EXCERPT FROM THE NOVEL:
Now Asoka was reconciled to not conquering all of India. No glory, no immortality for me! I’ll not be a slave to greatness or a slave to Baba. I just want my life back. I miss my happiness. Ah! All philosophies come to grief, life triumphs in the end.
He prepared to go on a hunt with Anga. She refused. ‘Anga, you don’t even try. It’s been months.’ Then looking into her eyes, he coaxed, ‘Don’t think, just come! In the fresh, fragrant forest air, you’ll forget everything.’
Anga looked at him accusingly. ‘Piyadassi, hunting is no magic potion. I’ve come through a storm. I can’t go on as if…’ She burst into tears.
‘A power-crazed King, a religion gone mad!’ Asoka said defensively. ‘But they are behind us now, Anga. Can’t you see?’
Anga looked at him incredulously. ‘I can wash the blood of the dead from my hands. But not the tears of the children and widows. There is no eye in Kalinga that is not wet.’
Asoka became impatient. ‘Anga, life goes on.’
‘So does the pain!’
‘It’s not that I have no regrets.’
‘The priest repents today,’ she said scornfully, ‘and tomorrow fornicates.’
Seeing the hurt on his face, she burst into tears, and held him close. ‘Asoka, it is not you I blame. It’s me! Me! I’m trying. I just can’t help it.’
He forgot his own hurt, and pressed her to him. ‘Anga, think of pleasant things. Think of the life we had. Don’t be so stubborn! We have to get out of this hole.’
She broke down. ‘Asoka, I am so, so unhappy.’
He walked away, frustrated. She does not even try. I am a King, not a monk!
He decided to go hunting by himself with the courtiers, hoping she would change her mind. The horses and elephants, the nobles, and the archers stood ready at the palace gate. But at the last minute he changed his mind. Without her smiling face, without the glint in her eyes, nothing feels the same. Not the day, or the night. Asoka thought, then tore his hair. Kalinga is leeching our lifeblood!
Then he found out she was pregnant. He thought, it is the best thing that could have happened. Especially to her!
But Anga was shattered. She anguished, That day will live in my child’s flesh. Every time I hold him, my milk will go dry.
When Suiya said, ‘Now, you’ll get well,’ Anga shook her head.
‘I have a monster in my womb!’
Asoka would take her out for walks and asked her to decorate the Palace, or return to the orphanage, which was suffering from neglect, but she showed no interest. Every day she brought up Kalinga, and Asoka would storm away, thinking she was wallowing in mud. Then he had an idea.
He found her sitting by the lotus pond. Seeing him, she hurriedly wiped her eyes and started to chew the lotus petals.
At last Asoka smiled. ‘I thought you didn’t like lotus flowers?’
She was embarrassed. ‘My Lord, I heard it induces amnesia.’
Sitting down beside her, he took out an exquisite necklace from his waistcoat, folded her in his arms and kissed her cheeks. ‘For you– the dear mother of our coming prince.’
Sadness came into her eyes. Crestfallen, he asked, ‘You don’t like it?’
‘Oh no. I am thrilled, Piyadassi.’ Anga kissed his hand eagerly. Yet, a thought came to her. I need his love, not necklaces. He is looking for what we have lost along life’s trail. He does not understand my pain. Our spirits that once romped together, now wander alone. Much more had died in Kalinga than just men. She remembered the days she took out his letters from under her pillow, her yearning for him when it rained and thundered at the hermitage, the evenings they played on the Ganges, the day he carried her down from the Palace terrace to the chariot in his arms. All flashed before her eyes. I can never bring back his happiness. We live by the commandments of our nature, not by pretensions of happiness. Hypocrisy and compromise, to me, are death. If I suffer, I suffer.
She smiled through her tears and pressed him close to her bosom. Then she changed the subject and told him about the play she had been writing with Bitan. It was called ‘The Great Man’ and was performed in late spring.
Settling to watch the performance, Anga looked tired as she sat in the front row with Asoka, with Bitan on other side. The councilors and their families sat behind them.
The Great Man– A Play
The play opened with a chorus that addressed the audience.
‘Patrons! Do not be surprised by animals in this play. In the Rig-Veda, gods sacrificed the primeval man “Purusha,” and created all animals and men from his limbs. That explains why the animal is in us, and we are in the animals. We are not as different as we think. Enough! Enjoy the play!’
*** *** ***
Enter Little Boy chasing Pig, then chasing Dog around Deer, Little Boy took bread from his pocket, handfed and stroked Dog affectionately.
Still running around, he sang a rhyme, ‘Piggy, Piggy, Little Piggy, pink and brown. Climbed on a branch, the tree fell down.’
Deer said to Dog, pointing to a wound on its thigh, ‘A man almost killed me!’
Seeing Man in the distance, Deer and Pig hid behind a tree. Little Boy exited running.
Dog said to Pig, ‘Don’t be afraid. Man is my friend! You saw Little Boy feeding me! Talk to Man, he loves to talk. (Pause) My master went to war. I loved him and he loved me. I sat on his lap. Now he is dead. And I am incomplete. I wish to improve two things about myself. I don’t like to raise my hind leg for a leak. And I wish to speak like man. I am working on my barking. (Pause) But I get tired after a few woofs.’
Deer said to Dog, ‘We are not fearless like you, O lover of man! Your bark is mightier than our antlers.
The audience applauds.
Pig bowed to Man. ‘We love and fear man. We don’t have the words to praise you. We can’t th-oink beyond our snout and feet.’
Then Deer spoke. ‘What baffles us is why we keep getting killed. We are not at war. A quiet life is all we want.’
Man replied, ‘The whole world is our steak. We kill you for sport, we kill you for taste. And we kill you for our God.’
‘Did you say dog?’ Dog asked sheepishly.
Man was annoyed. ‘No, God.’
‘Pardon me! God I have not sniffed, as you have, I believe. How does God smell?’ Asoka laughed heartily, and turned to Anga who only sighed.
Now Man said, ‘Yes, I went to war in the distant land where your master died. No one noticed, no one cried. It was so dignified! I lost only half my arm– he waved his stump– because of God’s great plan. How grand!’
Dog asked, ‘Tell me more. Is war play?’
Man answered, ‘No, you silly creature! No one there sings or dances. It is not a game of nuances. You kill or get killed.’
‘Sounds a lot of fun!’ said Dog. ‘Much better than a dog’s life spent wagging its tail. In our animal world, no one is so skilled. Our cup is unfilled!’ (droops down)
A donkey descends from above to the sound of chanting.
He told Dog, ‘Dear Dog! Understand! To fight wars you need a head filled with sand. War is not music, war is not game. Men fight it for fame and other high sounding reasons– all equally lame. We are lucky and wise. So cheer up and rise. Your master would be here, if wars didn’t exist.’
Deer turned to Man. ‘Do what you please, just spare our lives.’
‘Oh Deer! Deer! Understand! If we can kill and maim our own kind, where do you think you and your ilk stand?’
Deer said. ‘We feel the same pain, the same joy, as your Little Boy. Is it such a crime that we cannot sing a rhyme? Please develop a gentle touch like ours. Or something close to it.’
Man was contemptuous. ‘We care for you? You don’t even have a soul!’
‘What’s soul?’ asked Dog
Donkey interrupted. ‘Some kind of a hole?’
Man answered indignantly, ‘Not a hole, ass! More like a wart between the brain and the heart. It’s the stuff of dream. Like the celestial cow, it yields only cream.’
Donkey was puzzled. ‘What does the soul do?’
Said Man, ‘After life’s journey, all the fever and fret, it takes us to heaven on a red carpet.’
Donkey asked, ‘What’s heaven?’
Man became irritable. ‘You know nothing!’ Then proceeded. ‘In heaven there is no friend or foe. Love is like tickling from head to toe. And not an earthquake. There no hair turns grey. And no one has to pray. In heaven, man can eat, drink, and roam all day free, counting from one to seven. Or fall asleep for eternity, dreaming of the life on earth.’
Deer exclaimed, ‘Wonderful! And where do we go?’
Man smiled. ‘To a deep, dark valley that you know is our belly. God made us so special! We can think, we are vocal. Look at the way we are born, the way we live, and die! Heaven is only for us. Not for the riffraff.’
In an aside, Donkey said, ‘Alas! I go nowhere.’
Deer and Pig pleaded, ‘O Man Almighty! Take pity! Please cut down your meat in half.’ Man was annoyed. ‘You might as well ask us to eat with the nose!’
Donkey suggested, ‘Then let’s all go to heaven – if you don’t object.’
Man answered angrily, ‘A very stupid notion that I totally reject.’
A murmur ran through the animals. Resentment rose. Animals sang. ‘Hail to your heaven! Hail to your belly!’ But “hail” sounded more like “hell.”
Off to the side, Pig stood weeping, ‘There is no heaven for us!’