Short Story : Drona and Ekalavya – A Reimagining

Complexity and ambiguity lie at the heart of the Mahabharata, the latter of the two great Hindu itihasas (~ epics).
       Krishna as both the supreme-being (Vishwaroopa) and the mendacious, scheming man; Duryodhana as both the greedy, vengeful cousin and the loyal friend to Karna; Kunti as both the devoted, long-suffering matriarch of the Pāndavas and the stricken mother willing to sacrifice her first-born Karna; Yudhisthira as both the apostle of truth and the crazed gambler who stakes his wife at dice; Bhishma as both the wise grandsire and the unscrupulous kidnapper of Amba, Ambika, and Ambālika – these are the poles (of behaviour) within whose bounds flash the characters’ all-too-human sparks.
       The character of Dronacharya is another example of such complexity. The churn of his birth, his upbringing, and his deep hurt at Drupada’s abandonment (having grown up together like brothers in Drupada’s father’s court, Drupada refuses as king to even acknowledge a now-impoverished Drona) are all responsible for creating the Drona who meets Ekalavya in the forest.
       Justly reviled for his treatment of Ekalavya during their meeting, I try in this reimagining to understand Drona’s motivations.

Drona and Ekalavya A Reimagining

A cold fear gripped Drona’s heart. He wasn’t prepared for this. He thought he had banished all feeling years ago. Since that humiliating day in Drupada’s court, he had taught himself to believe that men’s hearts carried no goodness or kindness; that they throbbed only to the beat of selfish desires. Engaged as the princes’ tutor, he had focussed on instructing them precisely, remaining grave and aloof at all times; so that the princes had come to think of the least word of praise from him as the highest honour. Arjuna may have thought he was Drona’s favourite, but he would have been disappointed to know that Drona felt nothing like love or affection for him. He went so far as to respect Arjuna without going further. Proud, single-minded and acutely sensitive, Drona had never recovered from his last meeting with Drupada: he looked now upon Arjuna as the best means to avenge his hurt and mortification.
       But now, before him stood this wonderfully dark tribal boy who had just displayed marksmanship that Drona himself had never believed possible. And who should he call his teacher but Drona himself! Drona was more touched than he had been in years — but he could see the light of envy in Arjuna’s eyes and he knew what he had to do. It was the only way to achieve his goal. He had not striven ascetically for years to be moved by the beauty and skill and candour of a tribal boy! He was Drona, brahmin, and foremost among archers; and he himself had trained Arjuna. He could not afford to be sentimental now, or all his years of unceasing labour would go to waste. Arjuna would lose heart, and then who would defeat Drupada?
       And so concealing the storm within his heart, Drona said coldly: “If you truly think that I am your Guru, boy, then I am entitled to a Guru-Dakshina, am I not?”
       “Indeed you are, sir,” replied the Nishāda boy eagerly, “Nothing would give me more pleasure than giving you a large Guru-Dakshina. All I have I owe to you. But I’m only a poor hunter’s son.”
       From behind him, to his right, Drona could feel Arjuna’s eyes burning into him, and it was all he could do to keep from shouting at Arjuna; from telling him that this dark-skinned boy was the greater archer.
       “I do not want any riches, boy, I have everything I need already. However, there is one thing…”
       “Yes, sir, please tell me what it is. What can I give you?”
       Drona’s breath caught in his throat. He felt awash with shame — shame at what he had to say and shame at the memory of what Drupada had done to him. Silently the two struggled, but the memory was too strong, too vivid and his bitterness won through. He felt as selfish and arrogant as Drupada.
       “So be it, boy,” he said. “Give me your thumb then — your left thumb.”
       He looked around as he said this and felt sickened to see a flame of elation leap in Arjuna’s vivid eyes. Here was one as cruel as himself, he thought. Here was one who was willing to sacrifice an innocent boy to his selfish desire. He had not misread human nature! All was depravity and greed! Heartened, Drona turned again towards the boy — and nearly cried out at what he saw. The boy held his bloodied left thumb in the palm of his hand, as the chopped-off stump gushed a dark-red blood. In his right hand was a crude hunting knife. He was smiling.
       “Here you are, sir,” he said. “I hope you will accept this with my humble gratitude.” He hesitated: “And if you don’t mind, sir, would you please bless me before you leave, for I do not know if we shall ever meet again.”
       Struck dumb, but retaining a trembling command of himself, Drona took the proffered thumb before silently laying his hand over the smiling boy’s head. ‘God bless you, my child,” he murmured and then even more softly — so that no one but he could hear it — “and forgive me.”
       He then turned abruptly and strode away, that none might see the tears that glistened like raindrops in his eyes. Through the haze, he seemed to hear Arjuna’s protestations of gratitude, but his mind was fixed upon Ekalavya’s dark-eyed smile.

Glossary:

1. Guru-Dakshina (lit. preceptor-gift): In ancient India, a student in the Gurukula (preceptor’s āshrama) usually acknowledged his debt to his Guru through a gift. Not necessarily monetary, the dakshina could take the form of a milch cow or a task that the guru wanted done or some such thing.

2. Nishāda: A hunter-tribe mentioned in the Mahabharata, described as dark-skinned and generally considered lowly.

Poem : The Rain – An Ode

This poem is one of the very few poems I wrote in the year 2016. Being part of India’s much-vaunted “youth brigade”, I decided that year to do my part and add my might to the country’s burgeoning workforce. The result was some money in the bank and the gradual decline of the time and “mind-space” I’d had for over a year – a period that saw me write an astonishing (to me) 50 or so poems in 2015 alone.

     Regrettably, by the end of 2016, what had been a gush had reduced to the barest trickle – catalyzed relentlessly by the monotony of corporate work and Bangalore’s wildly-entropic traffic.

     This particular poem was written about two months into my job – before I had become “as jaded as a dog that has had too much of the sun”. The most significant thing about this poem is that it is a transcreation of a Kannada poem I had written a week previously; in spontaneous response to a spell of rain that followed Bangalore’s hottest recorded day in some 75 years.

     I must hasten to add that I am no Kannada poet. However, when the rain came down on April 25, 2016 to provide much-needed respite, I simply began an ಆಟ (aaṭa: play, game) of my own with the Kannada language – a light, breezy, happy game that combined both ನಾದ (nāda: sound) and ಪ್ರಾಸ (prāsa: rhyme) and started and ended almost as naturally as the rain.

     And this little poem’s ಗತ್ತು (gattu: gait, progress) was so very nice that I thought I’d try to translate it into English – and when the first two lines came out felicitously, I just continued on and finished the whole thing in a state of a true wonderful happiness, exultation even. (Just thinking about that time makes me smile now.)

     In a word, I like to think of this poem as a happy poem. Revisiting it has certainly made me happy.

     So, without further ado, here is the poem, bookended respectively by my Kannada and English recitations.

(NB: A transcreation looks to capture the spirit of the original rather than literally translate it. In this case, the phonetic rhythm of the original has most definitely left its mark on the transcreation.)

 

 

The Rain An Ode

The rain the rain the rain the rain
An olden water is shining again
As it whirls and it curls and it pearls and unfurls
Like a pageant of happy and beautiful girls

Bending and bowing to the wave of the wind
Pervading – expanding – from above to mankind
Playing and singing as it falls and it drops
Imbuing the dying with livening sap

Seeking the silence – stretching past speech
Expanding – outspreading a happier reach
Dropping – unstopping – leaping and tapping
Shaping – unshaping – refreshing – enwrapping

Flowing and growing, beautifully showing
Inmoving – outmoving – flirting and skirting
Tearing – unsparing – the mane of the sun
The rain has returned in celebration.

 

Poem : A Passage Through Millenia

As the inaugural, I have chosen a poem I wrote sometime in 2015, my most prolific year as a poet. There are a few reasons for my choice.

     The primary reason is the nature of the poem’s birth. I seem to remember that the first line “came to me”, followed shortly by the next two lines. Not wanting to lose them, I quickly noted them down on a nearby tissue. (I often used to keep a couple of these “grooved” tissues with me, just to be able to feel the wonderfully wavy passage of the pen upon their surface.) The rest of the poem came to me in stages, as I sought to expand upon the emerging theme.

     A second reason is the rhythm and rhyme the poem possesses. While rhyme was often eschewed in blank verse, (metrical) rhythm was the staple of almost all lyric poetry until the modernist movements of the 20th-century. Having begun writing poetry under the influence of Yeats (who called himself “the last romantic”), I have always leaned towards a lyric poetry that lends itself to recitation, perhaps even incantation. The discovery of Bendre’s magically euphonious Kannada poetry only heightened my predilection. (Indeed, it is my opinion that the lyric at its best is a felicitous melding of sound, euphony, rhythm, imagery, thought and music.)

     The third reason is, of course, the poem’s recitability. Since this poem, whatever its merits, was forged not simply by the pen but the tongue too – I have taken this opportunity to recite it out loud, something I greatly enjoy.

     The last reason is, to some extent, my judgement of this poem as a kind of a “middle-period poem”, one that (loosely) points back towards the style of my early poetry while also pointing forward towards the style of my recent poetry.

 

A Passage Through Millenia

‘What prayers once echoed through the trees,
What heavens once opened to the breeze,
What sages once sat here at ease
Meditating on that perfect form?

What birds once sang from night to day,
What artless animals once played,
What berry-drenched vines once swayed
Above the butterflies?

What ripened fields once filled with grain,
What wooded paths once were green-stained,
What forests once flooded with rain
Below the swāti star?

What holy flames once flicked their tongues,
What bells of brassy-bronze once rung,
What sapta-swaras once were sung
In honour of the only one?

What whirling waters once advanced,
What waves of wind once wildly danced,
What lively luminous light once lanced
Through thickly twisting trees?

What mystic melodies once lilted,
What grace-filled limbs once tilted,
What swarga’s touch once melted
Some terrestrial heart?’

“Who cares who cares for all that’s passed?
Such beauty was never meant to last,
The winds of change blow strong and fast.
Look close, instead, at that glass tower;
Notice how elegantly it flowers
Forth, look upon mankind’s new bower.”

 

Glossary:

1. swāti (swaa-thī): One of the 27 nakshatra-s (stars, star-clusters) identified in Hindu astrology and cosmology. It is a traditional belief that those raindrops that enter an oyster under the swāti star will certainly become pearls.

2. sapta-swara (sup-thuh swuh-raah): The seven major notes of the Indic musical scale: Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni. A rāga in either in the Carnatic or Hindustani classical style that uses every one of these seven swara-s is called a sampūrṇa rāga (a full rāga).

3. swarga (swurr-gaah): The dwelling of the gods.