46 (Partial chapter)
Anga loved horse riding. They’d leave in the evening and return around midnight. One such late afternoon, they took a forest trail in the south-east of the city and went on for three hours. On the way back, thunder clapped and lightning flashed. The terrified deer sprang to their feet, and wolves ran to hide in their dens.
As the first raindrops fell, Anga cried, ‘Piyadassi, the monsoon is here!’ Since childhood she had believed that forests were infested with man-eating ‘Rakshasa’–demons– at night.
‘Those are fairy tales,’ Asoka comforted her. ‘I’ve never seen one in my life.’
The rain started to pour down. Dripping, they dismounted and waited under a tree. Asoka took off his waistcoat and put it on Anga. Lightning flashed and he saw a wide-canopied Banyan tree with pillared arms, and rain sloping down its foliage to the ground. They ran to it and stood watching the rain, Anga in Asoka’s arms.
Whenever the lightning flashed, the many trees of the forest were revealed– all washed. Mimosa, gardenia, aloe-wood, laburnum and kachnar, shrubs and creepers of peacock flower, hibiscus, exora, purple wreath, golden shower and moonbeam. The rain slowed down, and leaving the Banyan tree, they found they had lost the forest trail, and Anga’s horse kept getting tangled in the low branches. All four directions seemed to have been erased by the heavy rain and a timeless forest existed shrouded in damp darkness.
Dripping heavily, Asoka scrambled to find another Banyan tree as the rain had slowed down. Through the leafy screen, he sighted a flickering light in the distance and Anga and Asoka exchanged happy glances. In that darkness, the now visible, now hidden, the quivering oil lamp flame became their towline. Each time the wind blew, the flame trembled and dimmed, and each time the swaying branches obscured it, their hearts sank.
Then lightning flashed, and in that instant, a shining white hut sprang up not too far from them. Instantly, Anga was transported to the old Vihara. Oblivious of the rain, she felt herself melting in the fire of love.
In those days, many ascetics– the Sramanas—lived in forests, subsisting on berries, fruits, nuts and rice, wearing only deerskins or tree bark. Anga and Asoka now reached the hut. On the porch stood a three-legged potbelly iron stove and firewood was stacked against the wall. Asoka wiped the rain from his face. ‘Anga, I’ll find out if it is a hermitage or a den of thieves.’ He drew his sword and knocked.
‘Who is there?’ asked a female voice. The door opened and a little girl stuck her head out, then closed the door again.
‘A traveler and his wife!’ Asoka replaced his sword.
Anga now joined him and called to the girl, who emerged wide-eyed.
‘What is your name?’ Anga patted her back affectionately.
‘Shakuntala.’ She seemed amazed at the sight of this beautiful woman.
‘Where is your father?’ Anga asked.
‘Visiting a friend,’ the girl smiled.
Shakuntala went in, lit another lamp and held it up to Anga. Her eyes brightened. ‘Who is your father?’ Anga asked.
‘And your mother?’
‘I have no mother.’
Surprised, Anga asked, ‘Are you an ascetic’s daughter?’
‘No. He found me and my sister at this door. We are like his daughters now.’ ‘Can we stay here tonight?’ Anga asked.
‘Oh, yes. We have two rooms. One here, the other there.’ Shakuntala pointed to a grove of trees out at the back. ‘That’s where we both sleep.’ She explained, ‘This is my father’s hut. I fell asleep, but woke up to perform the evening prayer here.’
Holding the lamp, she showed them the rectangular room. It had a small window that was closed. Two blankets lay on a bamboo mat. Next to it, a deerskin was spread for meditation, and beyond the deerskin, a cotton mattress lay against the wall. A water jug and two chipped cups sat in the corner on a small table.
Shakuntala went bounding to her room and returned dripping, carrying towels and sheets. She went off again and brought boiled rice, fruits and a red hibiscus flower in a banana leaf basket. She put the basket on the mat and gave the flower to Anga.
Asoka dragged the iron stove near the door and lit a fire. Anga stood wrapped in a sheet and dried her hair over the fire. Asoka rubbed her back, then stood outside the door drying his cloak, with a towel round his waist.
‘You’re not afraid to be by yourself?’ Asoka asked Shakuntala, lifting the towel a little, to direct warm air to his wet behind. Suddenly, a flame leapt at his front.
‘Piyadassi! Anga blurted, ‘Be careful of fire on your…!’ Her cheeks turned red. Amused, Asoka smiled at her, and Anga lowered her eyes. Shakuntala spread the banana leaf with fruit and rice. Still blushing, Anga asked, ‘Shakuntala, do you have company?’
‘I have my twin sister, a deer and a fawn,’ she replied, innocently.
Anga took off her gold bracelet. ‘Shakuntala, don’t hesitate. Take this gift for your wedding. Now go to bed.’
She left and Anga, now dressed, and Asoka, still wrapped in the towel, sat down to eat. ‘Not exactly a royal meal!’ Asoka teased.
‘It is,’ Anga smiled. ‘The meal of the emperor and his queen!’
The meal over, they talked, stoking the fire.
Spreading out the sheets and the blanket, Anga took the cotton mattress. Asoka opened the window, extinguished the lamp and dowsed the logs, filling the room and the porch with the aroma of pine and smoke. While the smoke cleared, Asoka stood in the doorway looking out. Nothing was visible behind the curtain of streaming rain. Each time the lightning flashed, he saw the foliage of the forest glitter, and turn silvery.
At last Asoka lay down on the bamboo mat. The wind howled outside, but he heard only Anga’s gentle breathing. His own became faster. Only a deerskin divided them. He sat up in bed, and craned his neck to see Anga’s head on the pillow facing the wall, her body covered with a blanket. His eyes caressed her hair and her bare white neck, and blood rushed to his head. The desire to kiss her overtook him. Naked, he crouched on all fours, and crossed the deerskin like the Rubicon, then lowering his head inhaled her scent, and whispered in her ear, ‘Anga, I can’t sleep.’ She turned, her eyes shining with love. With a faint smile, she looked into his eyes and lifted the blanket. He slipped in–feet first–lightly touching her navel, her thighs, her calves, till he lay facing her.
Tightening the cover over him and enclosing him in her arms, she softly whispered, ‘Are you warm, my love?’
Pressing her close, he caressed her back and kissed her, her body melting in his arms. Outside, the rain pounded the parched earth; the earth panted, emitting a fragrant vapor. His lips wandered over her eyes, the inside of her neck, her firm breasts– like a spring shower falling lightly on golden marigolds, he lingered on her smoldering lips…more.