A Play in Four Acts
Author’s Note: Tapasvi o Tarangini (The Ascetic and The Courtesan) was published in five consecutive issues of the magazine Desh in 1966, after which it was published as a book with minor changes and additions.
On its publication, a number of readers of Desh had written to me objecting to the dating of the legend. According to them, the myth of Rishyasringa was of the ‘tretayuga’ (the Third Age1), while that of Satyavati, Kunti, and Draupadi belong to the next age, the ‘dwaparyuga’, and I have therefore erred in making a reference to Satyavati and others in the argument between Angshuman and the court priest. It may not be the right place here to question the exact chronology of the treta and dwapa yugas, but it is accepted among scholars that the Rishyasringa legend is one of the earliest myths of the Indo-European family of nations. Therefore, I have no problem admitting the validity of these concerns. My position is–and perhaps many others readers might have guessed it–that I have mixed the borders of epochs fully aware of an intrinsic necessity demanded by the myth. The question cannot be brushed away that in ancient India it is unusual for a princess separated from her husband to marry again. In the fourth act, the royal minister is naturally agitated over this problem. It is in order to make the marriage convincing that I have cited the examples of Satyavati, Kunti, and Draupadi. It is not relevant here to discuss which happened before what; in truth I sought to show that according to ancient Hindu beliefs the marriage of Angshuman with princess Shanta was not unacceptable because the maidenhood of a woman could be restored by a boon from god or a rishi and therefore the royal priest was able to approve of the second marriage of the princess. Above all, it has to be remembered that much of this play has been imagined by me and has been arranged artificially so that an ancient story can also be reflective of the thoughts and tensions of our times. Needless to say, in this kind of reconstruction one cannot blindly follow the legend. Perhaps it is erroneous to call departures from the myth as errors. The Rishyasringa and Tarangini may have been inhabitants of an ancient age, but in my imagination there are our contemporaries; if this is accepted then no Mahabharata would be sullied2 if I make some characters from the Tretayuga refer to the Dwaparyuga.
–B.B. July 1966, Calcutta
*ŠñI’m looking for the face I had Before the world was made.’ –W.B. Yeats, from “A Woman Young and Old: II”
In the actions of the play:
Rishyasringa Bibhandak, his father Tarangini, a young prostitute Lolapangi, her mother Shanta, daughter of King Lomapada of Anga King’s Minister Angshuman, son of the King’s Minister Chandraketu, a young urban man Royal Priest Two Courtiers Women of the Village The Voices of Men, Women, Boys, and Girls Offstage Announcer Women Companions of Tarangini (non-speaking)
In the flashback:
Young Bibhandak (non-speaking) A Dancer in Diaphanous Dress (non-speaking) Women of Kirata Tribe (non-speaking)
[The lion-adorned capital gate of the Royal Palace. Part of the garden can be seen in the background. The village women stand in a line at the road running in front of the palace.]
Village Women: In the sky the unyielding wrath of the sun, it’s the red eye of Shiva, the lord of destruction, shining. Cracked is the breast of the earth, dry all the water beds, and the mute animals sway in weariness. Cropless the fields, childless the wives, day after day an emptiness–no rain.
The tongues of our sister-in-laws are our Grief and the Brahmin that we worship is our Death. Still we find some good in sansara3 and call the gods our friend– Because they fill our fields with golden corn, the breasts of mothers with golden babies; And the alliance of fire with water makes food taste like amrita4.
Tell us, sisters, when will the udders of our honeyed cows be radiant? When will the rhythm of hand and food on the husking-board make music? When will mushrooms bloom to garland the earth? And frogs croak in joy? And the pumpkin shine in the yard, beaded with drops of dew?
We live under the dominion of labor and seasons, thoughtless As the earthworm, the centipede, and the ground-crawling snail; As the tired tortoise leaping into the sea after leagues of sand – But now our days are empty, dusks without peace, being blank of labor.
Name us our sins, reveal what curse is upon us, O king of Anga! Earth O Mother, are we not also equal children of your womb? We cry for your mercy, Lord of the Sky and the Thunderbolt, Lord of Clouds –give us rain, give us rain.
[Two handsome young courtiers emerge from the gate]
First Courtier: Who are you? You appear to be village women. Why do you throng the doors of the palace? Why have you come to the capital? But why ask, for who is there in the kingdom of Anga who doesn’t know now that hopes are illusions, mirages our goals? Listen, many have come before you, but returned with nothing to pay for their labor except the toils of the journey. The granaries of the greatest grandies are empty. There is even a report that in the village of Tilangu three Brahmins came to eating the flesh of crows.
First Women: We had only come to inquire about the health of the king.
Second Courtier: [After exchanging glances with the other courtier] So the rumor has reached their ears. Phooey! It is all a delirium, the raving of fearful deranged minds. Let no one give credence to this lie that the King is sick, that the king is dying! There is absolutely nothing wrong with the health of King Lomapada, except that his heart is as full of grief as yours.
The Women: Victory to the King!
Second Courtier: Remember, it’s because of what little is left in the King’s granary that your immortal soul is still beating in your breasts. But if you ask for two fistfuls of grain instead of one we will not be able to ward off the messengers of Yama . Remember, it is wiser to have an half empty belly than a full one in times of crisis. Abstinence is wisdom in times of famine. Remember, even the Munis recommend a sparse diet. Now you have heard all there is to say – go back!
Second Woman: Son, we are in dire straits.
First Courtier: We are in more dire straits. You have guessed by our manner and looks that we are royal courtiers. Our days, nights, health, and all our lives are property of the King. At his command we journeyed to the furthest ends, to Bangadesh, Kamarupa, Kalinga, even as far as Tamralipti . We rode on lightning-fast steeds to the ends of the earth. We provided feasts to mosquitoes at night, were roasted all day by the pitiless sun. There was no time to rest; like spurs to the side of a horse was our sense of duty. Thin with fever and dysentery, plagued by sleeplessness, eating bad food and bad water, we took the King’s message to court after court: ‘The august King Lomapada salutes you. Due to an unprecedented drought his kingdom is threatened with an imminent famine. If it is in your powers to send relief, pray do so out of the affection you bear for our King. The King is willing to pay for the food with gold from his treasury.’ The foreign kings were not without sympathy, rather it seemed to us that with their help man would be able to overcome the wrath of the gods. They sent an adequate aid both by land and by sea, but – in the end it’s the gods who won.
Second Courtier: The aid sent by Bangadesh on the backs of buffaloes was taken by bandits along the way. A storm wrecked the ships from Tamralipti. The porters from Kamarupa became tiger’s food. There was a caravan of a hundred bullock carts from Kalinga; it was ravaged by a mysterious cattle plague midway.
First Courtier: The highways are infested with bandits.
Second Courtier: The village edges have become the range of wild predators.
First Courtier: I have never seen so many dead cats–
Second Courtier: Haven’t heard foxes baying so eerily.
First Courtier: The astrologers send messages from their tall towers that signs of clouds have appeared in the Southeast, or is it the Northwest? But perhaps it is because of our hot breath that the clouds disappear.
Second Courtier: The sky above Angadesh has turned to stone, while it is raining heavily in the kingdom of Panchal; and in Pundradesa the rivers have swelled to flood the entire land.
Third Woman: What wrong have we committed? Why is the Cloud Lord merciless?
First Courtier: Alas! With all this smoke from the sacrifices rising day and night towards the heavens, could not one small cloudlet be allowed to form?
Second Woman: What wrong have we committed? Why are the deities turned away?
Second Courtier: Fasting for three nights, the Queen and her three hundred court maidens have observed the Mahaparjanyavrata7 ceremony, but there was not one drop of rain from the heavens.
First Woman: What wrong have we committed? Why this punishment?
Third Woman: My gout-ridden husband is an invalid, but I, a young girl, have served him dutifully in bed.
Second Woman: I have not turned any guest from my door.
First Woman: I have gone without drinking water until I could pour an offering to Shiva lingam.
First Courtier: You are stupid! Women, you are stupid! Each of you stand to be punished for your own sins, but don’t you know for whose sins entire populations are visited?
Second Courtier: [Nudging the First Courtier] Stop, you’re talking too much. Such words in the mouth of a courtier are seditious. [To the women] Do not waste your time here. Go home. The virtuous King Lomapada will look after you. Have no fear.
Women: We bow to you, we bow to the King.
[The women leave.]
First Courtier: ‘The virtuous King Lomapada will look after you. Have no fear.’ Do you have any idea of what you just said?
Second Courtier: Is there any harm if they find some comfort in soothing words? Steadfast loyalty to the King is our first necessity.
First Courtier: My mind is wandering today, it is home to doubts. If the King is virtuous and in full health, then why this infliction on his subjects. Listen, what you said to the women, ‘There is absolutely nothing wrong with the health of King Lomapada,’ is that true?
Second Courtier: I don’t know. But they did not come for truth, they came to be comforted and–aren’t we also in need of some? And aren’t we two, on this day, equally in need?
First Courtier: Do you give any credence to the prognostications of the prophets?
Second Courtier: Prophets? [Laughs.] Haven’t you heard of what happened in the land of the Ionians8? King Agnimanikya, on the advice of his seer who could divine into the future, sacrificed like an animal the daughter of his own loins, Phenovangini. And then, returning victorious from battle, the moment he steps foot onto his kingdom his unfaithful queen Aclamasree kills him like a trapped bull. And then the death of the sinning mother comes from the hand of the young son Arista. What terrible murder and a vengeance even more terrible! What a disgusting outcome to a seer’s prophecy!
First Courtier: I have heard that in Ionia the gods are cunning and vengeful, but in our Aryavarta the gods are inclined to give boons even to their enemies the asuras. Therefore, I am unwilling to accept that the destruction of Angadesh is inevitable.
Second Courtier: But what if the gods are figments of man’s imagination?
First Courtier: Shame you on, sinful words.
Second Courtier: Supposing that there is no dharma, that the shastras are mere fiction and all our claims to knowledge and light are willow-wisps.
First Courtier: But karma is real. Even if the gods and the Vedas deceive, karma is forever. And what we call fate is only another name of the consequences of karma . . . I hear that our royal priest has at last received a message from the gods.
Second Courtier: A rumor, mere rumor.
First Courtier: But how to dismiss a mere rumor? Give me your honest opinion. Is it credible that this terrible punishment is because of the indignity that King Lomapada inflicted on a Brahmin?
Second Courtier: [With a wry smile] Then it is equally conceivable that if I kick this stone a star will fall off the firmament. Who else but a parasitical and fraudulent Brahmin would spread such a rumor?
First Courtier: But don’t you agree that there is no consequence without a cause? You have to admit that this drought is not just an accident. If we could discover the cause then it should also be possible to find a solution.
Second Courtier: Coincidences happen all the time. How often do we mistake a dream for reality? Who can know for certain?
First Courtier: What nonsense – there is no certainty? Do we not bleed when stuck by a dagger? Does not disease swell from sin? Expiation is as sure a cure for acts of sin as the body getting well with the right medicine, as fire being quelled by water. What’s easier than this? What makes you laugh?
Second Courtier: What amuses me is that the sin remains unknown, the expiation undiagnosed, but there can be no doubt about the reality of this famine.
First Courtier: [After a pause, in a low voice] The sin is no longer unknown. The curtain has been removed.
Second Courtier: [Jeeringly] The curtain has been removed, unveiled by the royal priest?
First Courtier: [Looking around, in a low voice] Listen, I refrained from telling you before. Have you heard the contents of this new message from above?
Second Courtier: Is it any good news?
First Courtier: If what I have heard is true then once again there would be proof that there is no difference between the outcome of karma and destiny. It would be proven that just as the King’s subjects are the victims of his karma, so too the material world bends to the will of man.
Second Courtier: The possibilities are infinite; nothing is inevitable.
First Courtier: If what I have heard is true then delivery for Angadesh is at hand and our deliverer will be a prostitute.
Second Courtier: Is this the time for such jokes?
First Courtier: Very timely indeed. History is replete with instances of the great deeds of prostitutes and courtesans. It is because of these women that the danavas were repeatedly defeated in their attempts to conquer heaven. Time and again, ascetics who had gone too far out on their white-hot tapasys9 were brought back to the realms of Nature by such women. It is because of them that the gods did not lose their kingdom and heaven and earth remain in balance. Don’t forget that the first mother of the house of Bharatas was the daughter of a prostitute. Even during the destruction of the demon brothers Sunda-Upasund, the great god Prajapati10 . . . [But suddenly catching his breath] Come here, look, can you see?
Second Courtier: They seem to be coming this way.
First Courtier: The Royal Minister – accompanied by the Royal Priest. Deep in consultation, their heads bowed – but no, there the Royal Minister is looking up at the sky – his visage is brightening, a light of hope appears on his lips – so my conjecture wasn’t wrong. Come, let us stand aside, they’re nearly here.
[Enter the Royal Minister and Royal Priest. The Courtiers bow before them.]
Royal Minister: Sushruta, Madhavsen11.
Courtiers: We are at your command.
Royal Minister: Escort the courtesan Lolapangi and her daughter Tarangini to our presence here immediately. Go and tell them they are needed in affairs of state. Don’t let them waste a moment. There is a fine carriage at the side of the garden. We are waiting.
First Courtier: [As they leave, to the Second Courtier] What now? Are you a disbeliever still?
[Exit the two Courtiers.]
Royal Minister: I sent invitations to over a hundred prostitutes; all of them drew back in terror. I hadn’t an inkling that the boy of an ascetic could be held in such awe. But there is hope still; the mayor of the city has just informed me that of all the courtesans in Champa City the prime jewel is Tarangini. In beauty, in charm, in wiles, she is without peer. She has been tutored by her mother since birth in all the arts. It is said that, coached by Lolapangi, even ugly women with bad teeth can make a rich man part with his wealth. And here is Tarangi, who by herself is a born charmer. Her waves will melt Rishyasringa just as peaks of snow yield to the warm south wind. Like an elephant in heat is snared by hunters and lured to their secret pit these courtesans will tie him up in the cords of lust and bring him to the seat of the King. Inside the palace, Princess Shanta will await him with the wedding garland. Your holiness, tell us that we will be successful in our scheme.
Royal Priest: Impotent today is the King of Anga, his virility is ended. That’s why dusty and dry is the earth, and the heavens cloudless. Not a drop of semen in the testicles of him who is the lord of the kingdom. Therefore, stopped are the seasons. No harvest, no calving cows, no child of man.
The same thread running through all of them–stars to grass, The immortals friendly and inimical, the drinkers of Soma12, the sower, the reaper; The same thread runs through the embryo and the sapling, the egg-hatched, the spore-born. Therefore, a wrench in the wheels of harmony–in pain is the universe.
The primal source is water. It is the same cycle running from sky to ground, The same in semen and rain, in mountain streams and a woman’s uterus; It is water which gives birth, gives food, revives plants, juices the inspiration. That cycle being broken–in agony is the universe.
Vritta13 once imprisoned all of the waters of the world, Just as pirates seize the pilot of a ship or a caravan’s navigator. Wasted as the wealth of a miser, the breasts of a barren woman, Lay that imprisoned water, still, bottled in a cavern.
With a cast of his thunderbolt Indra cleft the rock, freeing the water. Out rushed the seven oceans, the flowing waters returned; As herds of cows emerging, the rain emerged from its cave Multiplying the rivers like the wealth of a gambler lucky at dice.
Once again in Angadesh the water is penned; free it, Release the lightning bolt, unblemished and dazzling; Bring out that thunder-like masculinity at its fiercest youth.
Let the sword rise straight, shooting out a stream of semen.
Virgin – innocent – is Rishyasringa the boy – Take away, destroy, his damming virginity. If the kingdom is bankrupt then plunder the wealth of the ascetic, Let man and woman be drenched, scattering seeds, releasing the land’s genius.
[Exit the Royal Priest. Enter Princess Shanta from the other side.]
Royal Minister: Shanta, you’re here? Why at this deserted end of the garden? Where are you companions?
Shanta: I have come to you with a request.
Royal Minister: You, princess, are like my own daughter. It is my pleasure and duty to yield to your command. Do not hold back from opening your mind.
Shanta: I hear that the gods are opposed to celibacy and chastity and that these two are plaguing Angadesh.
Royal Minister: Yes, so I hear as well.
Shanta: Is that why my father’s kingdom is accursed?
Royal Minister: That is also the reading of the Royal Priest.
Shanta: Then it is most desirable to bring this to an end.
Royal Minister: We are taking the necessary steps to remedy the situation.
Shanta: What arrangements? [After a pause] Father, I too am a virgin.
Royal Minister: [Smiling] Be content Shanta that we are engaged at this very moment on arrangements for you marriage.
Shanta: My marriage! And it is all being done without my knowledge?
Royal Minister: Young, handsome, innocent, desirable, admired even by the gods–you are soon to be wedded to such a man.
Shanta: Who is he?
Royal Minister: Perhaps that auspicious moment is at hand when you shall be one with him.
Shanta: May I have his name?
Royal Minister: I will not keep it a secret from you. He is the ascetic Rishyasringa.
Shanta: Rishyasringa? I have heard that he is wedded to celibacy!
Royal Minister: The sages say that it is impossible to know the Brahman14 unless you have been exposed to the primal energy.
Shanta: Is it only as a step to the Brahman that he needs me?
Royal Minister: Is there such a man who doesn’t ever desire to fall into the embrace of Prakriti15?
Shanta: Father, I am not Prakriti. I am Shanta, just a young woman. I’m no different from a peasant’s wife in either body or mind. I too want a husband, children, who are home–want love–its fruits and its bondage. I want the steady fulfillment of my faculties of affection and service. What if after making his ritual offering to the primal energy Rishyasringa leaves me in quest of the Brahman, compared to which he may think woman are trifles and family mere illusions?
Royal Minister: Darling, if Savitri could secure the return of her husband from the region of Death, will you not be able to prevent yours from leaving?
Shanta: No uncle or father chose Savitri’s husband for her.
Royal Minister: [After a pause] Are you then opposed to this proposed wedding with Rishyasringa?
Shanta: Father, I want to have my swayamvara16.
Royal Minister: An assembly of suitors now, at this crisis?
Shanta: I seek no assembly; there is no need for a crowd of suitors. There is one in our Angadesh who loves me and in my mind I have already accepted him.
Royal Minister: This seems to be an upstart with ambitions far above him.
Shanta: Not ambitious–a lover. Not aiming above him–indeed he is desirable. Father, he is your son Angshuman.
Royal Minister: Angshuman!
Shanta: Angshuman and I have set up a kingdom of youth where our minister is the heart, our general the shared affection, our treasurer our devotion, and our subject people no other than our glances, laughter, conversation, dreams, and plans for the future. It is my prayer before you that you follow your virtuous and affectionate nature and unite me with Angshuman in marriage.
Royal Minister: Nothing could have been more desirable to me.
Shanta: Consider this, I am the only offspring of King Lomapada and his kingdom is pledged to my husband.
Royal Minister: You are more valuable to us, O beautiful one, than all the kingdom’s wealth.
Shanta: Consider this, Angshuman is endowed with all the good qualities and I too was not born under a feeble star. You are my father’s well-wisher, friend, and his chief minister. The union of our two families will make the kingdom stronger. If you are a true patriot of Angadesh, if you bear affection for your son and your friend’s daughter, then surely this marriage must seem to you most desirable? But why do I not see the signs of happiness on your face?
Royal Minister: Admirable your proposal certainly is, O princess, and for my part better than I could have wished for.
Shanta: Why are you surprised? Is it not the right of Kshatriya woman to be able to choose her husband?
Royal Minister: What you say is true, princess.
Shanta: My parents are not unaware of my choice; they have agreed. It is now your turn to bless me as your future daughter-in-law and let us wed without delay. Bless me so that with the sacrifice of my virginity Angadesh will be green again.
Royal Minister: I bless and pray Princess that yours be a gift of well-being for Angadesh. Let your hymeneal ceremonies lead to the lifting of the curse from Angadesh.
Shanta: You had brought up the name of Rishyasringa before–
Royal Minister: At that time I was unacquainted with your sentiments.
Shanta: I swear to you that I will not share the bed of anyone but Angshuman.
Royal Minister: Your remark will remain imprinted in my mind. I will consult with the Royal Priest as to the hour of your wedding. Calm down Princess; go back to the palace and rest. I am a well-wisher of both you and the kingdom of Anga.
Royal Minister: Egotism, selfishness, complacence, these are the qualities that we often call love, simplicity, goodness of heart! Young Shanta inexperienced in the affairs of the world, mindless as a female bird in spring, eager for Angshuman’s embrace. How am I to drive it into her head that the man of destiny for Angadesh is none other than Rishyasringa! And the maiden marked as the medium of receipt of his boon is Princess Shanta, no one else. There can be no questioning of the message from above and no defiance of the Royal Priest’s edict. I see that there is now a need for caution on all sides. We must separate Shanta and Angshuman. Who knows if these two might not be the ruin of our great project, for their vision is clouded by the heat of Nature and they are eager like children for person gratification? What if Angshuman gets wind of our enterprise and elopes with Shanta to another land? In their situation such a stratagem is likely, and indeed they have many a precedent in the heroic Kshatriya tradition. This very night I will have Angshuman imprisoned; a few days spent behind bars will do him no harm. The palace women will have to keep a sharp eye on Shanta so that she is unharmed and ready when Rishyasringa arrives. Our sole hope rests with the courtesans. If Tarangini’s fame does not lie, if Lolapangi’s greed for money is still aflame, then once again Angadesh will be prosperous, no one will go hungry or be in need. The cheers of the people will gladden the ears of King Lomapada and his courtiers. It will be Tarangini who will initiate Rishyasringa into the mysteries of sex; and the benefit will be reaped by Shanta. Once the flames of desire are lit they are not easily put out. So, the courtesans are our only hope.
[Enter Lolapangi and Tarangini escorted by the two Courtiers]
Royal Minister: Welcome! Is all well with you?
Lolapangi: We are still alive, O lord. We are just surviving; we count it our good fortune, my lord, that even in such hard times we have not been reduced to our bones. May we ask what made your lordship remember us?
[At a signal from the Royal Minister, the two Courtiers go out.]
Royal Minister: So this is your daughter Tarangini?
Lolapangi: Your slave.
Royal Minister: I hear that you have made her skillful in every art.
Lolapangi: My lord, how poor are my talents, but I have not flagged in my efforts to equip my daughter – for which mother can let her child go by the wayside? Allow me to list the arts that I have taught her: cultivation of beauty, care of health, bathing, physical exercise, all the rules of a good diet; dress, makeup, and jewelry. She is a connoisseur of gems; she’s well rounded in the philosophy of using perfumes, garlands, and flowers; she knows how to keep the skin glowing, eyes bright, and breath sweet; knows which foods do not lead to a gain in weight and which wines not to drunkenness; knows how to sit, stand, walk, lie down, and sleep beautifully so that even in slumber ungainly postures are avoided; and knows what lilt to imbue her voice and accent with so that her talk is mind-stealing.
Royal Minister: Has your daughter read any of the scriptures? Is she conversant with religion?
Lolapangi: My lord, I was not at the end of my list. The cultivation of beauty is only the beginning. It’s followed by a little grammar and poetry, a little economics and logic; the rituals of puja, festivals, and fasts; the rules of probability in games of dice; dance, singing, acting; how to make every gesture, every movement and glance attractive; and how to spread the word from mouth to mouth through frauds, beggars, astrologers, and holy men that there is no one like her. In the last stage come the erotic arts. Advances, withdrawals, glances, sighs, tears; the skillful use of smiles and sidelong glances; which charm to use on a lover gone cold so he falls again at her feet, so the miser’s gold adorns her body; which strategy to use to provoke envy amongst her clientele so that her value rises and how to make seven dandies dance around her, tied to the her sari ends.
Royal Minister: Your daughter then is also adept at deception?
Lolapangi: Deception, my lord? We do not call it deception, we call it our living. How would we ever survive were we unable to smite with the sharpest words the gentleman caller who is tight-fisted with his wealth? Again, it is in our interest to serve a handsome, virtuous, young man, who may be a pauper at the time, but in future may bring us money. Depending on the occasion we are jars of honey or pots of poison. I have taught Tarangini all my secrets. When a man lavishes his fortune on her she is like a mother to his daughter, is flattering to his wife, and lavishly tips his maidservants; but if ever the man tightens his fist then neither the wife nor daughter nor servants escape the lashing of her tongue. It is not for me to brag, but I can claim that I have been able to make her fulfill some of the promises of pleasure and service that God had endowed her with before sending her to the earth. And in this effort I have spared no toil, no time, no money – God is witness to that. After being summoned to you today I have a feeling that my long struggle is coming to a successful end.
Royal Minister: Tarangini, can I ask you a question?
Tarangini: I feel honored by your attention.
Royal Minister: Are you attracted to any one person?
Tarangini: My religion is to serve many.
Royal Minister: Isn’t there any one man to whom you would give your all?
Tarangini: Lord, what is this all that I can call my own? Only this body! And who has not had possession of it – save of course the diseased, the insane, the eunuchs, and the beggars? I have all my wares for any who will pay me the price, be he Sudra, Brahmin, old, young, handsome, ugly–to me all are equal.
Royal Minister: Have you never been partial to anyone, ever, at all?
Tarangini: If ever any such sinful thought strives to enter my mind I shut it out with all my will.
Royal Minister: I want to entrust you with a mission.
Tarangini: I am slave to your command.
Royal Minister: Across the river Ganga, right on the border of the kingdom of Anga, a young man is practicing the severest ascetism. From birth he has been a forest dweller, from birth he has not known the company of outsiders. He has never set his eyes on a woman and the only male that he is familiar with is his sternly dogmatic, rishi17-like father. I have got it from travelers that so innocent is this young ascetic that although there is no lack of animals at his ashrama he doesn’t even know the secret of their birth. Because of a certain need of the State the flame of desire must be lit in his body and he must be brought here to the capitol, to Champa City, in the high heat of desire by you and your companions, who are as your golden train – can you do it?
Tarangini: Lord, I’m tickled by a curiosity. Did this young celibate not ever set his eyes on his mother or the wives of any other sages?
Royal Minister: I heard that his mother died in childbirth and his father’s ashrama is remote; there are no others nearby.
Tarangini: What’s his name?
Royal Minister: He is the son of Bibhandaka-Rishyasringa.
Royal Minister: Tarangini, so you too are afraid of him?
Lolapangi: Forgive her my lord. Who will not shrink at the very mention of Rishyasringa? Although we are courtesans by profession, we are mere women. All we own is our bodies – unlike the heavenly dancers Urvashi or Menaka, we haven’t been granted immortality by the gods. One look at me will tell you that we are not endowed with eternal youth. What if the son of the rishi blasts her with a curse? If he says, ‘Go! Turn into a crocodile!’ and what if Tarangini, the apple of my eyes, the beloved of merchants, millionaires, and princes–the all-adored Tarangini–now turned into an ugly and repulsive crocodile slowly vanishes into the waters of the Ganga? If the puranas are true anything can happen.
Royal Minister: Do not waste words. We will pay you one thousand gold coins.
Lolapangi: My lord, the receptacle of all the virtues, O ocean of pity! Do consider our predicament. The king of the gods is the protector of Urvashi, the married wife can take refuge in her home, but we are common women. There is no one to look after us. Just consider the number of our enemies: the burglar, the fraud, the pimp, the conspirer, the bandits; disease, decrepitude, old age, sudden death. If we deny a male, his anger is like a viper’s. If we give company to the beau of a woman of our trade her anger surrounds us like a forest fire. Every moment we have to be on the alert; we indeed walk on the razor’s edge, one slip and we disappear into the abyss.
Royal Minister: One thousand gold coins and vehicles, beds, gorgeous dresses, gorgeous jewelry.
Lolapangi: Lord, the abode of mercy, the high priest of religion! Our very being, bedded by many, denies us the roof of any. We have no past, no future. Our only hope is that in another world we can dust the feet of the god of animals, Lord Shiva. There is no prostitute who is not gnawed by the thought: ‘What will happen to me if I get pox and turn ugly? What if I become paralyzed? What if our youth slips away as it does in the time it takes to blink? And then? Or what if I live to an age when I am a hag with my skin hanging from my bones? From where will my next meal then come?’ Lowly though I am, even I had a small nest-egg, but I spent it all on rearing Tarangini. Now, my daughter is my capital. My lord, we are quite willing to risk death at your order, but what if we survive the danger and live long? Then we need a pile.
Royal Minister: Five thousand gold coins!
Lolapangi: To break into the meditation of Rishyasringa? To make a mountain fall? To set fire a snow-clad peak – Tarangini, can you do it?
Royal Minister: Ten thousand gold coins, and carriages, beds, furniture, dresses, jewelry! And pearls from Ceylon, gems from Vindhyachal.
Lolapangi: Blessed are we; you are our boat in the perilous seas of life.
Royal Minister: I have received information from a spy that Bibhandaka will be away from his ashrama tomorrow morning. This deed has to be accomplished in that time.
Tarangini: Lord, this requires a lot of preparation. Can’t we have time for adequate arrangements to be made?
Royal Minister: Tomorrow morning. Any delay is impossible.
Lolapangi: Tarangini, come near. [After looking momentarily at her daughter.] One look in the mirror and all your fears will be gone. Listen, Rishyasringa may be an ascetic, but his body is only flesh and blood. He’s very young in age and such an innocent that he still does not know that even Brahma reproduced himself many times. He doesn’t know that the yogi of yogis, Shiva, became Ardhanarishwa, the half female-half male god. He doesn’t know what a woman is. Then what have you to fear? You will be hunting for Rishyasringa tomorrow morning. Your footsteps have to be silent as the hunter’s and the aim of your arrow as sure. Just like the innocent eyes of a young deer looking at a raised bow will be the eyes of this teenager when you stand before him. Your rise in his heart will be like the coming of a cloud in a rainless sky. If you can touch him with just one finger the contact will be like the fall of the first droplet of water on a parched earth. Slowly you will descend on him like rain. The stone of his ascetism will melt away and then – what he had not received through his long meditations – you will give him that blissful taste of the Brahman. You, Tarangini, daughter of the wretched Lolapangi. Think of my joy and your success. You will be victorious, you will be famous, you will be written about in history, eon after eon poets will write of your achievement. Listen, come closer – I will brief you on all the necessary steps.
[Mime by Lolapangi and Tarangini. Laughter, excitement, erotic poses. As she listens to her mother’s words, Tarangini’s face becomes luminous, breathing quicker, and her whole body vibrates with a new vitality. After a few moments, she moves and stands before the Royal Minister.]
Tarangini: I will, my lord, I will. A new inspiration is in my body and mind; I can see the entire scene in my mind’s eye. I will take with me sixteen beautiful female companions, flowers, garlands, honey, wine, perfume; many balls studded with precious stones, meat cooked in ghee, and rice in cream; grapes and the rati-fruit; flutes, veenas, drums. We shall set out tomorrow at dawn. Our boat will be decorated with flowers; with leaves, vines, plants, and grass we will create an artificial ashrama on the deck. We will take no men with us; we will be the sailors of this unique expedition. As we ferry across we will sing together on the highest note. The red Sun God will have just risen, with the water resplendent and the red oleander, the hibiscus, the lotus waving in the wind. The virgin youth will be standing under his cottage eves, newly bathed, wearing a robe of tree bark, with his hair long and black, beautiful as a young reed. We will encircle him as a group of swans descending on a lake. We will dance round and round with luscious steps. We will cast a net of music over him. When he is nearly hypnotized, we will suddenly go out of his sight. A little later I will come back alone, standing face to face, his sight, which has never seen a woman before, deep, wide, amazed, will be fixed on my face. I will address him. He will say, ‘Who are you?’ I will gradually move close to him, speaking all the time sweetly. Then, raising my arms I will press against him and I will take the palms of his hands into mine. Then placing my head on his shoulder I will whisper, ‘We have a rite to perform that will fail if you do not conduct it as priest.’ I will see him then, lips quivering, eyes red, the apple of his throat trembling. And then afterwards, afterwards, afterwards… [Breaking into a bewitching laugh and clapping her hands.] Mother, bless me; my lord, let me have the dust of your feet. Love gods, Atanu, Kandarpa, and Panchashar, come to my aid.
1. There are four ages in the Hindu tradition. The present age is Kaliyuga. 2. A figure of speech. 3. Universe. 4. Immortality. 5. Death. 6. Ancient names of Bengal, Assam, Orissa, and a seaport for voyages to China. 7. Literally, Great-cloud-rite. 8. Author’s note: In this play the word “Ionian” stands for Greek. 9. Negating the phenomenal world, the ascetics turn themselves into pure fire-balls of the mind. 10. Brahma. 11. He is identifying the Courtiers by name. 12. A drink of the gods that gives immortality. 13. One of the primeval enemies of the gods. 14. Absolute knowledge. 15. The female energy of the universe. 16. An assembly of suitors from which a much sought after woman (i.e. a princess renowned for beauty) chooses her husband by garlanding him publicly. 17. Sage.