The Text: Epic Departures
To reiterate, Meghanadavadha Kavya tells of the third and decisive encounter between Ravana's son and Rama's forces, wherein Meghanada is slain by Rama's brother Laksmana. In the first of his nine cantos, Dutt introduces us to Ravana and Meghanada on the day prior to the slaying; at the epic's conclusion, Ravana performs Meghanada's obsequies, a scene that dramatically unifies Dutt's narrative while also foreshadowing the closure of the Ramayana's larger conflict, Rama and Ravana's battle over Sita. The reader can assume that events following Meghanada's demise will largely correspond to those found in the traditional Ramayana , since Dutt's narrative throughout has conformed in essence to that epic. But Rama's story is merely the warp, if you will, of Dutt's poem; three other tales form the woof of this Ramayana fabric, interweaving with Rama's tale to create texture and, most importantly, to subvert the main narrative's purport—the aggrandizement of Rama.
Complex narrative structuring was by no means introduced into Indian literature by Dutt. Sanskrit boasts a type of multisemic narrative which, if read one way, tells a certain tale (of Krsna, for instance) and, read another way, tells a different story (of Rama, for example). The two—or more—tales are simultaneously present in the same text, but, depending on choices the reader makes, one or the other story becomes manifest. Sanskrit, by its very nature, allows for ambiguous reading, and certain poets exploited that ambiguity for artistic effect. Owing to euphonic assimilation (sandhi ), word boundaries can become difficult to discern. A string of phonemes can be variously divided to produce diverse words; different parsings of a sentence can thus produce diverse readings. On the simplest level, to take an example from the Ramayana itself, we have the mantra-like utterance by Ratnakara, a thief who, thanks to the purifying nature of a spell, becomes Valmiki, devotee of Rama and author of the Ramayana . A penitent Ratnakara is directed to chant the name of Rama, but he demurs, claiming he is too vile a sinner. So Ratnakara is instructed to speak the word mara , meaning dead. By chanting mara mara continuously—maramaramara—Ratnakara does in fact say Rama's name, by virtue of the contiguity of the two phonemes ra and ma . Divide the phonemes one way and one gets "dead"; divide them another way and Rama springs to life.
In his survey of Sanskrit literature, A. B. Keith mentions somewhat more
sophisticated examples. In a poem entitled the Raghavapandaviya "we are told simultaneously the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata ," while another work, the Rasikaranjana , "read one way, gives an erotic poem, in another, a eulogy of asceticism." And yet a third narrative, the Raghavapandaviyayadaviya , narrates the tales of Rama, of Nala, and of the Bhagavata Purana simultaneously, using the same phonemes in the same order.
Written Bengali, in which word boundaries are more recognizable and permanent, does not lend itself as readily as Sanskrit to such linguistic virtuosity. Though individual words may, apropos of kavya or poetic literature, have more than one meaning, whole sentences or paragraphs cannot be construed to contain certain words in one reading and different words in another. Nevertheless, in the tradition of his Sanskrit poetic forefathers, Dutt creates in Meghanadavadha Kavya a multistory narrative. On the denotative level, it is simply an episode out of the Ramayana , but read another way, primarily through its similes, Meghanadavadha Kavya dons the clothing of Krsna to tell Krsna's tale. Read even differently, Dutt's poem alludes to the Mahabharata and its internecine struggle between Kurus and Pandavas. And read from yet one more perspective, the fabric of Meghanadavadha Kavya glitters with the myth of Durga and her annual autumnal visit to Bengal, when Bengali Hindus celebrate Durga Puja [worship], the grandest public festival of the Hindu year.
All the subsidiary interwoven stories are present in one and the same reading of Meghanadavadha Kavya , albeit in far less narrative detail than Rama's story, just as the threads in fine cloth can be discerned but tend to blend into the total design. Because all are manifest and thus not only can but must be read and apprehended simultaneously, each tale affects the reader's understanding of all the other tales. As one reads of Meghanada's demise and Rama's impending victory—a joyous event for any Hindu—one also reads the more dolorous tale of Krsna, who grew up in bucolic Vraja, delighting the cowherd maidens, but who then had to leave, never to return. The conflation of characters, in this case Krsna and Meghanada, serves to confuse the reader's response: is the reader made uncomfortable by the departure of Krsna or by the death of Meghanada? The resulting subversion of the main story by a secondary tale leads at least some readers, as Chaudhuri attests, to react with shock and perplexity. Have the raksasas been glorified beyond what they are in more traditional Ramayanas ? Well, no, not directly. Has Rama been shown in a poor light? Not exactly. These characters are precisely what they have always been. But Dutt's submerged tale of Krsna has complicated matters for the reader. In similar fashion, as one reads the episode drawn from the Ramayana , one is also presented with a vignette from the Mahabharata as well as the mythic tale of Durga, each bittersweet stories, each in its own way countering the emotional impact of Meghanadavadha Kavya's main story line.
Let us examine the three substrata stories more closely. The tale of Krsna is told entirely through similes, all of which compare him with Meghanada. These similes are drawn from two periods in his life. According to his hagiography, Krsna was born in Mathura (also called Madhupura) but taken immediately after his birth to Vraja (Gokula) to escape the wrath of King Kamsa, his uncle. In Vraja, by the banks of the Yamuna, Krsna grows up to become the lover of the gopis , the local cowherds' wives, Radha chief among them. There comes a time, however, when the idyll must end. Krsna leaves Vraja and returns to Mathura, there to slay his wicked uncle. That done, he moves on to the city of Dvaraka. But for Bengali Vaisnavas, it is the time Krsna spent in Vraja with his gopi lovers that is most cherished.
Dutt's Krsna similes are by no means randomly scattered throughout his poem. In the first half of Meghanadavadha Kavya , while Meghanada is still living with his fellow raksasas , the Krsna similes refer to Vraja in the happy days when the deity resided there. Early in the first canto, for example, a passage describing Ravana's sumptuous court runs: "Constant spring breezes delicately wafted scents, gaily/transporting waves of chirping, ah yes! enchanting as the/flute's melodic undulations in the pleasure groves of/ Gokula." Toward the end of the same canto, we find Meghanada, first compared to the moon (lord of night) and then to Krsna (the herdsman). at ease. He has defeated Rama in open warfare not once but twice and assumes, reasonably enough, that the raksasas have won the war.
That best of champions dallied with
the maids of shapely bodies, just as the lord of night sports
with Daksa's daughters, or, O Yamuna, daughter of the
sun, as the herdsman danced beneath kadamba trees, flute to
lips, sporting with the cowherds' wives upon your splendid banks! (1.648-53)
Alerted to the danger facing his father (for Rama is not dead as the raksasas suppose), Meghanada leaves his wife behind in that country retreat and returns to the walled city and his father's court. We see in the opening lines of canto 3 that young Pramila—who is likened to Radha, the maid of Vraja—does not react to the separation from her beloved husband with equanimity.
In Pramoda Park wept Pramila, youthful Danava
daughter, pining for her absent husband. That tearful moonfaced
one paced incessantly about the flower garden
like the maid of Vraja, ah, when she, in Vraja's flower
groves, failed to find her yellow-dad Krsna standing beneath
kadamba trees with flute to lips. That lovelorn lady would
from time to time go inside her home, then out, just like a
pigeon, inconsolable in her empty pigeon house.
Donning warrior's garb, Pramila marches with her legion of women (a borrowing by Dutt from the Asvamedhaparva of the Bengali Mahabharata )
through Rama's ranks—Rama grants her passage—and rejoins her husband in the walled city. Then in canto 5, Meghanada is awakened by doves on the morning of the day he is to do battle once again. He wakes Pramila, kissing her closed eyelids: "Startled, that woman rose in haste—as do the cowherds' wives/at the flute's mellifluous sounds" (5.387-88). Later that same morning he leaves Pramila, who watches him walk away from her for, unbeknownst to her, the last time.
Wiping her eyes, that chaste wife departed—as cowherds' wives,
about to lose their lover, bid farewell to Madhava
on Yamuna's shores, then empty-hearted return to their
own empty homes—so, weeping still, she entered her abode. (5.604-7)
Just as Krsna (Madhava) left pleasant Vraja to slay the evil Kamsa, so Meghanada leaves, intending to slay Rama. Neither one will return. Krsna goes to Dvaraka; Meghanada dies. The remaining two Krsna similes are set during the time after Krsna has gone away.
Meghanada is slain in canto 6. Though at that moment his death is known only to Laksmana and Vibhisana, it affects the three individuals emotionally closest to him: his father's crown falls to the ground; his wife's right eye flutters, an inauspicious sign; and his mother faints. "And," adds Dutt, "asleep in mothers' laps, babies cried/a sorrowful wail as Vraja children cried when precious/Syama [Krsna] darkened Vraja, leaving there for Madhupura"(6.638-41). It is not until the ninth and final canto that another Krsna simile occurs, once more depicting Vraja after Krsna's departure. As the funeral cortege for Meghanada files out of the walled city of Lanka toward the sea, "that city, now emptied, grew dark like Gokula devoid of Syama" (9.308-9). Again, the Krsna woof, created here with similes, is woven into the Ramayana story. If the two tales typically evoked the same audience response, then the anticipated reaction would simply be intensified. But in this case, the traditional audience responses are discordant: sadness at the loss of Krsna; glee over Rama's triumph.
Similar subversion of the expected reader response to Rama's victory is fostered by the Mahabharata woof. The Mahabharata is a compendium of stories, a far more eclectic text than the Ramayana ; the many Mahabharata similes in Meghanadavadha Kavya are drawn from diverse episodes. One set of these similes, however, focuses on the specific tale of the ignominious slaughter of the Pandavas' sons by Asvatthaman. This particular episode takes place at the end of the war, after the outcome is clear. Although both sides have sustained heavy losses, the five Pandavas have won. The Kaurava Duryodhana, the great enemy of the Pandavas, lies dying, his hip broken. At this point Asvatthaman, a cohort of Duryodhana's, decides to slip into the Pandava camp and slay the five Pandava warriors out of spite. Under cover of darkness, Asvatthaman and his accomplices proceed to the victors' bivouac, at the gate of which stands the god Siva, as Sthanu (a veritable
pillar). Asvatthaman manages to get by Siva and penetrate the enemies' camp. Once inside, he kills those he takes to be the senior Pandavas but who are in fact their five young sons. Pleased with himself, Asvatthaman hastens to tell the senior Kaurava, Duryodhana, what he has done.
The first canto of Meghanadavadha Kavya contains a reference to the encampment of the Pandavas, couched in a series of similes describing Ravana's grand court. "Before its doors/paced the guard, a redoubtable figure, like god Rudra [Siva]/trident clutched, before the Pandavas' encampment's gateway" (1.53-55). This same Mahabharata episode is alluded to again in canto 5 when Laksmana, preparing to slay Meghanada, must first proceed to the Candi temple situated in a nearby forest. As he approaches, his way is blocked by a huge Siva, whom he must pass in order to enter the woods. Laksmana circumvents Siva and overcomes several other obstacles in his path before successfully reaching the temple. It is there that Laksmana is granted the boon of invisibility for the following day so that he may enter the raksasas ' walled city undetected. Just as Asvatthaman had first to bypass Siva before entering the Pandavas' camp under cover of darkness in order to slay what turned out to be their sons, so Laksmana must get past Siva, then penetrate under the cloak of invisibility the raksasas ' stronghold to slay Ravana's son Meghanada.
In the very next canto, Laksmana does slip into the raksasas ' city and kill Meghanada. As Laksmana and his accomplice flee the walled city, Dutt describes their action with a combination of two similes, one natural, the other based on the same episode from the Mahabharata :
The two left hurriedly, just as a hunter, when he slays
the young of a tigress in her absence, flees for his life
with wind's speed, panting breathlessly, lest that ferocious beast
should suddenly attack, wild with grief at finding her cubs
lifeless! or, as champion Asvatthaman, son of Drona,
having killed five sleeping boys inside the Pandava camp
in dead of night, departed going with the quickness of
a heart's desire, giddy from the thrill and fear, to where lay
Kuru monarch Duryodhana, his thigh broken in the
And like Asvatthaman, who ran to tell Duryodhana what he had done, Laksmana runs to Rama to bring him news of the slaying. Here again, two tales simultaneously told, one from the Mahabharata and the other from the Ramayana , produce contrary effects: delight when Laksmana slays Meghanada; disgust at Asvatthaman's heinous act. Small wonder the reader is perplexed.
Yet a third tale is woven into Meghanadavadha Kavya , that concerning goddess Durga's annual puja . According to myth, on the sixth day of the waxing
moon of the autumn month of Asvin, Durga arrives at her natal home, there to stay until the tenth day, when she must return to her husband Siva's home on Mount Kailasa. Her short visit is the occasion for Bengal's greatest public Hindu festival, the Durga Puja, during which she is worshiped in the form of the ten-armed goddess who slays Mahisasura, the buffalo demon. On that tenth day, called the vijaya (victorious) tenth, she as the victorious one is bid farewell for another year as she leaves to rejoin her spouse. Durga's departure is, as departures tend to be, a somewhat bittersweet affair, for although she wants to return to her husband's side, she is sad to leave her parents and friends. Her mythic parents, Menaka and Himalaya, are loath to let their daughter go. The eighteenth-century Bengali poet Ram Prasad Sen, a devotee of the mother goddess in all her sundry manifestations, sang eloquently and passionately of the plight of Menaka (or any mother), who had to say goodbye to her daughter for yet another year. Those songs, called vijaya songs, were no doubt sung in Dutt's time and can still be heard today. Dutt captures this bittersweetness, setting an unexpected tone for his poem in the very first canto when he describes Laksmi—she who must leave Lanka—with a simile drawn from the Durga Puja. Laksmi is the goddess of good fortune; as Rajalaksmi, she is the raja's luck or fortune. Lanka's grandeur (a feature common to all Ramayanas , not just Dutt's) attests to the presence of good fortune in Ravana's realm, but with the advent of Rama, Laksmi must soon leave Lanka.
With face averted, moon-faced Indira [Laksmi] sat
glumly—as sat Uma [Durga] of the moonlike countenance, cheeks
cradled in her palms, when the tenth day of the waxing moon
of Durga Puja dawned, with pangs of separation at
her home in Gaur [Bengal].
In one way or another both the warp and woof of Meghanadavadha Kavya narrate departures and death. Krsna left Vraja. The Pandavas won the war but lost their sons and kinsmen. Every year, on the tenth day of the waxing moon of Asvin, Durga must depart. And Meghanada is slain. The first three are attended by sorrow; the fourth should be a cause for joy, were it not for the subversion wrought by the other three.
In the concluding canto, Dutt again accentuates the Durga Puja theme. As the cortege exits the city gates, Pramila's horse is led riderless while Meghanada's war chariot goes empty:
Out came the chariots moving slowly, among them that
best of chariots, rich-hued, lightning's sparkle on its wheels,
flags, the colors found in Indra's bow, on its pinnacles—
but this day it was devoid of splendor, like the empty
splendor of an idol's frame without its lifelike painted
image, at the end of an immersion ceremony.
On the tenth lunar day of the Durga Puja the iconic representation of the goddess, in all her ten-armed splendor, slaying the buffalo demon is immersed in the Ganges. It is then that the life-force of the deity, which entered the idol several days before and has been present throughout the celebrations, leaves and travels back to Mount Kailasa. The images are made from straw tied around bamboo frames; the straw is covered with clay, which when dry is painted, and the image meticulously clothed to represent the supreme goddess. When such an icon is immersed in the river, the clay eventually washes away, leaving a stick and straw figure exposed. Just so appears Meghanada's chariot without its vital warrior.
When the funeral procession reaches the seashore, a pyre is built of fragrant sandalwood, onto which is placed Meghanada's corpse. Pramila mounts the pyre and sits at her dead husband's feet—the decorated pyre being likened to the goddess's altar during Durga Puja (9.375-76). From Mount Kailasa Siva now commands Agni, god of fire, to transport the couple to him: like Durga after the immersion of her icon, Meghanada and Pramila will travel directly to Siva. Dutt invites—nay, forces—his reader to feel toward Meghanada and Pramila what they feel toward Durga on the day of her departure. The loss of a traditional enemy becomes, by the subversive power of Durga's tale, a cause for lamentation.
When the funeral fire is finally out, the raksasas purify the site with Ganges water and erect there a temple. To wash away some of the pollution which attends death, they then bathe in the sea. Dutt concludes his epic poem as follows:
After bathing in waters of the sea, those raksasas
now headed back toward Lanka, wet still with water of their
grief—it was as if they had immersed the image of the
goddess on the lunar tenth day of the Durga Puja;
then Lanka wept in sorrow seven days and seven nights.
The Durga Puja similes in the first and final cantos not only lend symmetry to Meghanadavadha Kavya but also, more than any of the other tales, presage Ravana's death. In Bengal, it is the Durga Puja that Hindus celebrate during the waxing Asvin moon, coming to an end on the tenth of that month, the victorious tenth. In some parts of India, however, the Ram Lila, a reenacting of Rama's divine play is performed in that season, culminating on the very same tenth of Asvin with the slaying of Ravana by Rama. Thus, the Durga Puja similes in Dutt's text not only relate in part the tale of Durga's annual leaving but also imply the story of Rama's victory over Ravana, for Durga's and Rama's tale occur simultaneously in mythic time. If the substratum story, Durga's tale and her departure, effect a bittersweet response, then the elation at Rama's triumph—when the two tales are perforce read together—cannot but be vitiated. That was unquestionably Dutt's intent, for, as we
recall, he had declared his dislike for Rama and his admiration for Rama's foe. But dislike Rama or not, Dutt kept his Rama character true to the Ramayana tradition, preferring to let his similes and simultaneously told secondary tales complicate his reader's response.