“Are you asleep?” Lakshmana asked softly. He was not particularly keen on waking up sage Vishwamitra lying down a few yards away from them.
“No. I take it you are unable to asleep?” There was a smile in Rama’s voice despite the softness of it.
The night sky was full of stars. Lying on his back and staring at the dark sky, Lakshmana revelled in the familiar reassurance of Rama’s voice. They, along with their brothers had snuck up to the rooftop of their seven storeyed palace many times in the middle of the night but this was not the same. The smell and the sounds of the forest was different to the sounds and smell of their city Ayodhya. There were no lights that shone like little pieces of gems, no smoke gently twirling from homes. No strains of music. Only the rustle of the trees and a mournful birdcall. The straw mat was prickly and the air was cold.
They had never been so deep into the forest before. Lakshmana wondered how it felt to live in the forest. They would not know, they would soon enough return to the city. They had accompanied Vishwamitra to the deep forest as per their father's wish - ‘to slay demons and protect the sages’. Their father, emperor Dasharatha had been most worried and reluctant at first but had eventually acquiesced to Vishwamitra’s request. He took his promises very seriously.
An adventure had unfolded for the young men. Lakshmana had enjoyed the carefree days out in the woods, atleast until that particular day.
“Sleep eludes me,” he admitted and sighed. He heard a gentle rustle as Rama turned to face him. Lakshmana saw Rama’s barely lit form reclining, his head on his hand. A smile played on his lips and the silhouette was strangely reassuring.
“It was a momentous day, was it not? You have been endowed so many weapons. You are likely the most powerful prince of this universe,” declared Lakshmana.
Rama did not say anything.
“You protected our people today, did you not? Protected our kingdom,” said Lakshmana.
Rama turned back and there was a gentle sigh. “You are perplexed by the slaying of Tataka?” he asked.
All through the twelve years of their life they had shared a special bond. Rama knew what Lakshmana was thinking even before he thought it. Though they were the same age, Rama was always the wiser, the stronger, the brother who all three looked up to.
Lakshmana thought of what had happened that day. He was not bothered by the slaying of Tataka, he told himself. She was a demon who destroyed their people, after all.
“I was surprised to hear that she was a yakshi before, “ he told Rama. He had learnt that she had not always been a demon and was indeed quite beautiful before. Along with her beauty she had also possessed the strength of a hundred elephants. Brahma in appreciation of her father's tapas had bestowed those powers on her, the sage had told them.
“If she had been a boy she might have caused more destruction,” remarked Lakshmana.
“Perhaps,” agreed Rama. “Brahma probably thought the same when he granted a girl.”
“I wonder if Tataka used her powers before she was cursed to become a demon,” observed Lakshmana.
Rama waved his hands implying he didn’t know or did he mean he didn’t care. The sage never told them about what was her life before. Lakshmana suspected she never used her strength to harm anyone before. Though something prevented him from examining that thought further.
The still forest belied the battle that had raged but a few hours ago and then the subsequent celebrations. Tataka had been demonic in every way. Lakshmana had never once doubted that Rama couldn’t beat her. And true to his faith, the demon Tataka had been slain.
“Why did you make so much noise before attacking her?”
“I was uncomfortable about surprising her. I wanted to give her fair warning,” said Rama.
“Were you bothered then about killing her? You think you ought not have killed a woman?”
“Did you not hear Vishwamitra explain what being a woman meant and what Tataka was. She was no woman, she was a demon.”
Why did she become a demon, Lakshmana thought somewhat perplexed. Tataka’s father had given the yakshi’s hand in marriage to Sunda. What sort of a yaksha was Sunda? Surely, her ascetic father who did great penance to Brahma chose an honorable partner for his daughter? Lakshmana was dissatisfied with the sage’s inadequate narrative.
Vishwamitra had narrated her husband Sunda's slaying by Agastya's curse but had not explained what horrendous deed did he commit that Agastya deemed fit to eliminate him with a curse? But by then they were already about to battle and there was no time to delve into it. Perhaps the good sage thought it was not relevant. It was Tataka they were fighting after all.
“Why did Agastya curse her to become a demon?”
“When her husband was killed, she attacked Agastya.”
“Yes. Agastya being quite a powerful sage cursed her and Tataka became a hideous demon. The curse destroyed her external beauty and possibly any remaining internal goodness,” Rama sighed.
“What did she do to him?”
There was a silence and then Rama said somewhat uncomfortably. “She rushed menacingly towards him.”
Lakshmana stared at the stars for a while. “Perhaps she attempted to attack Agastya as an act of desperation and anger?”
Rama made a slight noise of acknowledgement.
“Rama could her retaliation be righteous? We really dont know do we?”
“You did not immediately accept the decree to kill her. You dithered, you doubted, you questioned,” said Lakshmana. It had been Rama’s first battle. First slaying after all. “Did you think killing her was not right?”
There was another silence that stretched when Lakshmana waited for Rama to admit his discomfort.
“Ultimately I did kill her,” replied Rama.
“So were you convinced she deserved to be slain?”
“It is immaterial whether I was convinced, brother. I had to do what I had to do. A promise is a promise. Duty has to be followed whether one likes it or not. Whether one has dilemmas or not,” said Rama after a while. There was conviction in his voice but there was also something else that Lakshmana couldn't understand.
“You are not sleeping either,” pointed out Lakshmana after a while.
“I never said doing my duty was a pleasure” Lakshmana understood what was it that was in Rama’s voice. It was a deep sadness.
The image of a beautiful yakshi forlorn at the loss of her husband, afraid for her son rose in Lakshmana’s mind. He forced himself to think of Tataka’s hideous form and her brutal strength.
What was this world about where one first created demons and then sought to punish them, pondered Lakshmana. Perhaps one day if he ever crossed over the mountains of Vindhya he will ask the good sage Agastya.