June 13, 2011

Kathegarana Shaapa | The Storyteller’s Curse

I am Kathegara, the storyteller. Over the centuries I have been called many other names: Baghawatha the narrator and Soothradhara the holder of strings. I was five years old when my destiny was foretold. I still remember the day clearly. It was near the end of the Rig-veda, one of the most glorious times in the purity of spiritual thought. A thin, tall man with a beard and long hair appeared at our doorstep. He carried a staff in his hand. My grandmother went in to get some food.

“We never turn away a hungry man” explained my mother, in my ear, while I sat in her lap.

As the man accepted the alms, he asked if he could have some water, his throat was parched.

“Go fetch water” said my mother, giving me a slight push. I already knew that it was considered a sin to deny someone water.

I brought a small pot of water, and poured slowly into the man’s mouth, while he took loud, continuous gulps.

After he was done, he took a long look at me and gripped my shoulders.

“You will have a very long life, boy” he said, unsmiling. He looked at my mother “he must have said something very bad about Shiva. He has been cursed to live on earth as penance. And he is no ordinary mortal. He will live as long as there are stories to tell. Call him Kathegara.” He then smiled broadly, showing discolored teeth, patted me on my head lightly, and left.

Kathegara sighs. He thinks about how much the world has changed since then. A little bit for the better, a lot for the worse. His is a lonely existence. The knowledge that he will outlive everyone he meets. That people come to him only to tell him their versions of their stories. So many stories! And it is not easy to find him either. As his fame spread and more people arrived in hordes, he had to make it difficult to find him.

“It is easier to do penance and get a boon from Vishnu than to get an audience with you” Vyasa had said to him.

He had thought about seeking Brahma’s help, in returning to heaven. But Vyasa had explained that a day-long visit to Brahmaloka would result in the passage of a thousand earth-years, years he could ill afford to miss as Kathegara. He then thought of the many stories in which Devaloka-vasis are able to ascend to heaven from their mortal bodies, but the curse kept him back.

“As long as there are stories to tell…”

As centuries passed, he abandoned all hope of leaving his earthly confines, and dedicated himself to being the link between different generations. When he was young he had wondered how his body would handle the ravages of time. But like the ageless mountains in which he lived, his destiny didn’t cripple his appearance as the years passed since his adulthood.

The words of Kaikeyi continue to torment him.

“You changed the perception of asuras” she had said, with the calmness of someone who knows they are right.

When Kathegara was about 7, he was playing near the banks of a river, when his friend, an asura, had told him that he could breathe under water. Nijasura said that the trick was to keep your head under water and breathe slowly, like fish do. The both of them took to the water. Kathegara opened his mouth, and as his face swallowed water, he was struck by a fear of drowning, and put his hands out for help. Nijasura grabbed him by his hair, and kept him under water before dragging him ashore after what felt like an eternity. As Kathegara coughed up water, Nijasura turned his face to look him in the eye and said “Don’t trust everything you are told, Kathegara” he said quietly, and he left, never to be seen again.

It was an important lesson.

But that didn’t stop Kathegara from letting his dislike for asuras show in the tales, as their personalities took on distinctly sinister traits in tales of yore. From being venerated as much as devas and having similar powers, the asuras had slowly become materialistic and evil, as told in the stories passed down from one generation to the next. The devas meanwhile, continued to hold reign as the symbols of good and took on the mantle of protectors of the people. Protectors from the evil perpetuated by the asuras.

The astute Kaikeyi was referring to this shift, when she came to see him. His mandate was to be the storyteller. As the sole storyteller that could connect the dots for future generations, he had failed in being neutral. He had allowed his opinions to influence the stories, and had answered the questions posed to him, with his biases. He had learned though. He was a lot more enigmatic now, and stuck to the script.

It was quite a task to keep all the stories straight. Each epic had more than a thousand characters, each with their own motivations, reincarnations and interconnections that could boggle the mind. And thousands of languages to tell them in! Goddess Saraswati took pity on Kathegara and gave him a boon that language would never be a barrier to him. In return, he promised to make sure that all manifestations of knowledge would be accrued proper respect. As a consequence of the boon, the Kathegara could understand even the language of the birds.

Kaikeyi had complained that she was unnecessarily vilified. Her father had her married to Dasharatha because he had heard from the birds, via a boon that let him understand the language of birds, that a son born to Dasharatha would be the savior that would rescue them from the evil and unrest spreading across the land. This son, Rama, would have to be sent away from his kingdom and his doting father in order to accomplish his mission. Kaikeyi was to be the one to send him away using the two boons a grateful Dasharatha would give her when she saved his life in war. Her nurse-turned-maid Manthara, poisoned Kaikeyi’s mind against Rama, and influenced her in turning Rama away from the kingdom, while trying to instate Bharata, Kaikeyi’s son, as the King. This plan however, backfired, and Bharata refused to become king. Dasharatha, unable to bear the pain of separation from his first born, died immediately, fulfilling the curse that had been placed upon him that he would die of putrashoka. Having lost everything, Kaikeyi left the kingdom with Manthara, and wandered the forests. After Manthara’s death, she had come to see Kathegara.

“It is true I was manipulated by Manthara, but my destiny was to send Rama to protect his people” she opined. “I was merely fulfilling my role. But now no one speaks of the unrest everywhere and the necessity of Rama’s exile, they only speak of His glory over Ravana and other rakshasas that had been harassing his subjects; of Dasharatha’s sadness and my evil nature. My side of the story is not considered.”

Although she was forgiven by her sons and family, she was worried that future generations would not be as kind to her. That she would become an immoral figure, to be used as a reference of evil in the teaching of morals through tales. She was irrefutably prescient about what she would be reduced to.

But as Kathegara had learned, stories morphed when let loose amongst people. It was best not to interfere. Each person, each generation, each culture would glean from a story what was needed at the time and discard everything else as noise. Stories are powerful tools, used to impose morality, religion and an accepted code of behavior. And when something of significance took place and had to be recorded, or when greater clarity was required, they came looking for the Kathegara.

Because they knew as long as there were stories to be told, Kathegara would be around, waiting.

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