Nobody’s safe from karma!’
NOTE: This excerpt is published in collaboration with Penguin Random House.
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