April 12, 2015 2 Comments
First published: July 1978
“No, it is NOT!”, roared Shishir.
The thunderous harmonics reverberated across the room, flowed over the neighbouring houses, and could probably be heard around the bend of our street.
It was something of an overkill, since his voice only had to reach the top of the unrailed stairs, where the illustrious Mr. Das had his solitary rooftop room. Indeed, it was the unmistakable sound of his cheap slippers on the stairs that had been Shishir’s cue.
For reasons more obscure than usual, the gentleman had been avoiding us, and by extension, our relaxing room on the first floor. Each evening, we had trooped in dutifully and waited, but in vain; his favourite armchair remained empty. Finally, after a full week of unbroken silence, we decided to shift mode. Executive action it woud have to be, and the forcible re-establishment of bipartite communication.
Well, I say ‘forcible’. With the redoubtable Ghanashyam Das, actual force was out of the question. Our best bet was temptation, combined with intrigue. Multi-layered baiting was of essence: first, he had to be lured out of his rooftop sanctum; then, compelled to enter the relaxing room; and finally, provoked into breaking his sworn silence.
Phase One of our operation was entrusted to the culinary genius of Banwari and Rambhuj. Dumping the weekend’s groceries on them practically at dawn, we escaped quietly to the first floor. By seven thirty, the mouth-watering aroma of homemade hing kachauri rose slowly from the ground-floor kitchen, suffusing each floor with the promise of scrumptiousness. And yet – yet – the trusted Banwari didn’t appear at the rooftop room with Ghonada’s customary heaped plate.
By eight, the aroma of fresh hilsa, crisply fried in rich mustard oil, began to mingle with the savoury air of the old mess-house.
Still no sign of Banwari on the rooftop.
What calamity could have caused such breach of culinary etiquette? Could the young guards, exasperated by their week of unrewarded waiting, have instructed Banwari to cut his revered Burrababu out of the meal-line? These, we were willing to bet, had been Ghonada’s anxious thoughts for the last half hour. The sound of his slippers on the stairs – music to our ears – had to be a direct fallout of that anxiety.
Phase Two was scripted to go into operation the moment those steps were heard. And thus that reverberating roar from Shishir, “No, it is NOT!”.
“‘It is NOT’?” echoed Gour, his tone dripping with well-rehearsed scorn. “You’re suddenly the Mahabharata expert, eh? If the description of the setting fire to the Khandav woods is not in the Mahabharata, then what is this verse about? Listen:
‘A hundred yojan spread the Khandav wood
Fire blazed, flames rose, a mountainous brood.
Krishna Arjun on either side stood guard,
An assured god took the place down hard.
Crackling branches thundered atop
Dead birds, charred leaves from them did drop
Trees dead, bushes burnt, serpents made roast
Ground scorched, Nagas dead… Khandav was toast.’”
In the middle of Gour’s spirited recitation, Ghonada had stepped quietly into the room. Keeping triumph completely out of our faces, we nodded at him and patted his armchair. If Ghonada was unsettled by this offhand welcome, he didn’t show it. Just as silently as he had come into the room, he lowered himself onto the chair.
The dramatic baton, meanwhile, had passed to Shibu. “You tell him, Gour!”, he said, thumping the ground. “And Shishir, let’s not forget the vivid description of Indra arriving with almost half of creation to save Khandav from burning, of the Fire god’s despair, and of Arjun saving the day:
‘Trooping one after another Every god followed his brother
Rushing to protect the wood
Garud and the beasts of air Docile, vicious, foul and fair
Swarmed in to save the ’hood.
Yakshas, ghosts and their peeps Arrived to defend Indra’s keeps
Armed to their teeth and fangs,
These besides, many more Unafraid of blood and gore
Made up Indra’s warrior ranks.
Finally Indra, Lord Purander Unleashed the divine thunder,
Letting rip his battle cry.
Clouds rushed in to obey Rain darkened the light of day
The Fire God cried, “Arjun, why?”
So Partha, the Super Skilled His special weapons then did field
‘Shoshak’ and ‘Vayabya’ of dry air
Rose those missiles ferocious high And bid the torrents a very good bye
Indra’s clouds no more their bounty could share.’”
Now, if everyone was flexing his mythological muscles, why should I be left behind? Before Shibu could triumphantly deliver his last line properly, I jumped in, “Vyasdev himself describes the event in the original Mahabharat. Do you know how brilliantly he unfolds the scene? Listen: “The Lord Hutashon – that’s Agni the fire god for you, Shishir – then assumed his aspect of the seven magnificent flames, and began to burn the Khandav woods down. Caught in that circle of divine fire, the present moment seemed an interminable eternity. The trees and woodland creatures…”
“All made up”, Shishir interrupted laconically. “Made up, or plain wrong.”
Identical looks of shock blossomed on our faces – Gour’s, Shibu’s and mine. “Made up? The Mahabharata is made up?” I croaked, endeavouring to convey that the horror of this statement was physically choking me.
“Yes”, said Shishir, with provocative calm. “Experts have finally begun to admit that much of the Mahabharata that we have today has been edited and amended by later writers. If you had the brains to genuinely care about the epic, instead of being constantly shocked and outraged, you’d know this too. In the real Mahabharata, Arjun and Krishna were in Khandav to put off the fire, not help Agni burn the woods down”.
Here, I sneaked a quick look at Ghonada.
As seasoned observers of the mess-house at 72 Bonomali Noshkor Lane know, outrageous claims of this kind were his domain, not ours. Generally, if any of us dared to so much as set a toe on said domain, we would first be blasted with scathing sarcasm, and then be dazzled with a tall tale justifying all Ghonada’s claims. Today, we hadn’t just set a tentative toe into his domain. We had stormed it, set up camp, and were now in the process of hoisting our flag on its soil. How was the man reacting to this blatant act of plagiarism, or, if you like, this blatant mockery?
Relaxed indifference. That’s the only way I could describe what I saw. Ghonada was stretched out in his extra-padded armchair, eyes closed, gently smoking what had to be one of Shishir’s cigarettes.
I nudged Gour. Clearly, we had to take the drama up a notch.
“So…”, Gour began slowly, “the current version of the Mahabharata is wrong. Krishna and Arjun were actually on Indra’s side, trying to put out the fire, not helping it spread. Hmm. Interesting. So tell us, Shishir, since you’re clearly the scholar here, why on earth would Partha and Vasudev go out of their way to protect the woods from?”
“Well, because… they needed to”, Shishir managed, caught off-guard by this unscripted bouncer. By our calculations, a caustic Ghonada should have cut in long before this.
“Ah, they needed to!” mocked Shibu. “Could you tell us why they needed to?”
I tried to give Shishir a sympathetic look. We didn’t want to bunch up on him like this, but with Ghonada’s temper refusing to catch fire, we had to keep the temperature up for as long as possible. Shishir, however, was losing patience.
“Why don’t you ask Ghonada?”, he snapped. “Also ask him how he feels about you grilling me about the Mahabharata with him sitting right here!”
As one, our heads snapped towards Ghonada. Some time during the last exchange, he had sat up. However, he seemed just as disinclined to speech. As we watched, he lazily released a mouthful of smoke.
Shishir abruptly got to his feet and stomped to the verandah. “Banwari! Rambhuj!” he shouted, leaning over the banister, “where are the kachauris and fish? Are we going to have breakfast for lunch today?”
And those were the magic words that finally broke the week-long ice at 72 Bonomali Noshkor Lane. Ghonada’s face cracked the first hint of smile we had seen in days.
Conversation didn’t flow immediately, of course. First Rambhuj, aided by Banwari, brought in heaped plates of kachauri, potato curry, and fried hilsa – Ghonada’s plates visibly more heaped than ours. In a remarkably short time, only the fine bones of hilsa were left on the plates. As Rambhuj began clearing them away, Shishir obediently leaned forward and placed a cigarette in between Ghonada’s expectant fingers.
“Help us put Shishir right, Ghonada”, Shibu appealed,.
“Why?” said the man, exhaling deeply, “He’s quite right.”
The four of us stared at one another.
“But Vyasdev himself says…”, began Shibu.
“There’s plenty Vyasa said that didn’t survive the centuries”, said Ghonada, cutting him off. “This is but one tiny instance of us filling in the gaps, forgetting lost episodes of our oldest stories.”
“So then”, ventured Gour, “Krishna and Arjun were not in Khandavprastha at all? The whole episode was a… how shall I put it… a transcription error?”
Ghonada sat up a little straighter. “No,” he said crisply. “The current version of the Mahabharata is quite right about them arriving at Khandavprastha. However, their ‘war effort’ on behalf of Agni was all hogwash. Their real alliance was with Indra.”
“With Indra!” exclaimed Shishir, forgetting his role as the laconic sceptic. “But they fought on opposite sides!”
“Or so they had people believe”, Ghonada said, with the satisfaction of one who is in on a particularly secret secret. “Even Agnidev, a divine being, was fooled by their superb acting, so I can hardly blame mere humans.”
“But why?” I all but wailed. “Why the pretence and secret alliance?”
“For Agnidev’s own good, of course.”
This time, we just stared at the man blankly. He sighed. “It was like this: Arjun was tasked with finding Moy Danav, and contracting him to build a palace of wonder and illusions for the Pandavs. Persuading Moy might not have been easy. So Arjun took along the most skilled negotiator he knew, his dearest friend Krishna. At that time, Moy lived in the Khandav woods. Krishna and Arjun had almost reached the woods, when a frail old Brahman blocked their way. “I am starving and ill”, said the Brahman. “Would you fine gentlemen please give me enough to eat?”
Now, Arjun took the Brahman at face value, but Vasudev saw through the disguise at once. “Why, Lord Agni,” he exclaimed, “what’s been eating away at you? You look terribly unwell!”
Agni, the god of fire, may have been a little embarrassed at being identified so easily. “Nothing’s been eating me”, he confessed, “It’s what I have been eating. Have you heard of King Shwetaki? The man is obsessed with performing yajnas. I’ve almost become a permanent guest at his court. Every time his priests pour ghee into the sacred flame, I’m obliged to swallow it. I’ve had nothing but ghee for years and years! My digestion’s shot. It’s been ages since I’ve been able to eat a normal meal. Please, I can’t this any more. I need your help.”
Arjun glanced uncertainly at Krishna. “My lord”, he offered humbly, “I am but a warrior. My skills are not enough to cure your malaise. The people you need are the Ashwini twins, physicians of the divine court. I entreat you, visit them immediately.”
Agni brightened a little. “Oh, I have visited them”, he said. “It was them that told me a ghee-only diet was the root of all my troubles. They’ve prescribed a remedy too: one very large meal of freshly roasted meat. When I asked them how large, they said the Khandav woods were the perfect size.”
“I still don’t see why you need us, Lord”, Krishna said. But there was a tiny smile on his lips, as if he did see, and was rather amused by what he saw.
“Well,” Agni looked morose, “Khandav is Indra’s personal land. Did you know that? It’s under his protection. Every time I try to start a fire, Indra brings his rain clouds in and washes even the ashes away! How am I to get better at this rate? No, Arjun, Krishna, you must help me. You must hold off the clouds and rain – and whatever else Indra brings to stop me – while I burn this place down in peace.”
“Your word is our command, Lord of Fire” said Krishna, bowing. “Go forth and cure yourself. Arjun and I will have your back.”
A beaming smile split Agni’s face. Blessing the duo loudly, he disappeared into the forest. The moment he was gone, Arjun grasped Krishna’s arm.
“My friend, what have you done?” he whispered urgently. “You just pledged our armed support against the king of the gods! Even if we win, Indra shall exact a very heavy penalty for my insubordination.”
Against all reason, it seemed to Arjun, Krishna’s tiny smile blossomed into a huge mischievous one. “My dear Arjun, calm yourself. Our effort will be a ruse. We will not be fighting Indra at all.”
“But… didn’t we just promised Agni we’ll help him?”
“We did. And we will. Just not the way he asked. Listen, it’s true he’s been forced to drink a lake of ghee, but that’s not the only thing wrong with him. During a yajna, the sacred flame must remain constant and stable. Poor Agni has had to sit absolutely immobile for years, as Shwetaki poured more and more ghee into him. What our good lord needs, along with a change of diet, is vigorous exercise. And the two of us shall give it to him.”
“Simple. We’ll wait till Agni starts a fire, and Indra’s clouds blow in to put it out. Then we’ll rush in, you’ll shoot a few arrows at the sky, and I’ll tell Agni to go to another corner of the forest and start the fire while we keep Indra’s army busy. We’ll give him a few moments, then both the clouds and us will head over to his new location. Keep this up for a few hours, and Agni will be as fit as the god of fire should be.”
“And that” concluded Ghonada, rising from his chair, “was how Arjun and Krishna conspired with Indra, and yet Agni got his health back.”
“Wait!”, Shibu scrambled to his feet. “The Khandav woods were burnt down. I mean, Indraprastha was built on its very spot. So if Krishna and Arjun saved the woods, then how…”
Ghonada cut in smoothly. “I didn’t say they saved the woods. I merely said they avoided direct confrontation with Indra, while also fulfilling their promise to Agni. Krishna, our Lord Dhananjay, was a brilliant strategist. He never lost sight of Arjun’s original task: getting Moy Danav to build the Pandavs a wondrous palace. Now, Moy was known to be difficult to work with. But driving a hard bargain is the last thing on people’s minds when a fire is ravaging his entire neighbourhood, intent on roasting the residents to death. All Arjun had to do was offer Moy protection from Agni’s wrath and Indra’s, and he’d have the sweetest deal Moy had ever made anyone. And that is exactly what happened. Indra might have been miffed when he discovered this little side-trade, but he was mollified when the glorious new city – celebrated across creation – was named ‘Indraprastha’ after him.”
Leaving us to digest that last little gem, Ghonada walked casually out of the room (with him, I noticed, went Shishir’s new tin of cigarettes). He already had one foot on the stairs when Gour finally found his voice.
“Ghonada, listen!”, he called. “How on earth could such a fascinating segment have been edited out of the Mahabharat?”
“Oh, it wasn’t edited out”, returned the deep voice from the stairs. “Corruption, as you know, is everywhere. The man who supplied Lord Ganesh with palm leaves in bulk used to thicken his bundles with dry pieces. This segment was written on one such leaf. It disintegrated within a few days of being written upon.”