By Anu Majumdar
Parallel Journeys, a mystical novel by Anu Majumdar, was released recently to critical acclaim. The story weaves in and out of the Vedic past and the contemporary present, interlinking the lives of the protagonists with those of Vedic sages Yajnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi. Extracts:
Maitreyi looked around. The plastic chairs in the lounge were orange and yellow. She went to the end of the room and took the orange seat by the glass windows that looked out over the long, empty tarmac. The runway lights were still on, though the dawn had begun to clear the sky. She had recently read that the entire airport area had once been a forest. She tried to imagine what it could have been like.
At once images from another forest swam into her mind’s eye. She was walking between birdsong and a green density of trees. Through them, in the distance, she could see the white mountains. And then, she was standing in a circle of light. Or was it her?
No, it was someone else.
The profile in the glass window pane was no longer her own. But it seemed to know her. There was a recognition. She sat up in shock, recognizing herself. The walls of the airport blurred away from her eyes. There were no chairs, no people. The forest had taken over. But this was not the forest that she had known a year ago. This forest belonged to another lifetime.
Where was Yajnavalkya? Yajnavalkya who?
She stared at the reflection in the glass. The woman looked back at her intently. Dark eyes.
Centuries deep. She saw the sun come up through them at the far end of the runway.
The TV screens in the lounge were all flashing—
‘Passengers bound for Paris please proceed to Gate No 10.’
Reluctantly she picked up her bags.
Yajnavalkya walked quickly. Past the flowering palace gardens, past the sentries at the gate, out into the fields. He walked towards the outskirts of the capital city where his hermitage lay by the river side, surrounded by vast acres of pasture and farmlands given to him by the king. For he was the rishi to whom one of the Vedas had been revealed.
As he approached the hermitage, he could see Maitreyi from a distance. She was cleaning the small temple that stood by the river. An old temple, it seemed to have been there always.
A few months earlier, during the rains, the river had flooded over. It was the first time that this had happened. The water had rushed in savagely, breaking the old stone idol of the goddess and carrying it away in a mad dance of wild water. It shook the entire household to the core. When they gathered around the temple after the water receded, the shrine was empty. Ravaged. Yajnavalkya looked at Maitreyi. The goddess had been her constant guide.
But Maitreyi stood quietly, her face turned up-river, as though she was watching the mountains from where the river flowed down past their ricefields. Afterwards she went to her room and returned with a rock. She gave it to him without a word. It was the same one that he had brought back for her from the mountains, many years ago.
It was the first sign.
The next day he began refashioning a new idol from the rock. As he chipped away the outer crust, the stone revealed itself smooth and firm inside. And copper gold, like Maitreyi’s skin. When the new idol was finally ready, it was installed in the old temple with all the usual offerings and rituals.
Maitreyi was nowhere to be found. He was puzzled.
That evening as the sun went down, he stood watching the cows return to their enclosures. A slight breeze drew his attention. He turned around. Across the fields, towards the river, he saw Maitreyi in front of the temple. She was alone. She seemed to be offering prayers to the goddess. But she did so moving with wide and sweeping gestures of obeisance and power. The sky echoed her prayer with crimson intensity. He looked on in amazement. It was like watching the goddess celebrate her own birth.
A sigh of fulfillment escaped Yajnavalkya‘s lips.
The time had come, at last.
What causes a strand of hair to lift, like a ripple in the wind and fall lightly over the forehead? Fringing the eyes. The bounce. That easy verve and grace. Between his hands he held a fine band of steel in a curve, as he studied the photograph on his desk. It was taken a year ago, in the Himalayas, beside a forest in Mukteshwar. His right hand slid lightly over the band of steel and let go. The steel bounced free, rippled with countless million vibrations in one. It produced a sound. It rose and fell into the silence. The band of steel settled quietly in his other hand.
He went back to his drawing board.
The plans for the new project, the Concorde Dance Center, had been finalized and accepted. He had been given the go-ahead and construction was due to start in about two weeks. But still it nagged. He looked across at the model. It could be a great building, no doubt. It would even do him proud. But it had no movement. Static. It lacked rhythm. It didn’t breathe, didn’t circulate. People were going to dance in this? No… He had to create the spontaneous measures of the spirit here. The swift harmonies of space, shape and circulation. ‘For the great and easy dances of the gods,’ he quoted to himself from the book, grinning now with purpose. So, too bad. He dug his hands into his pockets and went up on his toes. It would have to change. He clamped his heels back on the ground. And the directors of the Concorde Dance Project would have to approve.
He picked up the old drawings and tossed them into the wastepaper basket without a second thought.
From the large windows of his studio-cum-office he could see across the rooftops of Paris. It was spring. The single bald tree in the courtyard was rushing up towards the sky with a thousand secret leaves. But now he was looking further away. East, to the mountains.
Yajnavalkya had come to tell her about his decision to end his duties as a householder and to depart. He wanted to divide his wealth between her and Katyayani. She looked at him steadily as he spoke. This was to be expected. That one day he would leave and she, his wife, would remain with the household. But her heart had never believed this. And after the temple had been destroyed by the flood, she knew somehow that a part of her life was over. Even as Yajnavalkyafashioned the new idol from the rock she had given him, she felt herself being prepared. There was a sense of readiness for something imminent but unknown. Yajnavalkya stood before her now, expectantly. This was the revered sage before whom even King Janaka bowed low. But then, she had never been an ordinary wife either.
She held back a giant tremor in her heart and asked him softly instead.
‘Will this wealth bring me immortality?’
‘No, my beloved.’
She looked him in the eye.
‘Then what use is all this to me by which this life is unable to obtain the nectar of immortality? That, my lord, teach me before you go.’
His eyes glowed with pleasure.
‘Dear to me have you always been, Maitreyi, and dear to me is what you ask. Come then, I will explain what you desire to know.’
‘Not for the sake of the wife is the wife dear to us but for the sake of the Self, the soul.
‘Not for the sake of the husband is the husband dear to us, but for the sake of the Self, the soul.
‘Not for the sake of the whole world and all the things therein is the world dear to us, but for the sake of the Self, the soul…’
As she listened, her mind grew wide and free. When he finished, he touched her head in blessing and left. Then she realized… That the choice would have to be her own. And the decision, hers alone
She quickened her pace. Yajnavalkya walked ahead with an easy, unhurried gait. His body was still firm and supple, breathing with the life that held it.
He stopped and turned around smiling.
‘I knew you would come, Maitreyi.’
Even this, she had not known. She was surprised again by her own incompleteness.
‘But there are many hardships on this path. Will you be able to endure? Do you know your strength, my love? For we will go only part of the way together, up to my old hermitage at the edge of the great mountains, in the forest. From there I must go on alone.’
‘But why can I not go on with you?’
‘Because you are not yet ready to enter those spaces. When you are ready, when you will have fulfilled the conditions for the next journey, you will find your way to me, by yourself, even as you did today.’
‘So be it,’ she said.
After she returned from the mountains, the pressure had been relentless. It made her work, work, work. But there was no sense of getting anywhere at all. Yet, she carried on the movements before a blank wall. It was a strange time. The body was inside itself. Inside its entire cosmos. Who would help her? There were no teachers for such things. Weeks went by. Months. Sometimes she got a bit desperate. She passed up opportunities. Fell out of the circuit of professionals. She was getting to be a virtual unknown. Revati was furious with her. She had never felt so alone. One day, at the peak of summer in Delhi, she went into her dance room. Studio, as it is professionally called. She started with the usual warm-ups. Movement repertoires. Footwork sequences. Jumps. Dead-end.
She stared out of the window. A little stone lying in the corner of the garden caught her attention. It was one she had found in Mukteshwar! An ardent prayer rose in her heart for Maitreyi of the temple, her forerunner. She felt herself grow quiet. Very quiet, as her breath expanded in waves, in a silent amplitude of knowledge. As in a slow motion dissolve, she saw the stone grow into a mountain and fill her eyes. A hundred gestures came crowding into her body. She tried one. It opened her out like a valve.
The hours went by, one after another. Oblivious of time, she worked on. She was no longer groping in the emptiness. She picked the movements out of the air. From the ground, into her feet. Recognizing each one clearly as her own. Space and time had become hers. She knew she was finally touching what she had been struggling to reach all these months. It was falling into place now. Swiftly, effortlessly, and as naturally as breath. The lines of power, the ease, and the rhythm. Unfolding in her like a revelation.
It was achieved.
She stopped, covered with sweat, and happy. The long lonely passage had come to birth. From now on, she could work on the details.
The sky was clearing. The light on the mountain had softened from orange to shades of pink and crystalline white. From each atom of her being the God of Bliss emerged, coursing through her body like rivers of honey. The body was like a tree, its branches the million veins pressing out of it the deep hidden clarities of delight. Clear and sweet was this intense joy, opening her body to the flow of life and its powers.
The movement grew, the speed increased, her body entered the play. She was now whirling at tremendous speed. The forests, the valleys, the mountains, earth and sky began to enter her, breaking open more and more territory inside…
It began to rain. The drops were tender and she was drenched with love. Slowly the sun climbed, golden over the mountains.
A rainbow had arched up from the plateau, over the valley, to fall on that mountain goddess, waiting serenely, against the sky.
Maitreyi knew then that Yajnavalkya had also reached. She stopped. His arduous journey was also done. They would never be separate again.
She looked down. She was standing in a clear circle of light. At the edge of the circle stood a small shrine. So, that was the stone wall against which she had stumbled earlier in the night.
She went to look. Carved inside was the figure of a goddess. She recognized the style of this sculptor at once.
Below, something was written in sandalwood paste. She peered closely. It was still legible. ‘Maitreyi Sthanam’, Yajnavalkya had written in a firm hand.
She went in search of flowers.
She had been trying to locate that spot since she arrived but without success. When her grandfather had shown her the circle of light, he had said that one day she would know.
Now she wanted to know. But for two days the weather remained resolutely rotten. Cloudy, wet and Gary. The mountains that could help indicate the spot were not visible at all. And when questioned about it, Ram Singh was uncharacteristically unhelpful, devious and irritable. Sitting alone in her grandfather’s old cottage at night, it seemed as though the rest of the world had fallen away. Gone finally extinct. It crossed her mind that to give up would be sensible. Something Revati would approve of. But there was a stubborn little spark that remained awake all night.
When she set out the next morning, the sky had begun to clear but the path was not visible. After a few hours, she had been ready to give up, when she heard the sound of water. A memory returned from childhood. Quickly she climbed over what looked like an avalanche of enormous boulders, entwined for centuries with gnarled tree trunks.
On the other side, there was a clear, well-used path. She followed the trail and soon she found herself in front of a little uncared-for temple, amidst a forest of pines and deodars. The hill of Mukteshwar rose to the right. The temple was obviously not in use. It had none of the signs of regular worship. But that day, someone had put fresh flowers in the shrine.
A blood red hibiscus. Three golden marigolds. Nine white and fragrant jasmines. And twelve oil lamps, still burning. And at the feet of the deity, two sticks of incense.
She crouched low to look at its face.
Two unknown eyes pierced through her at the speed of lightning. She was thrown backwards by their force.
A million worlds opened into her eyes. Regaining her balance, she knelt down on the ground and slowly looked inside again.
A goddess! Or was this a warrior? Or a dancer? One leg off the ground, her arm pointed forward like a spear, piercing the world. Her eyes were powerful. Peaceful. But her smile was extraordinary. Triumphant and tender…
Maitreyi heard a very ancient voice rise inside her:
‘Seers of the truth you are, sharpen the shining spears with which you cut the way to that which is Immortal.’
She turned around. Directly in front, a path stood out between the line of deodars, leading up to the plateau. And framed ahead in the clear sky was that wonderful and mysterious peak of Nanda Devi.
She stood up.
There was an urge in her body to dance.
She began to move, slowly, then with increasing rhythm. Vast spaces began to open out in nanoseconds. She was entering a new landscape of the body. The body seemed to know what it wanted. Something began to grow in it, like an assurance. Something which she had never known she could become. Her gestures acquired a fluidity.
There was a sound. A click.
She stopped. Someone was watching her.
Across the path, on the open plateau, was a man.
She could not see his face clearly. He bowed to her from the distance, palms folded in namaste. Then, as he looked up, a smile reached her. He waved quickly and walked away.
Maitreyi was taken aback. How long had he been watching her? Who was he? He had broken her concentration.
She looked down at her feet.
She was standing in a circle of light.
Yves looked at the mountains all around, and saw their force moving out towards him, slowly and immensely.
He waited. The light was intense.
He sustained their tremendous entries, without a quiver.
Somnath was pleased. ‘Tomorrow we will begin Soma.’
Yves was curious: ‘Are we going to smoke the soma plant to invoke this god?’
Somnath looked at him severely.
‘You fool,’ he said after a while, ‘don’t you read the book Hermann gave you? The wine of delight and the powerful physical bliss, do you think all this is so easily obtained? Just by smoking a chillum? Is that all what the Vedas are worth? A joint? If that’s what you want, you don’t need me. Go!’
Yves was taken aback. ‘But what about the soma plant one reads about in the Vedas?’
Somnath shook his head. ‘What is the use of this direct knowledge from the gods? Stop using that little brain, listen to your intuition. All these things are symbols. The outer means for the outer rituals. But the real sacrifice is inner. And individual. No one else can do it for you. The gods or forces that you have encountered so far are the different fires or stages of purification. They prepare the body and the being for Soma. This is the madhu-vidya that Yajnavalkya knew. It is the expansion of the gods in us. The gods are not separate beings. They are the gradual expansions of the same force that increases in us. This is the dance of the cosmos inside man, Yves. By the destruction of ignorance, the creation of Life and Light and Force. Didn’t you see Nataraja?’
And he was silent.
The building he had set out to build was building him up.
…An architect hewing out self’s living rock… the book would tell him later.
As he got up, Somnath told him not to take his usual path. ‘See that boulder across the river bend?’ he pointed out. ‘You will find a path behind it.’
The path led him to a little open plateau, facing the resonant empire of mountains he had first seen from the bus, as he reached Mukteshwar. Across the plateau stood the forest and behind a line of trees he noticed a tiny shrine. He quickened his pace.
When he looked inside, he knew he had found Maitreyi. With sudden and absolute intensity, an ocean of fire submerged him in a burning sweetness. A rapturous, ravishing sweetness that coursed through his veins instead of blood. It occurred to him in a flash that it tasted ‘krazy good!’ Far beyond his imaginings.
He returned to the cottage as it started to rain again. With Ram Singh’s help he collected flowers, incense and lamps and went back to the spot. He felt the need to make this gesture of gratitude to the goddess. All night he stayed in front of the shrine, looking at the goddess under the light of flickering lamps and the soft rhythm of rain. An immeasurable regard of beauty rested upon him. A vast douceur. She told him about the kind of building she wanted. The angle of sun. The celebrations of breath. The strength of the ground, the expansions of heaven. Rhythm. Words from the book seemed to slip out of her now. At random. Like out of a vast and knowing womb.
…As in a mystic dynamic dance…
Inspired and ruled from Truth’s revealing vault…
Inhabited by rich creative beats
A body like a parable of dawn…
Immortal rhythms swayed in her time-born steps…
The world interpreting movements of the dance…
Displayed its power to build and form…
In him the architect of the visible world
At once the art and artist of his works…
Magic foundations and patterns of a world….
Finally, he fell asleep.
Somnath prodded him awake with his toe. He was smiling down at him affectionately.
‘Wake up, Yajnavalkya,’ he said. ‘It is so that I will name your birth in the hands of the goddess. The next part of your journey is to become yourself. Come on, get up, you must leave now, your work is waiting.’
She was close to the base of the great mountain. Soon she would enter into the Mother’s folds. She walked in whiteness. A white as intense as light. Her happiness grew as she ploughed through the snow, covering the tracks of Yajnavalkya with her own. Her body was frail and her long white hair hung loose down her back. Her feet wore the signs of a long and hard journey. But her eyes had conquered.
Suddenly, there were no tracks.
The path had stopped abruptly. She was standing at the edge of a steep precipice. There was no path forward. She tried to look down, but she could not see the bottom. Right in front, at the distance of a full-grown deodar tree, stood the mountain for which she had come so far.
A test. She knew it.
Had Yajnavalkya crossed this or had he perished?
She swept away the question. She would not let such thoughts defeat her now. Yajnavalkya was alive, she was certain. There would have been no journey otherwise.
She scanned every direction in search of a sign or a path.
Finally, her eyes rested at the top of the mountain. On the twin peaks. She closed her eyes and called the Mother, ardently-to help her, this last time.
A soft wind touched her cheek.
When she opened her eyes, she saw a small white flag, caught in sunlight, fluttering upon the gold rim of the towering peak of snow. Her eyes followed the line of the ridge that extended from behind that mountain like an arm, moving up to merge on the side of the mountain where she was standing.
She had found the entrance.
She walked along the high ridge, facing east. The full glare of the morning sun pierced her with a million rays of light. The mountains stretched on every side but she walked on peacefully, aware of only gratitude, as she witnessed the full glory of the world.
He had waited.
The mountain opened her arms and embraced Maitreyi with supreme tenderness.
Now, they could start all over again.
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