Savitri : Part III

Savitri : The Mahabharata Story

… Continued …

The very next day, King Ashvapati of Madra declared before the full court his acceptance of Princess Savitri’s choice of young Prince Satyavan, as her groom and lord, despite Narad Muni’s vehement objection to the match. Soon, shouts of exclamatory joy could be heard all over the kingdom. People gathered in small groups, taking time off from work or relaxed in their front courtyards in the evening, and spoke about the bright virgin who had delighted their hearts with her pure, kind and happy countenance through the years. They had immense regard for the great King for his virtuous and benevolent rule; and they empathised most with him for the fact that the King had no male heir to succeed upon his passing away.

The most excited chatter however took place among women folks, especially that served in the palace or had husband or a son in king’s service. Those in trade or part of merchant houses looked forward to attending to summon orders from Queen’s quarters in the palace. On the day they heard of the royal intent, all women high or low auspiciously ululated with gush and blew the conch with particular gusto. They chatted about the joyous event to happen when they met with neighbours or ran into others on their way. It was truly to be a national celebration.

Or so everyone thought except Narad, the Sage Divine. His melancholy of tragic future happenings in Princess Savitri’s life was deep. He prayed to Lords Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh that the fated mishap be averted and Savitri spend a long happy conjugal lifetime with Satyavan. His grief cut more deeply everytime he acutely felt his helplessness and remembered that there was nothing, absolutely nothing to prevent the mountain of grief about to befall on the First Maiden of the land. On such occassions, the Sage would direct all his ernest will in beseeching the Great Mother Parvati to grant adequate strength to Savitri to bear her fate and to intercede with Lord Shiva to smoothen the rupturing impact of her impending eternal separation from Satyavan.

“Lord help her. Help her Mother.” These were the only murmur on the quivering lips of the grief-struck Sage through the months that followed.

Came the appointed day, welcomed with the sound of conch shells from early hours, even before the day broke. The marriage rite was a simple ceremony, without ostentation, except for crowded footfalls in temples and celebrations organised by people themselves, at which they ate and drank, sang and danced through the night, and lined up in the morning  at the palace entrance, and all along the path the newly weds were to take, enroute to groom’s modest quarters in the hermitage. There was a shade of sadness over their joys, at the thought of Princess Savitri’s departure from the palace she had lit up with her presence. Tears welled up as the Princess bid adieu to her saddened father and her  mother who wailed unrestrained.

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The groom’s party moved out through the capital city alongwith a few companions of the bride and a team of King’s soldiers to protect them. They passed by festooned house entrances and blazing banners over makeshift welcome gates. Sound of pipes and trumpets from towers at the city gates were heard, then receded. Soon, they entered the forest through which the narrow beaten path to the hermitage wend. Passing through cool forest shades, the Princess drew the curtains of her carriage to see the birds happily chirp, branches sway in the breeze, and leaves dance to tunes playing in her own heart. Sitting across, Prince Satyavan felt he joy in her eyes and smiled at her. The party kept speed, aiming to reach the hermitage in time for a sumptuous lunch being prepared in its community kitchen.

They walked along a small, sinuous brooklet with glistening silvery waters, and crossed over. They moved past the frowning hills and wild pastures on the way, and at last could the large dense green patch around the hermitage. The dwelling units of resident hermits were situated in the midst of primeval woods beyond, in one of which Princess Savitri was to spend her life, as the consort of Prince Satyavan. She was happy for that, without any fear.

As they neared the hermitage, Savitri could make out the welcome party of a few scarcely clad men, bearded, in deep orange garb. Startled by approaching horse riders and carriage bearers, peacocks flew up with piercing cries, remaining airborne for a while before touching ground. Wild deer retreated fast and gazed at the coming crowd from a safe distance. Curious monkeys halted on their perch on surrounding trees and looked on with curiosity and apprehension.

At the hermitage entrance, they met a small welcome party led by the groom’s father, the former king who was now dispossessed. Though old and blind, his face shone with happy eagerness with which, it was plain, others in the group were equally infected. It was too precious an occasion for everybody and it was palpable in the way they moved up to receive the modestly attired bride, glowing with the happiness in her heart.

There was only one big if in the mind of each person in the hermitage : Will a Princess embrace and withstand the hard spartan life in the hermitage ? She, who grew up in an environment of luxury and granted willfulness, will find it extremely difficult to adapt to life without fawning maids and a bevy of servants at her beck and call. The daily routine could prove too hard and backbreaking : morning chores, taking care of old invalids, cooking up meals from very limited resources, collecting firewood from the woods around,  and, not the least, without recreation avenues and moments of leisure and relief.

But Savitri took to life in the hermitage with cheer and her role as a housewife with a smile. Wives and daughters from huts around gathered to see her, meet and greet, and welcome her into the community. Savitri herself found most of the womenfolk pure of heart and with saintly bearing. They admired her beauty and fine signs of character and she felt flushed with humility by their kind eyes and sweet words. They spoke highly of Satyavan, his gentle and self effacing nature, and of his good fortune at having found a wife who eminently matched in every way. And they blessed her with glorious progeny, much happiness and prosperity, and a family that would leave a trail of goodness and glory in each successive generation.

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It was late in the evening when the last of the visitors departed and Savitri had a few moments to herself, before Satyavan joined in. There, in the front courtyard lit by the cool shine of the risen moon, she sat sanguine and content though also with the shadow of an inexplicable apprehension. She knew not what it was that weighed over her joy. She looked at the trees around for an answer but they just stood gazing back at her through their ghost-like presence : mainly betels, sals, tamarisks and south sea pines, sadly waving with the breeze.

*

Not a day passed without Savitri’s dread of this hour of doom, a full year after she had garlanded her beloved Satyavan and had entered her new home in the hermitage. She had learnt fast and had risen to the expectations of her loving father-in-law and the doting mother of her husband.

Even through caring for them and completing the household chores, she had made it her duty never to take her eyes off Prince Satyavan. But nothing she had done had prepared her for the prophesied day. She found herself counting the hours as the day approached. On the day itself, dark clouds gathered overhead, filling her trembling heart with gloom. Her husband, kind hearted Satyavan, was unaware of this terminal day of his life, as were the old parents who had cheered up at her presence and companionship with their son. Only she had to constantly steady her nerves so as not to show her profoundest of fears, at that verge of losing her love and having to lead a life cast into barren desolation.

But she steeled herself soon after going through the ablutionary chores in the morning, and prayed longer, with more intensity and single mindedness than ever. She restrained the loud cries of her heart and calmed herself through making fervent appeals to the Godhead that she continued to repeat until an inexplicable light with cause to hope and bear courage rose in her being. In himself, Satyavan had nothing to avoid his fated end this day, she thought. Nothing except her love. At the other end, taking him away to the other world, would be Yama himself, the god of death. It would have to be a war of tugs, she visualised, between her and Yama, her soul’s innocent love and the god’s divine duty.

The minutes lapsed in cleaning, cooking and serving, and Savitri was faintly emboldened when noon was safely tided. Still, she felt like the wren fluttering in the shadow of the eyeing hawk, and shivered back into her dark foreboding. The afternoon was spent uneventfully with prayers in her heart. Gentle shades of the evening had just settled when she heard her husband’s call from the courtyard in front, “Savitri, my dear, it’s been such a fine day, cool and sunny in equal part. I will go into the woods for a short while to gather fruits and collect firewood.”

Savitri was tongue tied, too stunned with fear to hear of her husband’s casual plan. Thankfully, her kind mother-in-law answered back, voicing strong objections, “Don’t go, Son. The night draws on apace and forest paths are difficult to trace in darkness. Stay, till morning.” Satyavan laughed, at his mother’s worry. “Not hard for me, Mother. I can make out the ways even blindfolded, and would easily return safe. And a little of the day remains yet.”

“Fate is unravelling now,” thought Savitri with dense foreboding. “It draws my love to its appointed place and mishap. It is the quietly played move of the poker faced god of death.” Quickly she gathered her thoughts and reassessed the question : what is she to do. What. Now… Clearly, she cannot leave his side for a moment hereon. For that, she must obtain permission from her revered in-laws while her husband is gone to collect the axe and rope and the little platform on a pair of wheels, to load and pull the bundle of collected firewood.

Savitri rushed over to her blind father-in-law, sat before him and made her request for his approval of an evening out with Satyavan. The kind patriarch was taken aback at first and raised his face with a sense of shock. But he visualised his daughter’s eager countenance and her love for his son. It was a rare approach, he surmised, and softened at the thought of the two young hearts being together, by themselves. He smiled and nodded and granted, “Yes, my daughter, go with Satyavan and have moments of spite and fun. It is a fine evening to be together and outside. Make your return safe and early so as not to cause worry.”

Relieved, almost rejoicing, Savitri nearly ran into the front courtyard, where Satyavan was about heave the bag of tools on to his shoulder. He then held the on top the same shoulder, holding an end of both in one clasped palm, leaving the right hand free to deal with any sundry eventuality.

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Satyavan turned to look at the house and saw Savitri’s come out and cheerfully call for him to wait while hastening up to him. He was held by the delight writ large on her face. Coming close, she said between her rushed breaths, “Husband, I have father’s permission to accompany you today.” Her smile was infectiously wide and her presence was as if in a joyous dance, which Satyavan felt with giddy gladness in his own heart.

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