The milky dhatura gum would siphon out my soul toward enlightenment. They said I needed it to face sorrows that could lacerate even a princess. I obeyed the sages and rolled a pea-sized ball on my tongue. Its bitter-acrid taste melted into a jasmine-scented mist, revealing a hibiscus opened to engulf the world and me into its crimson velvet embrace. I slid-danced, twirling my limbs around its delicately firm stamen. The anthers stroked my face, tracing my sword-sharp nose, the curve of my cheeks, like adoring fingers, streaking my quivering body with golden pollen. As it sucked me into its pulsating vortex, I heard each thudding heartbeat and sensed each breath freeing and gripping again my floating body. Then the hibiscus deposited me onto a lush world specked with reds and blushing fuchsia. The familiar yellow-brown undergrowth of the Panchavati forest turned aquamarine, jade and emerald tints, thirsting no longer for rain. I moved on, floating with the gentle breeze.
I saw them moving through the foliage; two doll-like creatures, small like the comical-grotesque dwarfs who juggled balls and did somersaults to amuse jaded courtiers in my father’s palace. Yet these two were perfectly formed, their arms twined around stout bows. The creatures moved like clockwork toys, the playthings my father, the monarch of Lanka, commissioned master craftsmen to fashion for me. I was, I am a princess, the daughter and sister of powerful kings. They would barter their lives, their kingdom, to prevent even a single tear from forming in the corner of my eye.
The dhatura led me on, encasing the world in a crystal drop more vivid than mere reality. I followed the darling little ones to their hut in a clearing. Another doll emerged, a woman even more delicately formed than her toy men. I stood alone hiding behind the foliage, yearning to share their laughter and sink my sharp fangs into the yielding, juicy flesh of the ripe mangoes in their basket. I would learn later that they were Lord Rama, his brother Lord Laxman, and wife Sita; godly incarnations who would be immortalized by Indians in their great epic, the Ramayana.
“Will you play with me?” I remember having emerged from my hiding place and asked. A princess must be welcomed with honour and never need to ask. The dhatura made me forget that childhood lesson and stay, yearn. Enlightenment would follow some day, but not then, not there. Their poets would one day teach all humanity that Lord Rama was the perfect man, the incarnation of Lord Vishnu. His woman, they would preach, was the true and good one to be worshipped in temples, the princess who obediently plunged into the flames, no questions asked.
The dhatura made me playful. They knew I had floated then beyond my finite self, so their poets spread their own version of what followed. I was festooned with ridicule and with a final stroke, decapitated; the ultimate scapegoat, the grotesque fallen one.
My truth is different. If the dhatura intoxicated me with desire to play with those doll-men, I did no wrong. Don’t men forever desire to play with women? I should not have obeyed those sages and let the dhatura take charge. Didn’t I savor every drop of life even without such crutches? It came as naturally as waves breaking against rocks for us rakshasas to dance free and wild. In our palace, evenings of pulsating revelry stretched into the lavender and pink hues of dawn. We relished each hot, sweet, or sour morsel, chewing the fibrous flesh and sucking salty-metallic blood still dripping from freshly slaughtered meat. We drank and drew deep breaths of potent smoke that dissolved all hesitation.
I would dance on those nights. The monsoon breeze would stroke my burnished ebony skin as I tossed off my brocade garments to the clang of cymbals and throbbing drums. As the gongs boomed to a frenzied crescendo, I would unclasp my last shackles, golden chains studded with diamonds and rubies. My beauty did not need to be smothered by silks and ornaments. My father the monarch and my brothers the princes of Lanka encouraged me to play and dance my way.
On that day in Panchavati, the doll-men sensed my mind floating with the breeze. They teased and urged me on. I remember watching those tiny men with dhatura-drawn wonder. Longer, stronger limbs would make them more like our vigorous rakshasa men. It was fantastic, imagining them as plastic shapes flexing to my will. I would comb the tangles out of their hair, and whisking off their rough loincloths, dress them in silken robes embroidered with rare gems. I pictured them growing, then shrinking in my mind’s eye, like stretchy slivers of chewed gum that could never match up to a virile rakshasa.
Men! They must have thought I was admiring, desiring them. When I’d only wanted to play.
As I stepped forward and offered my hand, they said I was beautiful and I knew that was true. How could I have suspected that their perceptions were skewed? I didn’t yet understand their human sarcasm and taunts, their games of half-truths. They toyed with me, as though they were ready to play with me. I did not understand their satirical barbs, for we rakshasas scream out our rage and laugh as freely as we declare our love. To justify their craven vicious act of mutilating me, human poets later wrote in their epic that I had lusted obscenely after them.
Lust! Those two creatures together wouldn’t have matched a bold and free rakshasa. Their songs also lied that I wanted to eat their doll-woman. Shrewd creatures, humans were born to manipulate. They knew that lies told and retold relentlessly would seep into weaker minds as truth.
On that fateful day in Panchavati, bored of their jests, the smaller man drew his bow. The less puny of the two creatures egged him on and…
The flash of sunlight on polished arrows stunned me. And in that blinding moment, flames of pain seared my body.
Blood! Oh… my nose!
Such dire punishment for being playful! Oh my clothes, my hands… Red rivers of crimson drowned out the gentle blues and greens of my world. Wave upon wave of agony crashed through my body. Terrified, I ran away howling from those bloodthirsty, malicious brutes. I stumbled countless times upon the rocks and fainted from the pangs of soul-deep wounds. Sharp branches tore my clothes and hair. My feet cut on jagged rocks, as I ran I knew not where to escape those treacherous men. The throbbing pain dogged me until I slumped into my dear brother Khara’s protective arms.
Supernovae flashed in Khara’s eyes as he stroked my hair free from the gash where my nose once had been. “Who has done this?” his voice boomed making birds spiral downward in mid-fight. Girding on his sword, he marched into the forest with his trusted aides Dushana and Trishiras.
A wizened crone had not yet cleaned and dressed my lacerations, when a lone attender trudged back in bloodied tatters, head downcast. My brother Khara, his brave generals, all… all were gone forever in a flash of vengeful wrath.
The holocaust was yet to come. If only they had listened to me, my brothers. Instead they rushed headlong to settle scores; an eye for an eye, to avenge a mutilated sister, they abducted Lord Rama’s wife. Armies of our brave rakshasas marched forth to battle the advancing columns of the race of monkey-men led by their tiny human gods. None paused to think that honor, valor, and vengeance are sapped of all significance by death.
After the epic battle the puny humans and their vanara followers left our empire of Lanka in shambles. They left me with no story to tell; a mere laughing stock of a footnote in their epic of godly feats. They knew the best way to eliminate a threat was by stifling its voice, by nipping it gently as it emerged tender and pale green from the dark, monsoon drenched earth. Sworn to protect all life, they simply defiled me so it never pricked their exalted conscience.
Their epic screamed for millennia of their glory and our humiliation; that we rakshasas were wild, debased demons incapable of higher emotions and intellect like themselves. That served humans well in their endless spirals of wars and hostilities and justified the violence they thrust upon us as conquerors.
They razed our powerful armies, left our verdant Lanka in the death grip of a nuclear winter. From a citadel of mothers, sisters and widows, we rakshashisemerged to seek our loved ones among the corpse-littered battlefield. I moved through bloody slush, stepping carefully among our fallen rakshasas and soldiers of the enemy vanara armies entwined in mangled heaps.
The feeble cry for life in this field of death rose above distant thunderclaps and the shrieks of carrion birds circling overhead. I stepped over bodies, covering my face against the stinging flies and stench of rotting flesh. There! A raised hand moved as that voice cried again.
He lay twisted and bleeding, still throbbing with hope. His helmet and breastplate had cracked to reveal shattered bones. One leg lay limp, twisted in a skewed angle, but I had learnt from the sages how to set that right with splints and plasters. I drew myself to my full height and heaved the soldier on to my shoulder. As I trudged back toward our citadel, I heard more cries. Searching, I found others who had cheated death. They weren’t much larger than the doll-men, but any rakshasi would have instantly recognized the broader shoulders and larger heads of boys of our rakshasa race. Was it my own brothers who had trapped them into a war they understood nothing about? How had they been condemned to fight with lethal weapons and trained to kill? They should have been chasing butterflies in the fields or swimming in lakes, those young boys.
I returned with my handmaidens to scour the field for more survivors.
The older soldier with the broken leg hovered closest to death. Sponging the dried blood to clear his wounds, I noticed. He had coarse, thick hair covering his arms, legs and chest.
Through the rust coloured hair, I could see his skin, the hue of fired terra cotta. Quite unlike the tamarind seed brown-black skin of our own men. He was clearly an enemy vanara.
Days and weeks passed.
“He’s opening his eyes!” my girls clapped their hands and hugged each other.
“Thank… you… for saving… my life,” he rasped hoarsely in a flash of lucidity, fixing his gaze on me. “Are you… an angel?”
All the dark, vengeful pangs pent up within me made way for a tide of bubbling laughter.
“I’m Soorpanakha, the princess without a nose or kingdom,” I said. “I’m a rakshasi, not an angel.”
“You are to me. Thank you for… my life.”
He then closed his eyes, exhausted. I watched his broad chest rise and fall gently. True, he was no match for our own mighty soldiers. But the rippling muscles on his torso showed strength far beyond those toy-men’s.
The war was over. Now this vanara was a survivor like me. He winced in pain, and I reached out to stroke his forehead.
He opened his eyes again, more golden than light brown, and looked around the room, and then at me.
“Where am I?”
“This was once the palace of the monarch of Lanka. Now it belongs to the victorious godmen. My sole surviving brother Vibhishana manages it as their puppet.”
“Lanka?” His eyes widened and he gasped. “The enemy’s stronghold… bloodthirsty demon rakshasas. But… But this chamber… It’s magnificent. How could demons and monsters carve those polished marble pillars and weave such magical tapestries?”
“We aren’t monsters, any more than you are from a race of monkeys,” I said, seeing the deceit which had created enmity between our people.
“Me, a monkey!” he thundered. “I’m a vanara warrior, a general in my king’s army.”
“They fostered enmity,” I said, the bile rising bitter on my tongue. “They bent our minds with lies to make us fight in a war that need never have happened. Thanks to them, I’ve lost my dear brothers and our kingdom.”
“May I, princess?” the vanara asked. I nodded. He stroked my hand and sighed.
I continued. “While tricking me with their cunning games, the toy-men cut off my nose. This their epic the Ramayana admits to, despite all their sophisticated half-truths. Then they eagerly reached for my nipples and sliced them off to disfigure my beauty and teach me a lesson. Quick to mutilate, they were too squeamish to talk about this second valiant deed. Yet the truth did emerge in a few versions of their tales. Their web of deceit has too many flaws. They called me ugly and repulsive, yet they rushed to deface the beauty they refused to acknowledge.”
“Perhaps they were afraid, or simply overawed?” The vanara arched his bushy eyebrows.
“They taught us to fight the feral rakshasas, yet you say you are one of them.” He paused to regain his breath. “I understand now, they spread lies to make us hate and fight each other.”
“You are recovering now.” I looked at his stocky body regaining strength from our care. “Soon, you can go home and enjoy the spoils of victory. We women will remain weeping forever in the ruins of Lanka.”
“Their victory means little to me.” The vanara sighed, wiping his eye. “We were duty bound to serve in our king’s army. I watched my father and brothers die in the battlefield. There is nothing left for me in my homeland. My king and the men he fought for are rejoicing, but I lost all that mattered to me. “
“If they hadn’t intruded into our land, my dearest Khara, Ravana the brave, they need not have died,” I replied. Outside my window, the field strewn with corpses stretched into grey, still-smouldering infinity. Rakshasa or vanara, race no longer mattered. Death had claimed them all.
“If I had met you before that cursed war, I would have taken you into the forest and made love.” His pupils widened and flecks of gold sparkled in his amber eyes.
Oh! My hand reached for the gash where my nose had been. I had been alone far too long to bother how others saw me. He focused on my gaping wound. Yet neither his gaze nor smile faltered. He spoke my language, and his eyes spoke to mine. In a world destroyed, we still lived.
To rise from the ruins of the holocaust, we needed more than mere brute strength or bestial cunning. From my teachers, I had learnt to calm my soul and ponder. I turned to my knowledge of herbs and thought of things never tried before. Could I draw bones and flesh from other parts of my body to renew my vandalized beauty? I drew a knife and holding its gilded hilt, thrust it into purifying fire. And then, the blade still glowing, I sliced out strips of cartilage from my clavicle to fashion a base for my new nose. Flashes of agony sent me reeling. The dhatura dulled my pangs and steeled my mind. When the cartilage base healed, I drew flaps of skin from my forehead and moulded a new nose. And then with dainty strokes, I fashioned new nipples.
With waves of pain still pulsating through me, I worked upon the surviving soldiers, offering dhatura to keep them calm. Their broken bones I set for painless movement. Their scars I scraped for new, smooth skin to grow.
Months passed. With our stores of dry grains and nuts depleted, we ventured out in search of food. The dead grey sky was fading to reveal blue spring. Rains had washed the blood from the battlefield. The flesh of decaying corpses had given life to vultures and maggots. Their bones had mixed with dust.
We marched on through the field of death, my handmaidens and I, side by side with the young soldiers. The gravel made way for grass, first a few shy green blades, then bolder viridian patches rife with tender clover.
“Look! Trees ahead,” cried the vanara general. We raced on to meet the horizon, inhaling the sweet scents of ripening fruits and flowers. Our fortress melted into the hazy distance as we entered thickets of bamboos and leafy trees. Refreshed by fruits and enticed by a gurgling stream, we ran, tossing off our clothes before plunging into cool water. We laughed as we splashed each other. A koel sang out from the foliage. A flock of cranes flew off from the river bank in a flash of pristine white. We held hands, rakshasas and vanaras together, helping each other up as our feet slipped on the stones of the stream bed. My new nose took in the scents of clear water and moss. A silvery fish swam around me, teasing my freshly budded nipples to rise.
A kite whistled high overhead. My vision flew with it into a distant time, a world burnt, raped and mutilated by human greed. Deafened by bombs, choked by noxious chemicals, blinded by the flash of a thousand suns, I foresaw darkness everywhere. The humans’ treacherous toys had snuffed out the prattle of their own children. The sea heaved dark and viscous, plastic scrap and dead gulls mired in oil slicks floating on its slimy surface.
When men’s death games had ended, we would rise from this forest, singing songs of the wilderness. We would dance, scattering drops of clear stream water, seeds and pink and yellow flower petals to revive their charred world. And we would strew dhatura seeds which would grow and make them forget.
My final revenge would be sweet.
Monideepa Sahu is an internationally published writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her fantasy-adventure novel for young people, Riddle of the Seventh Stone is published by Zubaan Books. Her short fiction has been included in anthologies from Marshall Cavendish Singapore, Puffin, Tranquebar, Scholastic, and elsewhere.