Shades of Grey

When she woke up, the sun starting vying with the clouds to let him have a glimpse of her insatiable beauty. And when she threw open the curtains and joined her hands in reverence, praying to the sun for the well-being of her loved ones, he blushed a bright red, the crimson mingling with the auric expanse of the morning sky. When she stepped out of her chamber and in to the royal gardens, nature stood still! The wind held his breath, transforming in to a breeze, caressing her skin that was milk and cream and in a moment of self-assurance, touching her full lips and then withdrawing hastily. The birds too, their amorous cacophonies halting in their throats, stayed arrested mid-air, drinking in her loveliness. Her cherished animals rushed to her, rubbing themselves against her legs, as if trying to get bathed in her fragrance. She laughed, a tinkling laughter, as sonorous as the sound made by several silver anklets, all at once. Nature held her breath again… The wind sought her attention once more, but her eyes fell upon a group of divine looking swans in the distance. Her hips swaying like a gently meandering river, she reached them, accompanied by her giggling entourage, trying to catch them. One of them, a majestic swan that seemed to have been born out of the white milk ocean of Lord Vishnu, lead her towards a quiet corner and as she looked in wonder at his gilded wings, he spoke in a human voice, surprising her even more, “O fair maiden, O daughter of King Bhima, royal Princess of the Vidarbha realm, the princess whose beauty is the envy of even the celestials, thy name is Princess Damayanti! Listen carefully. I am the envoy of he, he who is the handsomest of men, is he bravest of them all, whose arrows have never missed their mark, pure of heart and actions, he seeks your attentions. O princess, make haste to give him refuge in your heart. He is the only one in this entire universe, who can match you in beauty, nobility, intelligence and compassion.” “Who is he?” “The ever-truthful, ever-just ruler of the kingdom of Nishada, Nala Maharaja!” Damayanti gasped and whispered, “Nala….” Nala’s fame had spread like wild fire and Damayanti had started nurturing a secret little something for him. To get a message from him, sent her swooning into happiness. Her head buzzing with many emotions, she dreamily entered the palace where she was informed of a Swayamwara, the ceremony where she could choose the husband of her choice, being organized for her, by her father, the king.  She bent her head, gazing at her feet shyly. All the eligible men of the highest caliber and even the Devas would be invited. She would have told her father that there was no need of the Swayamwara. She had already lost her heart… The devas, aware of Damayanti’s partiality towards Nala, while eager to win Damayanti for themselves, hatched a wicked plan to keep Nala out of the race by sending him as a messenger on their behalf. Despite wanting her for himself, Nala steeled his heart for he had promised the devas that he would do their bidding. He reached the palace and by the connivance of the devas, he was able to reach her dwelling chambers. She was being dressed up in bridal clothes and decorated with the choiciest of the most fragrant flowers of the earth and jewels that were fortunate to touch her. For an infinitesimal moment, his heart stopped. He forgot to breathe. His limbs contracted in desire. His eyes opened wide, trying to take in the exquisite loveliness of her face. Blood gushed to his head, sending him into dizzying depths of unparalleled love and wanting. The next moment, his heart sank. She would never be his. The devas had already claimed her… “Her eyes suddenly fell on him, “Who are you? How did you enter my chamber?” Collecting himself as best as he could, Nala gave her the message from the devas. But Damayanti hardly heard him. She was drawn towards him like a magnet, struck by his noble countenance and a beauty that belonged to the heavens. Involuntarily, her breathing quickened, her cheeks colored and she slowly moved towards him, her eyes holding his captive. They stared at each other, while she studied him and suddenly realizing, he matched the description of Nala given to her by the swan, she was in raptures, “Tell the devas that I have already chosen my husband and on the Swayamwara day, I will place the garland around the worthy one’s neck who is Nala Maharaja!” Nala rushed back to the devas, delivering her message back to them. They spoke nothing. The day of the Swayamwara arrived. As Damayanti entered the hall, her heart thudding like drumbeats, a shock awaited her. There were five men who resembled Nala. She immediately knew it was the devas who had connived this. As discerning as beautiful she was, she observed all of them closely. Nala was the only one who displayed signs of being mortal, like sweating, his feet touching the ground, casting shadows and blinking his eyes. Heaving a sigh of relief, she garlanded him, choosing him as her husband, transcending time itself. Their love won the hearts of everyone and they earned everyone’s love and blessings. Nala was also bestowed by boons from the devas. Their marriage was performed with great aplomb. Happiness and love reigned strong. There was no place for sorrow… *** The trees swayed wildly like they had been possessed, belligerent clouds tore across the skies, and wild creatures and birds made noises of distress and they ran helter-skelter. It was as if they were mute witness to the antithesis of good, as if they were warning their queen and king to beware of what was to come.  And suddenly out of nowhere, he appeared! He seemed to have been crafted from the darkest of clouds. The searing red of his eyes provided a stark contrast to his skin that was blacker than the blackest of blacks. His mind and breath both emanated a stench so foul that heralded his arrival much before he than he did. He was the dreaded Kali purusha with an ugly mind, filled with malice and vengeance!  Kali Purusha remembered the day he had made up his mind to marry Damayanti but he had been informed of her having already chosen a mere mortal over even the devas and had entered holy matrimony with him. The devas, eager to exact revenge from Nala, had instigated Kali Purusha against the newly wedded couple. Their ploy had found its mark.  Hearing of this, his body had felt like it was going up in flames. His heart had beat painfully within its cage until he could bear it no longer. He had stared at his reflection in a stream when he saw the image of her, Damayanti, that he had conceived in his mind from what he had heard of her legendary beauty. His features softened and for some brief moments, his blackness seemed to dissipate, to merge with hers. With tenderness, he scooped the water containing her image from the stream and kept staring at her. The water, droplet by droplet, slipped out of his fingers, carrying her image too along with… Kali purusha sprang up, his face seething with a strange mix of a love that would burn the entire universe, including him and an anger that would consume anger itself. “Damayanti is mine. Damayanti is mine…” His voice reached a piercing crescendo, ending in an inhuman animal howl. He turned around, the earth quaking under the assault of his feet, the building inferno inside his wounded breast, transferring to the ground as he walked with heavy, rancorous steps. He would avenge the unfairness of it all. He would bring Nala to his knees. He was chosen over him because of his beauty. He, Kali Purusha would make him uglier than himself and then Damayanti…. Kali Purusha closed his eyes, tormenting himself with her impression etched in his mind, in every pore of his existence. He wanted her. He would show her Nala was no different than him just because he was as beautiful as the gods while he had only darkness and ugliness to boast of.  Kali Purusha knew what he had to do. Since, he was deemed to exist only where vices existed and only amongst those who were bathed in depravity and failings, he would patiently wait for Nala to slip and then he would set the ball in motion! *** The years rolled by like leaves were shed by the trees. Nala and Damayanti lived with their twin children, Indrasena and Indrasenaa, in pure bliss, unaware of the shadow called Kali Purusha, tailing them every moment.  And then one day, in his hurry, Nala omitted washing his feet properly. Where there is vice, where there in uncleanliness, that is where Lord Kali makes his abode and so he jumped at the chance! His face already shone with the anticipation of reducing Nala to nothing and then having the slim-waisted beauty accepting his hand for what he is. His eyes closed, imagining her slender fingers caressing him and he bathing in the luminescence radiating from her face, rivalling even the beauty of the moon… Grinning maliciously, he possessed Nala completely, orchestrating his downfall, step by step, slowly, surely, certainly! Under the influence of Lord Kali, who was now in control of the seat of his intellect, his brain, Nala could no longer be himself. The usually calm and composed Nala, who never swerved from his path of duty and integrity now got embroiled in a game of dice with his brother, Pushkara. Completely a creature of Kali, Nala Maharaja lost his everything and heaped ruin over himself and his kingdom. He walked out of his kingdom with just a single cloth, tagged along by his dutiful wife, leaving his children under the care of Damayanti’s father. Every action against Nala, brought her closer to Kali and he decided it was time for the final blow. One day, when Nala tried to trap some birds with his cloth, the birds flew away with it, leaving him rooted to the ground, in naked humiliation. When he went back to his wife, unable to meet her eyes, she tore a part of hers and wrapped him it it, knotting both their pieces together, signifying they were eternally bound to each other, “These days will pass away too, my lord. Have faith…’ Kali’s chest broadened with the happiness of the radiance of a thousand suns. The fire of vengeance coalesced with the fervor, that ardor he felt for her, creating a blaze of sentiments that were overriding himself so he often felt like a dam that was filled with waters with a life of their own, that would soon engulf him. But the thought of possessing her heart and beginning and ending his day with her in his arms, bade him to go on. Kali, totally influencing him now put thoughts of worthlessness and self-loathing in Nala’s mind so that one night, Nala cut off the cloth that tied his wife down to him and ran away, thinking he had freed her from his misfortunes that were clinging to him like wet clothes. His tormentor’s black skin glistened with his evil victory and his murkiness now seeped in to the heart of his soul. He danced with delight when Damayanti faced innumerable challenges on the way. He was sure they would make her hate Nala and give up on him. But to his great frustration, she continued searching for her husband, never once letting go of her courage or hope, even becoming maid to the queen of Achalapura. Meanwhile Nala became a servant in the household of King Rituparna but not before being bitten by the dreaded Naga king, Karkotaka, because of which the poison worked on him and Nala became dark and hunched, a mere specter of his former glorious self. The happiness that Lord Kali experienced to perceive the once handsome Nala, as white and lustrous as an ocean pearl, now black and twisted like a gnarled, knotted bark of a dying tree, rivalled any kind of joy that existed in this world.  He presented himself before Damayanti who had united with her father and children by a stroke of good fortune. Finally in her presence, he felt powerless in front of so much beauty and grace. He knew he could spend centuries and centuries at her feet just looking at that face. He looked at her, his eyes, limp with that overwhelming hunger he felt for her, that grabbed his heart, twisted it painfully, leaving him powerless and totally at her mercy… He would eliminate a thousand Nalas just to catch a glimpse of her! He was sure that after he had gloated to her about how he had overpowered her husband who was after all only a mortal and was now the star that had been plucked out of the glorious night sky and flung on the earth with no shimmer or light, she would realize he was more powerful than her husband who was now as ugly as him and she would finally be his!  He waited, licking his lips, waiting with feverish hope for her lips to curl into a smile, accepting him! But, Damayanti looked at him with eyes that held contempt and revulsion, "O cursed Lord Kali, do not speak of love. You are not worthy of even my hatred! I will wait for my husband. His body has never mattered to me. His soul is pure. You can never darken it. Fly away, ill-fated one. The love that I share with my king will unite us again!” Kali Purusha stared at the spot she had stood there a while ago, still moist with the sweat from her feet. A few beads from her anklets had fallen off. He took them in his hands. Tears flowed from his eyes, watering the hazy footprints she had left behind. That powerful passion reawakened in his breast, creating the familiar overwhelming twist of his heart, causing him so much pain. He got up, a picture of defeat and woe and dragging his feet, dully noted the birds were singing songs of love and joy. After throwing one last look in her direction, he took off from her palace, from her presence forever. *** Nala listened in disbelief to Lord Kali narrating how he had planned his tale of doom just to acquire Damayanti,” Kali Purusha, why are you telling me all of this, now?” Kali hung his head, “I cannot define what I felt for her. But it was all-consuming and I thought it was love. I plotted for years thinking when there will no longer be any difference in how we look, she will choose the more powerful one, me, over you. But... Nala, I free you from my clutches. I had sucked away your happiness, your splendor, your love, your intellect, to no avail. Let me prove to you that I have really left you. Count the leaves on the tree yonder. How many are there?” And without thinking, like the shot from the quill of Rama, as sharp and as swift, Nala answered correctly! He was besides himself realizing all his lost intellectual abilities were back. He would soon find his love, his family back too… *** Kali Purusha sat by the stream, staring at his reflection. He saw her image and he tenderly scooped the water in his hands. Something broke inside him. Black merged with white. Ugliness merged with beauty. The darkness, the blackness seemed to flow from inside him, drop by drop, along with the droplets and her… Lord Kali’s heart no longer twisted painfully, hurting him…. Author’s note: Following in the footsteps of some of my distinguished writer colleagues, I have attempted to present the point of view of another dark character from one of the five great epics of Sanskrit literature, Naishadya Charitram’ by King Sri Harsha of the kingdom of Kashmir. I have taken certain creative deviations and liberties to authenticate the purpose of my story with no intention to hurt anyone’s sentiments in any way.   Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!