Mayil Ravana’s Labyrinth

  • GOUTHAMA SIDDARTHAN

Latin American writer Carlos Fuentes has given a pen-portrait of the way he goes about his writing work:

I am a morning writer; I am writing at eight-thirty in longhand and I keep at it until twelve-thirty, when I go for a swim. Then I come back, have lunch, and read in the afternoon until I take my walk for the next day’s writing. I must write the book out in my head now, before I sit down. I always follow a triangular pattern on my walks here in Princeton: I go to Einstein’s house on Mercer Street, then down to Thomas Mann’s house on Stockton Street, then over to Herman Broch’s house on Evelyn Place. After visiting those three places, I return home, and by that time I have mentally written tomorrow’s six or seven pages. (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3195/the-art-of-fiction-no-68-carlos-fuentes)

This triangular walk at 90 degrees leads him to Aztecs’ Chacmool, a form of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican sculpture depicting a reclining figure with its head facing 90 degrees from the front, supporting itself on its elbows and supporting  a bowl or a disk upon its stomach. The Chacmool is associated with Tialoc, the rain god of Aztecs.

Through the portals of this mythology, Carlos Fuentes’ narrative flows on, glistening with a magical mix of mythology and modernism.(http://web.mit.edu/jikatz/www/ChacMool.pdf)

Replying to a general criticism of his female characters, he says:

I’ve been attacked for depicting very impure women, but this is because of the negative vision my culture has had of women. A culture that combines Arabs, Spaniards, and Aztecs is not very healthy for feminism. Among the Aztecs, for example, the male gods all represent a single thing: wind, water, war, while the goddesses are ambivalent, representing purity and filth, day and night, love and hate. They constantly move from one extreme to another, from one passion to another, and this is their sin in the Aztec world. There is a pattern of female ambiguity in my novels.

His writings are constructed in a narrative in the veins of the curse of sin and the boon of sin.

My style of writing has been treading a weird territory. That can almost find its metaphor in labyrinth, a magical mesh.

Right from my childhood days, puzzles have been fascinating me.

My father used to morsel out food and puzzles to me. It is they which still keep on circulating in the current of my blood, swirling and surging. I have been playing with puzzles not only in my writings but also in my life. So no wonder, it is not an accident or not without reason that Jorge Luis Borges has long since become my favorite writer.

In those days, I used to get up at daybreak, clean up the cowshed, take raghi soup offered by my wife and begin my diurnal journey on foot towards our paddy fields.

As I walked on, words would jump, leap and swirl ahead of me. I would reach the fields criss-crossed by bunds. The bunds or ridges of the fields would conjure up an image of Borges’ short story, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, reverberating with my footfalls.

The field became a sort of battlefield of puzzles as I was treading the field’s zigzagging and branching-off path.  Words for my prospective stories kept running along the sphinx-like tracks. Time and myself would run endlessly, getting weary. Then I seize hold of those words in the timeless time-space.My legs would begin their return journey home.

Back home, I would shuffle and reshuffle the words I had caught hold of and then I would piece them together on white blank papers in harmonious notes. During the long-drawn-out game of shuffling and reshuffling, I would end up with just one pageful or one-and-half-pageful of words.

In those hours, I found myself caught in the vortex of the puzzle. Putting my feet here and there, I could not wriggle out of the suffocating knots. I was at my wits’ end, trying repeatedly to find a way out.

India’s cultural pride of mythological work Ramayana has been alive in myriad forms in folk tales in several languages. Most of the folklore versions have been kept alive just by the word of mouth, hardly figuring in the classical editions of the divine epic.

Among such folktales quite prominent is the tale of Mayil Ravana.

According to the classical Ramayana, Dasharatha, king of Ayodhya, had four sons, the eldest of whom was Rama who was sent to the forest following the guiles of his step-mother Kaikeyi. While Rama, his wife Sita and brother Lakshman were living in the forest, Ravana, king of SriLanka, kidnapped Sita to avenge the insult meted out to his sister by Lakshman. In a long series of consequences of the kidnap episode, Rama in a war annihilated Ravana and brought back his wife.

This is the story in a nutshell of the classical Ramayana.

Before going into the story of Mayil Ravana’s fort, which was a folktale part of the main story, let us have a look at his background in detail.

SriLankan king Visravasu had two wives through whom two sons were born, the elder Ravana and the young Ravana. The two princes trained well in martial arts. The young Ravana had also learnt the art of incantations, magic and sorcery.

When it was time to elect the heir-apparent to the throne, the two vied with each other to don the royal chief’s robes. When the Ministers insisted on the age-old custom of monarchy that would bestow the king’s status only to the eldest son, the youngest Ravana claimed the he was the eldest son of his mother, though she was the king’s second wife. Then the chief priest invoked the ‘peacock clan right’ theory and explained it.

The ‘peacock system’ was part of the Sun clan’s royal right. A peacock would lay as many eggs as possible. Out of several peachicks, only the eldest would unfold and fan out its feathers.  Then the other chicks would follow suit.

This metaphorical thought was put forward in one of his verses through Kaikeyi by the greatest classical Tamil poet Kamban of the 12 century.

“Oh cruel one, great people, like the lustrous great sun,

Will not swerve from the path of truth even if they lose things like their soul;

These kings who belong to the Manu clan follow the clan;

Descendant rules like the peacock. Why did you talk ill of them by base intentions?.”

That the ‘Scientific American Journal’ in the 20th century in an article has spoken about the fact over the eldest peachick unfolding its feathers first was recorded in the 12 th century Tamil poetry itself speaks volumes for the genius of Kamban, the Great Poet.

Hearing about this peacock theory, the young Ravana challenged the court, saying that he would prove his elder son status and then stake claim to the throne and the sceptre. Like a bolt out of the blue, he metamorphosed into a peacock with his magical power and started unfolding his feathers. It was this episode that added the epithet of ‘Mayil’ (peacock) to his name and he was since called ‘Mayil Ravana’ (peacock Ravana).

But the courtesans, though stunned and shocked, refused to accept his words and action and finally crowned the elder Ravana. An angry young Ravana left the court and the country in a huff. He settled in some other region and made it his own kingdom.

When the elder Ravana constructed a big and imposing palace, Mayil Ravana wanted to outsmart his step-brother and built a fort full of mind-boggling labyrinths, which seemed to be a mix of the best in architecture and unimaginable in its magnificence and majesty. The fort’s stone walls, sideway corridors, security layers and doors were beyond human head. Once you are in, you cannot be out. The blindingly glittering pearls and the lightning-like nine types of precious stones, embedded in the walls, would pierce your eyes like knives.  Whatever way you choose to walk, whatever floor you try to excavate, the ground would slip out of your feet and you would be swept off your feet. As you walk on, the corridor would also seem to be strolling along with you and a heady wine goes to your head and drives you mad.  Trapped in the vortex of a great puzzle, your mind and body get smashed to pieces, bringing death to lay a siege to you. Over there, sniff out the odour of saliva tripping from the fangs of crocodiles wallowing in the moat. Look how the saliva is oozing down on the forts going up into and usurping the heavens.

The peak of this puzzling state is that it is not a man who smashed the fort of fantastic and fabulous conundrum-like swirlings, but a monkey called Hanuman.

Rama, who was thinking over ways and means to rescue  his wife from the clutches of Ravana, sought the help of Hanuman, a creature above the beastly state and above the human state, who assumed the proportions of a superhuman being.

Rama decimates the SriLankan forces in the war with Ravana, with the help of Hanuman.

At the end-stage war, Ravana’s brothers, lieutenants, captains, soldiers and warriors of chariots, horses and elephants were all totally beaten and made to bite the dust. Now Ravana stood alone, with all support cut off.

It was then that Ravana thought of his young brother Mayil Ravana and approached him, seeking his help. The latter, in a fit of rage, vowed to sacrifice both Rama and Lakshman at the pedestal of ‘Kali’, a deity of unlimited ire. He said if he failed in his mission, he would end his own life.

Rama’s consultants, who had heard about the magical powers of Mayil Ravana, suggested that on that crucial day, they all must evade the tryst with him and thereby they could survive his attacks. As per their plan, Hanuman encircled the brothers with his long and endless tail and constructed a big fort around them, sitting atop it. The entrance to the fort being Hanuman’s wide and massive mouth, no one could dare to sneak into the ‘fort of tail.’

Having sensed their designs, Mayil Ravana donned the guise of Vibhishana, Rama’s  new consultant and managed to enter the fort, speaking to Hanuman in a glib tongue. Once in, he changed Rama and Lakshman into small stones and having hidden them on his person, he came out successfully.

Mayil Ravana in the disguise of Vibhishana patted Hanuman on the back, who detained him for an enquiry, saying, “I found these stones near Rama and Lakshman and finding the stones disturbing them, I brought them out.”

Hanuman, pacified with Mayil Ravana’s answer of guile, let him go off.

Then Mayil Ravana imprisoned Rama and Lakshman in his own fort.

Hanuman, who felt cheated, went all the way to the puzzling fort. But once inside the fort, he could not figure out the ‘topography’, kept on searching and searching for the brothers, winding along the corridors, meandering in the labyrinth, and bumping into the fortified walls and finally collapsed, petrified and dazed.  With tongues of pain pounding the skull, he hopped from tip to tip of petals in a lotus multilayered in a mysterious style. A small musical strain kept ringing in the nerves of its heels. A flash of lightning cut through his face, like a knife. With the help of the musical note, Hanuman changed into a beetle and stormed into the lotus stem.

The beetle, winging and singing its way into the pores of reed plants, mingled with the lotus petals and entered through their borders. Then was born a beam of rays in motion. Catching hold of it, Hanuman, now a beetle, flew through it, as if through a ladder of light.

The day was breaking. Preparing for the ‘kali’ ceremony, Mayil Ravana had gone out to take bath.

With anxiety writ large on his face, Hanuman was searching for the brothers endlessly only to feel weary of the search.  Then he suddenly remembered what Mayil Ravana in the guise of Vibhishana had told him about the two stones. Now he scanned the place for the stones.

He happened on a pile of stones and stood frozen before it, not knowing how to figure out the two particular stones.

As the skies were ablaze with dawn’s glittering streaks, Hanuman felt hotting up inside and then from the depths of his heart, a frozen imagery of contrasting conundrum emerged and unfolded before his mind’s eye.

While a bridge to SriLanka was being constructed, a battalion of monkeys piled up big stones into the sea and made a strong foundation. Watching this sight, Hanuman was standing apart, depressed and desolate.

Rama who approached him asked what was wrong with him. The latter said, “I have a hunch that this bridge would be the bone of contention centuries after.”

Hanuman added, “My mother had brought me up, instilling in me a sense of moral right and wrong. She had always asked me to stand for the right and fight the evil. Now I am perplexed over this current action, not knowing exactly whether it is right or wrong.” He stared at the surging waves in a mood of blues.

Then a splinter stone broke out and flew, settling down on Rama’s hands. His index finger was injured and blood oozed from it. All of a sudden, Hanuman caught hold of the finger and put it in his mouth and sucked it. Hanuman then had a taste of Rama and his sooty look changed into golden colour.

The waves roared and roared at a high-pitch sound. Did it say Rama’s victory or Hauman’s? The latter could not decipher it. It was a puzzle defying enlightenment and Hanuman started hiding it in his endless tail that as a result, changed into a long-drawn-out conundrum. This could be sensed from a deep and intensive reading of Ramayana. It is worth recalling here that Hanuman’s tail always looks like a question mark in all famous portraits featuring the gathering of Rama, Lakshman, Sita, and Hanuman.

Just as Mayil Ravana’s fort is overflowing with puzzles, so is Hanuman’s tail which is a symbol of a mysterious labyrinth bristling with countless puzzles.

Now, that past image of sucking Rama’s finger flooded back to Hauman’s mind, stirring the multilayers of memory.

Now, spurred by an inspirational streak, Hanuman started tasting each and every stone mounted before him. With a mouthful of stones, he just goggled, trying to discover the ‘taste’ he was familiar with and a saliva kept streaming out of its mouth. The taste of stones permeating his body and electrifying the buds of its tongue, his hunt for that particular ‘taste’ went on.

After morning bath, Mayil Ravana was returning.

The moment became ablaze with the snap of a finger and the buds of Hanuman’s tongue caught that ‘endless taste’ as if they caught fire. Right when Hanuman’s saliva tripped down on two stones, they changed into human forms, that is, Rama and Lakshman.

Seeing this reason-defying phenomenon, Mayil Ravana stood flabbergasted. Rising to the occasion, Hanuman swung into action to exploit his weakest moment and trapped Mayil Ravana in his swirling and puzzling tail and hit hislife organ with his clasped hand. That blow proved fatal for Mayil Ravana.

All these mythological and folklore images kept on whirling and zigzagging in a lightning moment in which I found myself imprisoned in the vortex of puzzles cooked up by my words.

As Keats asked himself in one of his poems whether he was alive or dead, I was puzzled: What was it unfolding before my eyes?  Whether it was Mayil Ravana’s fort that was revolving like cogs in wheels or it was Hanuman’s tail that contained some mystery puzzles of life or it was a new and endless but puzzling territory that moves towards the English literary plane, what with my native words changing colour and casting a spell on me.

As I was under the tentacles of doubt, from somewhere mysteriously and mesmerically the buzz of a beetle entering into reeds and mingling in a wordless harmonious space wafts through the air and reaches my ear.

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Translated by MAHARATHI

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