Supernatural as an Aid to Women’s Desires: Study of Naga-mandala and The Dilemma
(Department of English, Girideepam Institute of Advanced Learning)
He was really a powerful ghost. He could have wrung the neck of all the elders…But living a life of love for four years had transformed his mentality. He wanted to tell a lie but was unable to. Yet how could he tell the truth? He had to safeguard his beloved’s honour. (Detta 41)
“Then listen to me carefully. When you face the elders, tell them you will prove your innocence. Say you will take the snake ordeal” (Karnad 34) tells the Naga to Rani who is pregnant and will have to face the village elders so as to prove her chastity.
The incorporeality of the supernatural has always worried humanity. When we deal with the supernatural and its super power to affect the human life, we always think of it as a curse. It is not a life giving force but a life taking doom. We would never think of it as an aid. But still there are a lot of folk-tales in northern India which propagates the power of supernatural to come for a human’s aid. When beauty becomes a curse to some the ugly comes for the rescue. The bride, Lakshmi or Lachmi in the story The Dilemma and Rani the newly wedded bride of the play Naga-mandala are the epitomes of beauty who are doomed after their marriage. But their beauty turns out to be a boon for them once it is exposed. Under the suppressing veil of their cultural and societal roles both Lakshmi and Rani dares to dream. Their dream is simple yet impracticable. A chance is a rare opportunity and so they wait eagerly for it and hope from their hopelessness.
The Dilemma is a short story by Rajastani writer Vijay Dan Datta originally titled Duvidha in Hindi. This story is about a woman named Lakshmi (Lachmi) who married a rich Seth’s son. As the story begins we see the just married couple returning home after their marriage ceremony. On the way they stopped to rest in a forest. There is a superstitious belief in most of the Indian cultures that some forests are possessed by ghosts. Within no time a ghost enters the scene. As the bride rested and unveiled her face, the ghost who had his dwelling in the hollow of a tree saw her beautiful face. He was mesmerised by her beauty that he “felt that his existence had become meaningful” (32). First he thought to take the possession of the bride’s body but later he resigned because he preferred to suffer for himself rather than inflicting pain on her. Such an attitude is unlikely of a ghost but true love and sympathy for the new bride left him compassionate. The ghost was caught in a dilemma, so was the bride-groom who was trying to tally his accounts with the marriage expenses. He was so much indulged in his accounts and couldn’t even comprehend his wife’s desire to eat red berries. He tells that it is ‘uncivilized’ to eat berries. We soon understand by this that the bride is caught in the elite social culture and soon will have to face the ugly face of the patriarchal norms of the society. It is interesting to note that the bride we see in this story is not as submissive as she is expected to be, she knows well to go behind her dreams, she know how to go behind her ‘red berries’ because she has ‘hope’. The ‘red berries’ in the story represents ‘hope’ or ‘dreams’ that Lachmi has about her new life. But her hope for a new life shatters when she hears that her husband will leave the village within two days on the auspicious occasion of the teej festival. Teej is a festival celebrated in many parts of the northern India primarily by girls and women during the monsoon season. It is celebrated to commemorate the union of Lord Shiva and Vishnu. On this day women pray to Goddess Parvathi for the well-being of their children and husbands. It is on such a day of so much importance to women that Lachmi’s husband plans to leave. When she hears that her husband would come back from the business trip only after five years she found her dreams leaving her. “She felt as if somebody was squeezing the blood from her heart” (33).The happiness that she had hoped for after her marriage seemed to be leaving her. During their nuptial night also the bride was forced to listen to words of wisdom from her husband. He never asked a single word about her and he seemed very uncaring for her. It was for this husband that she had to wait for all the five years that is to follow. The bridegroom wants her to serve her in-laws and preserve their family’s honour. This reflects the condition of women in most of the Indian households. The newly wed brides are always asked to follow a certain customs which would add to the preserve the honour of that house. Some of the customs exclusively rooted to the Rajasthani culture are like those followed during the festivals like Gangaur, Teej, Karva Chauth etc…
The bride listened in silence to these words of wisdom. It was not in her power to say, to do, or to change anything. Her husband’s will must be her will. The father’s will was the son’s will, Lakshmi’s will was the father’s will. And what greed willed was what Lakshmi willed. The night was spent on the purveying of these words of wisdom. (Detta 34)
It is to such a bride that the ghost appears in the form of her own husband. The bride groom left for business on the day of Teej. On his way he has to pass through the forest. The ghost recognises him soon enough and understands the whole situation. Now that he has a fine opportunity to spend time with the woman with whom he fell in love at the first sight, he quickly studies the manner and style of the Seth’s son and sets out to the Seth’s house. The ghost’s journey to the Seth’s house itself is to be noted. This is a very dramatic and picturesque part of the whole story which makes us question how much of the supernatural is present in the natural. Could nature reflect the supernatural? It is given in the story that the ghost itself wonders how all this happened so quickly. “Was this sport of nature buried somewhere in his own breast?”(35) asks Datta or was it merely a coincidence? At the Seth’s house Seth is surprised when he saw his son back so soon. The ghost cooks up a fake story of his return to the Seth but he could not tell any lies to his true love.
Girish Karnad’s play Naga-mandala also acts as a strong criticism of the gender roles given to the women by their respective culture or society as a whole. There are a lot of similarities between representation of women and the role of supernatural in the plot of both the play and the story. To elucidate more on Naga-mandala , from the beginning of the play when the ‘Story’(character of the play) starts to tell the story of the Rani we see her as very much alone and always wishing in her soliloquies that her life will change someday. Appanna her husband comes home only for lunch. She has to both prepare lunch and sit alone at home for her husband locks the door whenever he goes out. It is very evident in the play that Appanna goes to visit his concubine daily at night thereby leaving his wife alone but in The Dilemma the bridegroom leaves only because his father wants him to start a new business in a faraway village. The one who comes to Rani’s rescue is her neighbour Kurudavva and her son Kappanna. Both of them have felt the power of supernatural to a great extent. Kurudavva is sure about some invisible power beyond recognition that affects human life. She has a first-hand experience of it through the root provided to her by a mendicant, which had the power to get her a groom. So when she finds out the condition of Rani, instead of informing her parents she relies on the aid of supernatural, she relies on illusion. She gives the rest of the roots to Rani. Even if the magic of the roots didn’t work on Appanna, it works on a cobra living in an ant-hill nearby. Was it the magic of the root mixed with the curry that woke up desires in the cobra? Or was it that the cobra was woken up by the hot curry that was poured into the ant-hill that made him look up and see the beautiful Rani? Whatever be the reason, the Cobra fell in love with Rani instantly. He fell in true love with her. And when Act I ends the Cobra takes the shape of Appanna and reaches Rani’s bedroom.
‘Appanna’ in Kannada means ‘any man’ and the Seth’s son could also represent any rich man. Both the men are behind the two kinds of pleasures- one of wealth and the other of sex. Both the men forget about the real treasure that is hidden in their home, the real jewels- their wives. ‘Rani’, as the name suggests means ‘queen’. She is in a sense the Queen of all beautiful women in the world and Lakshmi or Lachmi is the goddess of wealth, according to the Indian Mythology. Here in the story Lachmi is wedded to a man who wants to be the god of wealth but forgets that the Goddess of wealth is at his home. Wealth here can be equated with true love which is thousand times precious than the gold and diamond. It is the ghost and Naga, two supernatural beings that understands the pain of the two brides. They are in fact drawn by their own desires to be with the woman they love. There could be a claim that both the ghost and the Naga are villains of the story, but considering the women’s plight in both the plot both of them are acting as aids. They are the real hero’s helping the wives in distress. It is to be noted that it is the supernatural which understands the women but not their human husbands. Both of these creatures whom the human considers cruel and tormenting become more humane than the two husbands.
In scene two of Naga-mandala we see Naga in the form of Appanna taking with Rani. This could be paralleled with the talks between the Ghost and Lachmi. The only difference we see is that Rani does not understand that Naga who comes in the form of Appanna is not her husband. It is not revealed to her. But the ghost in The Dilemma reveals it to Lachmi as soon as she says that “my desire has been fulfilled” (36). The ghost explains:
Are you sure your desire has been fulfilled? You’d better make sure I am not some other man, some magician posing as your husband… Actually, I am another man but your virtue is intact, because my love is true. The husband who married you has no true love for you. That is why he turned away from such beauty and went off abroad. (36)
In Naga-mandala the Naga makes sure that Rani has not doubt on his reality. When Rani suddenly saw a cobra through the mirror in the place where Naga stood she is shocked. There is desperate attempt made by Naga to reveal his truth but it is Rani’s disgust for a Cobra that made him think twice. Whatever be the circumstances both the ghost and the Naga are symbols of dream fulfilment of both their and their lovers. The bride in Datta’s story knows why such an aid is needed to fulfil her desires? She is completely aware why she should accept the proposal of love from the ghost rather than wait for five years for her husband? Detta explains this as the bride is caught in the dilemma of her dreams, her reality and the fulfilment of her desires:
Neither in the bullock cart nor in the bedchamber had he understood his wife’s desires…Today, the sun was dimmed by the light of this ghost’s love. She had not been able to control her wedded husband… Her husband had left her in midstream. Though a ghost, this other had shown her love. How could she refuse it? Could dreams be controlled, then might love be controlled? (37)
Thus begins the love story of the ghost and Lachmi, the girl who bravely used the choice she was provided with. She was brave and courageous enough to walk through the untrodden path towards the fulfilment of her dreams. The result of this love story was attainment of true love, wishes fulfilled and bringing some meaning to life. And this was possible only because of the power of the supernatural.
Naga and Rani too lived happily even when they were to meet only at night. Even if Rani was oblivious of the truth about her lover she enjoyed his company at night. She who was desperate for her parents embrace and she who always wanted a magic to happen in her unhappy married life now have her wishes half-fulfilled. The complete fulfilment comes when she successfully completes the ordeal to prove her chastity forced upon her by Appanna when he finds that his wife is pregnant. She was completely confused at her husband’s behaviour and thus was caught in a dilemma. But Naga clears her mind when he comes as Appanna on his last night with her. He tells her to take the oath by the cobra to prove her chastity and promises her that by doing this all will be well. He tells her that “Your husband will become your slave tomorrow. You will get all you have ever wanted”(35).
But in The Dilemma when Lachmi becomes pregnant we could see in it the beginning of an end. The news of her pregnancy brings her real husband back adding to everyone’s astonishment. The whole village is caught in a dilemma and as they go to the king to seek out justice, they meet a shepherd whose rough justice ends up the ghost in his waterskin. The lord of love is caught in the shepherd’s waterskin and the Seth, his real son and other villagers cast the water skin into the fast flowing water current. Nobody heard his cries. “His life was fulfilled his death was meaningful” (42).
The supernaturals in both the plots never allowed their women to lose their honour in front of the society. In Naga-mandala the whole village began to consider Rani as a goddess making Appanna spend rest of his life with his wife as she wished. In The Dilemma even if she lost her true lover, she got her husband back who must have probably learnt a lesson from his mistake of leaving his new bride in danger. In both the cases the Ghost and the Naga doesn’t do any harm to the women rather fulfils her wishes and leaves with them a symbol of their love that is their children. Rani lives with her son and her husband happily and when Naga comes to see her in her bedroom he finds both his son and his lover happy. Whereas in the Detta’s story Lachmi gets a beautiful daughter who would remind her how her dreams were fulfilled by a ghost once in her life. In the final soliloquy by Naga we see how well he sacrificed his life for his love. When he sees Rani in another man’s bed he realises that somebody must die and uses his magical power for one last time. He becomes the size of her tresses, hides in her tresses and dies a silent death. When Rani finds out the dead cobra which had fallen from her hair, it seems that she has understood the truth about it. She wants the Naga to be given a decent cremation. The cremation should be done by her son and every year her son should perform the rituals to commemorate its death. Appanna could not comprehend the reason behind this wish of hers but he has to do as she wishes because as he says: “You are the goddess herself incarnate. Any wish of yours will be carried out” (44). As Appanna goes out for preparations Rani sits staring at the snake with her eyes fulfilled with tears and caresses the snake as if the whole truth which was hidden from her till now is revealed.
Thus we can say that in both Naga-mandala and The Dilemma the supernatural acts as a liberating force for the women. It liberates them the suppressing hand of patriarchy. It provides a choice for the women to shed the chains of societal and cultural norms. It gives them a life they wished by being a keen listener to their sorrows. The true aid and true love provided by the two supernatural beings towards their woman itself is best expressed by the ghost in The Dilemma when he says:If you are not agreeable to my staying on, I will go back this instant, and never again look your way. I do not want to enjoy a love which will cause suffering to you. Yet all my life I will remain indebted to you for having transformed the poison in my heart into nectar… (37). I am the subtle being within a woman’s body, the lord of her love (41).
Karnad, Girish. “Naga-mandala: Play with a Cobra”. Trans. A.K Ramanujan. Oxford: OUP, 1990. Print.
Detta, Vijay Dan. The Dilemma. Trans. Ruth Vanita. Delhi: Manushi Prakashan, 2000.Web. July 2015.
Crooke, William. An Introduction to popular religion and folklore of northern India. Allahabad: Government Press. Google Books Search. Web. 2015.