(Before the stars could foretell)
Translated from the original Bangla by Indrani Chakraborty
The Aryans, Dravidians, Huns and Mongols—each primary race evolved through a period which could be considered its early youth. During that phase of immature and uncontrolled youthful vigour, with lack of foresightedness, they made some impossible promises and took on rather ludicrous challenges which ultimately they did fulfil.
The Aryans, as we know them today, experienced this phase perhaps even before the Kurukshetra War. Those were the days before the almanacs and scriptures. The sun, the moon, the planets and other celestial bodies traveled in their own orbits without a care. Man was yet to start keeping a strict eye on their movements and actions.
The valiant Aryans landed on the Indian soil and drove the primitive aboriginals beyond the Vindhyas. That was not all; the Aryans began calling them by various pejorative names - demons, fiends, and bandits. It was probably customary even in those days to resort to slander when it came to one’s enemies.
Then it so happened that Agastya, the famous sage, and his companions set out for the Dakshinatya in what came to be referred to as the Agastyajatra and never returned. The Puranas do not mention whether the rakshashas and fiends devoured them alive. The bravehearts among the Aryans, however, continued to sneak beyond the south of the Vindhyas.
Two young Aryans ventured deep into the south with their army and after driving out the dark-skinned thieves and robbers from some select fertile lands founded their own kingdom. These two valiant Aryans were Maghoba and Pradyumna. The two were bosom friends.
Friendship is no longer such a strong bond these days; you need a friend for casual banter. But in those days, when one was surrounded by diabolical adversaries, friendship had the opportunity to manifest itself in all its glory.
The two friends used their combined might to establish their kingdom. Now the question arose—who would become the King.
Pradyumna suggested – “Maghoba, you become the King and I’ll be your Senapati, the Commander of the Army."
Maghoba replied, “No. You become the King, and I’ll be the Senapati.”
The matter remained unresolved; one didn’t want the crown depriving the other. The newly-acquired kingdom was far too small to be divided into equal plots of land; it would leave them with virtually nothing. Dividing the subjects would inevitably lead to the depletion of the might of the kingdom. And enemies were all around waiting for an opportune moment to strike. The friendly duo was lost in thought.
One fine night the circular Moon was shining bright in the sky – it was full moon. The friends were resting atop the stone-carved fortress; their foreheads creased with worry. The fortress incidentally was the handiwork of the expelled non-Aryan enemies. The Aryans just did not know how to build a fort. Lord Rama had turned speechless at the sight of Ravana’s Lankan castle.
Maghoba was pacing the open terrace and running his fingers through his yellow-tinged beard. He was stockily built, blue-eyed and his huge body was firm as steel. He wasn’t used to quiet reflection, so when faced with a matter of concern he would play with his beard.
Pradyumna was comparatively shorter, but equally well-built and strong. He had golden hair and deep blue eyes. He did not have a beard; he would shave it off with the tip of his sword because it would itch. But he sported a nice pair of lean whiskers, which he was twirling as he rested against the wall of the fort, frowning at the moon.
But the Moon was beaming. In the absence of the almanac, it had no premonition of its impending doom.
Then all of a sudden Maghoba said, “I have an idea. Pradyumna, let’s settle this in an arm-wrestling match. The loser will have to become the King.”
Pradyumna smiled sardonically through his whiskers, “That’s outright cheating! You surely remember that I had sprained my wrist at the previous encounter.”
Defeated, Maghoba resumed fidgeting with his beard. At last he said, “Is there a problem if both of us become Kings?”
Pradyumna replied, “If both of us were Kings, who would rule and who would take the orders!”
“That’s also true.”
“But we can take turns. In succession.”
“You become the King for sometime and I will be your Senapati. Then I take over as the King. Simple.”
Maghoba pondered for a while and said, “That’s not a bad idea. One day you will be the King; next day, it’ll be my turn.”
“No, changing kings in such quick succession will lead to anarchy.”
“Think of a situation: I become the King and I issue orders - Senapati, it has come to my notice that a very juicy, mouthwatering fruit called Rasalo grows in the land of Lambodar, the demon-king. I want you to go right away and procure it for me, I feel like tasting it. By the time you manage to go and return with the fruit, a whole day would have elapsed and you would have become the King and I, the Senapati. In which case, who will eat the fruit?”
Maghoba, nodded, “How true! This is such a predicament!”
We must remember that the Aryans had not yet settled down and begun to explore and research on scientific truths. There was just a handful of Rishis, the wise men, who had casually recited a few ‘sutras’ in some epiphanic moments. Winter, summer, monsoon - the change of seasons was a familiar domain. But time was yet to be divided into weeks, months and years.
Therefore, it was only natural that Pradyumna and Maghoba did not see a way out of this impasse.
The Moon, too, was in a strange predicament. Pradyumna looked up at it with a frown only to exclaim in utter surprise: “Oh, what’s that?”
Maghoba too looked up and he saw that the sky was clear but something had cast a grey shadow on the moon’s visage and that ominous shadow was gradually devouring the lunar body.
The friends were stupefied and overcome by fear at the sight of the blighted moon. Although this celestial phenomenon was seen earlier a few times, it was yet to be regarded as a natural occurrence – it was perceived as an event portending catastrophes like the earthquake.
Maghoba hastily grabbed his friend’s hand and whispered in a deep voice – “Lunar eclipse!”
Pradyumna assured his friend with an ashen face and said – “Yes, but there’s nothing to worry about. The moon will be free once again. I had once taken some lessons from the old Rishi Angira in my childhood. The old man had once explained that there is an invisible demon in the sky called Rahu who gobbles up the sun and the moon. But it can’t keep them swallowed up for long.”
“Yes, I have also seen this a few times.”
“Me too. This happens occasionally.”
Hand in hand, the two friends kept staring. The blighted Moon seemed to be slithering through a translucent coppery haze in a python’s belly. A scared mob had gathered at the foot of the fort, they were howling and making all kinds of noises. The evil spirits were supposed to be driven away by such hellish pandemonium.
After what seemed like aeons, the shining crescent of the Moon became visible. And then gradually its full form emerged from the clutches of the shadowy demon, smiling and quite unscathed.
Loud and happy cheers could be heard from the crowd. Maghoba freed his hand, breathed a long sigh and said, “Well, what a relief!”
Pradyumno said, “Not only that, we have a solution to our problem.”
”How is that?”
“Here it is. You will be the King with effect from today. The next lunar eclipse will signify the end of your tenure and I will be the King. That’s how we will carry on.”
Maghoba pondered for a while and then agreed. “Not a bad idea, but why should I be the King first?”
“That’s because I have come up with the idea. I’ll take your leave now. Tomorrow morning I will leave for the battlefront with my army – what else is there for a Senapati to do? In the meantime, His Highness can look after his subjects, like his own children, without discriminating. Hail Your Highness!”
Pradyumna was about to leave the castle terrace with a smirk on his face. Maghoba, dejected, kept tugging at his beard.
He was not usually given to bright ideas, but then a sudden royal enlightenment seemed to dawn on him. In a commanding voice, he called out, “Senapati Pradyumna!”
Pradyumna turned back and stood with hands joined in a gesture of courtesy.
“At your service, Maharaj!”
King Maghoba, in a rumbling voice, ordered, “It’s my command that tomorrow morning I shall leave with my army for the warfront. Till I return, you look after the subjects, like your own children, without discrimination. You are being put in charge of the subjects till I return. It’s late now. I am retiring to my royal bedroom.”
Maghoba, not used to chuckles, laughed out boisterously and walked out with a naughty wink at Pradyumna.
Pradyumna stood there, quite stumped, scratching the back of his ear.
One of the primary characteristics of youth is not to take life too seriously; the world is a playground; war, a mere frolic to be relished; love, an intoxicating adventure.
King Maghoba gleefully left with half of his battalion. A group of non-Aryans, called Kodandans, lived south of his kingdom. Maghoba’s objective was to teach them a lesson.
Maghoba returned roughly three months later - if one has to go by the modern method of calculation. With tousled hair, tattered armour, and a satisfied smile on his face.
“Hey, how have you been?” was the first thing he said with a playful but thundering slap on Pradyumna’s back.
The two friends locked themselves in a tight embrace. Pradyumna remarked, “You have lost weight! Did you not have anything to eat in the rakshasa territory?” Then he checked himself and said, “Hail your Royal Highness! Is all well with the King?”
Maghoba replied, “Not too bad. I have taught a lesson to the rascals of Kodanda. That’s not all; I have got something that will amuse you. Come, let me show you.”
The fruits of plunder were left in the custody of a group of soldiers. Maghoba gave them some instructions and proceeded towards the royal chamber. “So, how have you been running the show? Are the subjects happy?” Maghoba enquired.
“Of late, the subjects are happier than usual,” was Pradyumna’s reply.
“Aryan soldiers have got a taste of an attractive new life. They are abducting non-Aryan women and marrying them at will.”
Maghoba laughed out loud. “Is that so? The malady seems contagious.”
Pradyumna gave his friend a stern questioning look. Maghoba continued, “What’s the option? If we have to stay in this country, there is no way we can keep the Aryan blood unadulterated. It’s not possible to import so many women from Aryavarta and we also have to think about continuing our lineage. Otherwise what’s the point of annexing a territory and founding a kingdom?”
“Hm”– was all that Pradyumna said.
The king and the general moved into the royal chamber. There was no minister, courtier or jester, hence this room was empty. Four soldiers carried a large cane basket and placed it in front of the king and his general. The lid was in place, it was apparent that it contained some object of considerable weight and size.
“What’s inside?” said a surprised Pradyumna. “Don’t tell me it’s a python!”
Maghoba dismissed the carriers with a wave of his hand and uncovered the basked, laughing as he did so.
Just as a coiled black snake shoots up its hood when a snake charmer uncovers his basket, a woman sprang up from the bin. Her eyes, lined with blue kohl, flickered like lightning.
Pradyumna was dumbstruck. All he could do was exclaim in amazement, “Oh my! It’s a woman!”
Maghoba burst out laughing and then he said, “How is she? Isn’t she beautiful?”
Pradyumna appraised the prisoner silently. Her skin had the sheen of polished copper, her eyes had a pained look, her hair was dishevelled. Her clothes and jewellery were modest: a simple necklace of seeds, conch shell bracelets adorned her wrists. The flower ornaments which bedecked her hair and ears had withered; she wore a motley-coloured skirt which covered the length from her waist to her knees. The lithe and alluringly supple body of the young beauty exuded a dazzling glow. Maghoba repeated his question, “Well? What do you think?’’
Startled out of his reverie, Pradyumna looked at Maghoba contemptuously and said, “You are a headstrong fool! You went to fight a war and came back with a woman! What do you propose to do with her?”
One glance at her and it was evident that she was not fit to be a maid or a companion.
Maghoba said, “I have decided to marry her.”
Amazed, Pradyumna questioned, “Marry her?”
Maghoba replied, “Yes, do you know who she is? She is the daughter of the King of Kodanda.”
Pradyumna’s expression turned serious. Maghoba continued with his narrative: “I occupied the palace of the Kodandans, everybody had fled. There was only this woman standing alone. I was impressed. I asked her a number of questions but she didn’t follow a word. So I packed her in that basket and brought her here. She is fit to be an Aryan queen. But before that she needs to be given lessons in the Aryan language. And then I will make her my Queen.”
Pradyumna glanced at the young woman once again. She didn’t seem to comprehend a word of what was being discussed; but her eyes flitted from one to the other. Her countenance was devoid of any fear or anxiety, but her questioning eyes betrayed a contempt and defiance at the barbaric act of these strangers.
Pradyumna frowned at Maghoba and said, “Maghoba, what you have done is wrong. She is a Princess after all. Abducting her in this way is an act against Aryan protocol.”
Maghoba replied, “Abducting with the intention of marriage doesn’t violate Aryan protocol.”
“It does! A damsel - unguarded, kidnapping her is the work of a petty thief! Please send her back at once!”
Maghoba, now angered, retorted, “Never!” He then controlled himself and in a relatively calmer voice issued an order. “I, Maghoba, the King, am ordering you, my Senapati. You arrange for a proper living quarter for the lady, so that she can live in utmost comfort, but without a way of escape. Mind you, if she flees, I will hold you responsible.”
Pradyumna looked at his friend’s face steadily for sometime and then with his head bowed and palms folded said in a dry voice – “As you wish, Your Highness.”
A secret chamber on the terrace of the fortress was chosen as the living room for the Queen-to-be. The Princess of Kodanda entered her prison with pursed lips and unfaltering steps. Although a prison, it was in fact a luxurious living quarter with a sprawling balcony. It had all the possible amenities, save a way out.
A cheerful Maghoba gave Pradyumna a playful smack on the back and said, “The best choice for a Queen, what say?”
“Hm,” was all that Pradyumna said.
The following daybreak brought in some grave news. An utterly exhausted messenger, who had just-returned from the Kodanda kingdom, informed them that the fugitive Kodandans were returning in hordes, infuriated by the news of the abduction of their Princess. Maghoba had posted a few Aryan sentries to guard the newly acquired kingdom, but a sudden retaliation by the enemies had taken them unawares and they were butchered mercilessly. Only the nimble-footed messenger had managed to flee and save his skin. The situation was rather grim.
Pradyumna was agitated when he heard this. “Your Highness, kindly allow me to go and teach the rascals a lesson!”
Maghoba refused to give in. “If it is a lesson that needs to be taught, let me be the one to do it.”
Maghoba organized his army, and just before leaving he turned back to tell Pradyumna, “You can teach the girl Aryan language in the meantime.”
“I will,” said Pradyumna, keeping his annoyance to himself.
In a matter of a few days, Pradyumna realized that the non-Aryan girl was extremely intelligent. She picked up phrases in a week’s time. Her name was Ela, a non-Aryan name, but sweet on the ears and sweet on the tongue. Pradyumna said it aloud a few times, “Ela! Ela! How nice!”
The first question she asked, the very moment she learnt to speak, was, “Who is that man? The one who’s keeping me captive?”
Pradyumna replied, “My friend.”
It took her a while to absorb the significance of the word ‘friend’. When she finally did, she wrinkled her nose and said with utter distaste, “You are a lot of barbarians!”
Pradyumna was surprised, he thought – “How odd! We are the barbarians!”
Ela gradually mastered the Aryan language and soon she had no difficulty in speaking and comprehending. One day she asked, “Why have I been held captive here?”
Pradyumna swallowed hard and said, “In order to teach you the Aryan language.”
Ela retorted, “Disgusting language! What’s the point in learning this language?”
Pradyumna, in a teasing tone, replied, “It will help you in whispering sweet nothings. His Royal Highness, King Maghoba has decided to marry you.”
Ela slowly rose from her seat and stood staring at Pradyumna with an unfluttering gaze. Then she sat down and in a calm voice declared – “I will not marry him. A barbarian!”
Pradyumna wanted to humour her, so he said, “Maghoba sports a beard no doubt, but he is a good soul…”
“A barbarian!” – was all that she said.
The days wore on. But there was no sign of Maghoba, and there was no news of whether the Kodandas taught Maghoba a lesson, or if it was just the reverse. Pradyumna became anxious and restless.
Three months went by in this manner.
One morning Pradyumna walked into Ela’s private chamber and found her standing next to the window unbraiding her hair. She glanced over her shoulder to look at Pradyumna and turned away with a faraway look, unweaving her long serpentine braids.
Pradyumna cleared his throat, but it left her unmoved. He then ambled towards the window; looked at the sky, looked flittingly down below, then once again cleared his throat and said, “Winter is gone. Summer is already in the air.”
Ela said, “Hm.”
Encouraged by her response, Pradyumna continued, “The wind which is blowing these days, is that what your folks call the soothing southerly breeze? Aryavarta doesn’t have this breeze.’
Ela gave him a serious look and asked, “What kept you away for two days?”
Caught unawares, Pradyumna said, “I was busy,” and then after a slight pause said, “You don’t need further lessons in our language. You can beat anyone of us hands down with what you’ve learnt.”
There was silence. Ela with downcast eyes once again started braiding her hair. Pradyumna carried on, “It’ll be a relief to have Maghoba back. It’s been really long, there’s no news of him. I am worried.”
Without an iota of sympathy, Ela smiled cruelly and said, “Your Maghoba will never return. My people have killed him!”
Pradyumna, angry, shot back – “Maghoba is invincible! There’s no one in the Dakshinatya who can kill him.”
Ela said disdainfully, “Barbarians!”
Pradyumna, whose temper had now soared, said, “And it is this Barbarian you’ll have to marry.”
With a twist of her eyebrow Ela said, “Is that so? Against my will?”
“You are a prisoner, who cares about your will?”
Ela retorted, stressing every word – “There’s not a single male in the whole of Aryavarta who can marry me against my will—do you see this necklace of seeds?” She drew attention to the necklace with her fingers, “It is just the time I need to chew on one of these seeds and I’ll be gone!”
Horrified, Pradyumna exclaimed, “Good heavens! Poison! Give me that necklace right now!”
Ela stepped back, and said, “I have been your prisoner all this while and you thought I am helpless, a pawn in your hands? Not at all! I can free myself anytime!”
Pradyumna asked, somewhat foolishly, “So why didn’t you?”
Ela kept silent for a while and then she said in a proud voice, “That’s my wish!”
It was just then the blowing of conchshells could be heard from the distant valley outside the window. Startled, Pradyumna turned his gaze towards the field. The Aryan army was emerging from the distant horizon lined with forests with their flags fluttering triumphantly. Pradyumna peered ahead shielding his eyes from the glare with his palm on his forehead. Then with a deep sigh he said, “What a relief! Maghoba is back!”
He was about to leave in a hurry when Ela said in a calm voice, “I, too, am relieved, freedom is not far away.”
Pradyumna instantly turned back. Ela was still braiding her hair, her face had the smile of a stricken dead butterfly.
Pradyumna implored, “Ela, don’t be naïve. It takes time to understand Maghoba, but once you are married, you will realize that there’s no one quite like him. I beg of you, don’t do anything drastic in the heat of the moment.”
Ela said, “It is not in my nature to do anything on impulse. I am a woman of Kodanda, not a barbarian. If Maghoba forcefully tries to marry me, I will free myself at the ceremony.”
Maghoba said, “I couldn’t trounce the Kondadans the way I wanted to. When enraged, those rascals can really fight back with vengeance. Anyhow, we finally managed to establish a treaty.”
Pradyumna enquired, “What are the conditions of this treaty?”
Maghoba gave a hearty laughter, “Brilliant! These Kodandans, they are a strange breed, strange are their ways and mores. You know what, in their race, it is the daughter who inherits her father’s property, and the son gets his inheritance from his maternal uncle. Have you ever of such a thing?”
Pradyumna shook his head, “No. But what are the conditions of this treaty like?”
“Well, here’s the condition: the Kodandans say their pride was hurt because we kidnapped their princess. The only way to expiate for our sins would be for me to marry the daughter. Without marriage, there would be war, but if I marry her, I would inherit the Kodandan kingdom. A rather serious condition, don’t you think?” Maghoba burst out laughing.
Pradyumna looked down thoughtfully and then said with a hint of a smile, “Yes, very serious!”
Maghoba said, “Therefore, no more delay, I must quickly marry the Kodandan woman. I hope the girl is doing fine.”
“Yes, she is,” said Pradyumna.
“Has she learnt the language?”
“Then let’s get on with the wedding tomorrow.”
Pradyumna remained silent for a while and then said, “Don’t you need to ask the girl?”
“Not at all. This is a royal business. I can’t go back on my word. I have to fulfil the terms of our treaty.”
Late that night Pradyumna surreptitiously walked into Ela’s bedroom. It was almost full moon, waves of silvery rays were flooding in through the window; Ela was sleeping on the floor, bathed in moonlight. There was no lamp in the room.
Pradyumna stepped close and then knelt down beside her; with bated breath he brought his face close to hers.
Ela was in deep slumber, but teardrops were streaming down her cheeks; she was mumbling in a stifled voice, “Pradyumna, Pradyumna, I don’t want to die. What kind of a man are you? Can’t you understand anything? Barbarian! Save me! Pradyumna! Pradyumna…”
The seed necklace remained untouched, Pradyumna tiptoed out of the room, without doing what he had come to do.
The next day the moon rose in the eastern sky almost immediately after sundown. Maghoba, who was waiting for darkness to descend, commanded, “Pradyumna, make arrangements for the wedding.”
A sacred fire was kindled in the sprawling open compound facing the palace. The wedding would be solemnized with the Holy Fire as the witness. Two flat wooden seats, specially designed for the bride and the groom, were laid out in front of the fire.
The news of the wedding had already spread; curious onlookers had started to assemble at the palace premises.
Pradyumna was staring at the fire, arms crossed over his chest. He heaved a huge sigh.
Maghoba came and patted him on his shoulder, breaking his reverie. He shifted his gaze away from the fire and looked up. The moon was right in front, it had just risen high in the sky from behind the curtain of the trees. Pradyumna kept staring at it.
Maghoba said, “It’s late, and time for the ceremony. You better go now to fetch the bride.”
Pradyumna slowly turned towards Maghoba and in a solemn voice said, “Senapati Maghoba!”
Maghoba was completely taken aback! He was so accustomed to being the King, he was thoroughly nonplussed at first. But then he followed Pradyumna’s gaze and his eyes rested on the moon.
The sky was free of clouds, yet a smoky shadow had covered the white face of the moon; a dark ominous veil was about to devour the lunar body.
Pradyumna repeated, “Senapati Maghoba! I am going to get the bride. I will marry her to honour the terms of the treaty. In the meantime you may apprise the citizens of the latest development.”
Maghoba stood completely motionless for a while, like a pillar, and then broke into a loud boisterous laughter that split the skies.
Then all of a sudden, he stopped and with folded palms said, “As you wish, Your Highness.”
Ela was sitting on the window sill, she rose immediately when Pradyumna ambled in.
“Have you come for me?”
“Yes Princess. We have signed a treaty with Kodanda. The condition imposed on us is that the Aryan king will have to marry the Kodandan princess. We are morally bound to honour this commitment.”
“Is there anything else you have to say?”
“Very little. It so happens that I am now the Aryan King and Maghoba is my Senapati, which means if you have to marry at all, then you have no option but to marry me.”
Ela looked at him wide-eyed, for a long while, completely still. Then in a faint voice she whispered, “What did you say?”
With all the royal gravity that he could muster, Pradyumna reiterated, “It is me you have to marry. So now it’s up to you to decide quickly, what’s it going to be – marriage or the bite of that seed?’
Opening up the floodgates of all her pent up emotions, tears came pouring down her kohl-smeared eyes.
Pradyumna made himself comfortable on the window sill and said, “It’ll be a while before the eclipse ends. I am giving you time till then to make up your mind.”
Ela smiled, a flash of lighting through her cascading tears, and said, “Barbarian!”
Kurukshetra War – the war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas described in The Mahabharata.
Agastyajatra – Agastya, the famous Rishi mentioned in the Puranas, travelled beyond the Vindhyas in the south to Dakshinatya (the Deccan, the southern part of peninsular India), on the first day of the month of Bhadra, never to return.
Here, reference is being made to the majestic castles of Ravana, the demon King who was defeated by Rama, the Aryan prince, described in the epic The Ramayana.
Published in Parabaas, January, 2011
The original story "Pragjyotish" by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay was first published on Asharh 9, BE 1346. It
is included in the collection Oitihasik Kahini Samagro published by Ananda Publishers, Kolkata (1998; sixth reprint 2006).
Indrani Chakraborty. Indrani Chakraborty ........
Illustration by Nilanjana Basu. Nilanjana has been regularly illustrating for Parabaas. She is currently based in California.
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