I’m not supposed to be up right now. It’s the last six months of the year, damn it. They should have let me sleep.
“We wouldn’t have disturbed you, Uncle,” says Indrajit, “if we didn’t have cause.”
“What are these blisters on my back?” I demand, twisting my torso and neck. My back cracks so noisily I hear birds scatter.
“We tried to prod you awake with torches.”
“And these scratches on my nose?”
“We tickled your nose with a feather, and then with a straight razor.”
“Why am I wet?”
“The fire brigade helped us splash your face with water.”
I laugh out loud. “You should have just let me wake up on my own. What ended up working?”
Indrajit points at a pair of elephants being led away by their mahouts. “We had them climb up and massage your belly.”
I look down and stroke the purplish blotches. “Didn’t notice these bruises – the hunger under them hurts worse. What have you got for me to eat?”
Indrajit smiles. “Monkeys.”
I was always a big person, but not always this big; always a sound sleeper, but never six months at a stretch. If I slept in, I slept in until noon. I was ambitious, but I didn’t like to put in the work. If I could take a palanquin to the top of a mountain, I wouldn’t climb it.
Ravana propitiated Shiva to win his boon. It’s never enough to burn incense and endow a temple (or, in Ravana’s case, author a hymn). You have to fast, meditate, and expose yourself to the elements for years on end, and then, if your efforts are noticed, the god will appear and offer you anything, just ask. Shiva was the most difficult God to impress that way since he was a self- starving ascetic himself. Ravana’s austerities worked, though, and he asked for prowess. He kept it open, not specifying military, poetic or sexual – in the hopes that he would get all three at once.
I loved a hot meal even then, and seconds and thirds. How was I going to get a boon of my own, with my appetite? I realised it was really just a question of picking the right god. I noticed no one worshipped Brahma much. Where were the temples to Brahma? Where were his murtis?
If I propitiated Brahma, I could just sit cross-legged and pray, pray, pray away – but get off without a fast. And Brahma would be so astonished that anyone was praying to him, he’d almost certainly rush down and grant me my boon.
So I was praying lotus asana upon a Himalaya, having made myself quite comfortable on a cushion with a shawl, munching samosas, when a dowdy old maid in a faded black saree appeared at my elbow. “I notice you’re praying to Brahma,” she said. “Unusual choice, don’t you think?”
“He is my deity of choice,” I said with my mouth full. “I suspect he’ll be visiting me soon.”
“He will, he will,” she murmured. “No doubt he’s plucking the hairs from his four noses as we speak, eager to meet his very own devotee for the first time. And he’s sure to grant you a boon. What do you plan to ask him for? Are you a poet? A sculptor? Some other kind of maker?”
“I’ve been thinking about it,” I said, “and it seems to me that Brahma has already created a whole universe, so there’s no point in creating anything new. The best way I can show my respect for Creation is by seeking out the best and most precious parts of it and making them my own. So I’m going to ask him for Plunder.”
“As you wish. I should tell you that I am his...assistant, and I’ll be helping you ask your boon. He has eight ears, but he’s rather hard of hearing at this age, as you can imagine.”
At this, she let down her austere bun, and her greyish saree and hair went ink black. Her dowdiness transformed to the utmost beauty.
“What is your name?” I gasped.
“The goddess Sarasvati. I’ve brought you a basket of fresh apples. Now here he comes, on that cloud over there. Sit up straight, Kumbhakarna.”
It was the goddess herself! The goddess of poetry, music, and wit, sitting beside me and offering me an apple. I took a bite of it, and it was the most delicious apple I’d ever tasted, tart with hints of honey and anise, inexplicable. The language doesn’t have words for how good that apple tasted. As the god approached, I took a bunch of frantic bites and tossed the core aside.
Lord Brahma rotated his four heads so each one could beam at me. He told me he had heard my diligent prayers and seen my mountaintop austerities, braving the cold with a single shawl and subsisting mostly on lukewarm samosas. He was delighted by my devotion. “Go ahead, my boy, and ask of me a boon.”
Sarasvati had just handed me another apple. I hadn’t resisted it. With my mouth stuffed full, I blurted, “Plunder!” but it came out all garbled.
The nearest head leaned forward. “What was that?”
“What he said,” said Sarasvati, enunciating loudly for her husband, “was Hunger.”
I shook my head, but Brahma raised his hand, and a beam of light went from his palm to my belly.
“That wasn’t what I said” An instant furious hunger awoke at my centre, worse than any I had ever experienced. Sarasvati tossed me two apples, and I caught them both and shredded them into my mouth.
“No matter,” said Brahma generously. “I’ll give you a second boon. Ask me for anything!”
“Plunder!” I said again, but the word came out muffled, little apple bits shooting from my desperately chewing mouth. “Excuse me – an old man’s hearing, you understand. All those supernovas back in the day, going off in my workshop. What was that you said?”
“Plunder! Plunder!” It was useless. The word sounded off because of the food in my mouth. Brahma glanced at his radiant wife for a translation.
“Slumber,” she said.
“Slumber? Oh, that is easily done.”
I swallowed my apples in terror as his palm rose again. This time the beam of light went to my forehead. My eyes rolled up and crossed, and Sarasvati cupped and eased my head to the ground as I dropped backwards, fast asleep.
Ravana has head number six between his shoulders when I go to see him. It’s his congenial big-brother head, a little jowlier than the others and rounder at the nose. This is the Ravana he always brings out to greet my awakenings – the head whose personality is closest to my own, I guess. But this time, I’m not that Kumbhakarna.
“So a bunch of Sanskrit-speaking monkeys invade our island, and they fight so hard you have to interrupt my sleep.” I cross my arms. “Indrajit gets coy when I ask him details, so I sit him on my lap and refuse to let him go, and finally, shamefacedly, he spills it all. Is it true? You kidnapped somebody’s wife?”
“Liberated her against her will from an unworthy match.” Ravana never switches himself in public, but he knows nothing looks freakish to his siblings; we’re used to the heads. Head number six dives, and head number one takes its place: the bully. “What’s it to you? It’s your duty to defend Lanka and defend this family. So armour up, fat boy, and make yourself useful.”
“Why would you steal someone’s wife? Apsaras from Indra’s court still send you love notes by carrier pigeon. You could walk this island and point to any fisherman’s busty sister, any blacksmith’s virgin daughter, and have her cleaned up for a week’s fun, no consequences. And instead –”
“I’ll decide what I like and what I take. All I’m asking you for is loyalty. If not to Lanka, then to me. It’s the least you could do in return for the care I give you while you sleep. Two hundred men on the payroll to turn you every hour so you don’t develop bedsores. Sixty cooks to spend the six months you’re asleep preparing for the six months you’ll be awake. Ghee by the gallon. Butter by the brick. And you won’t even fight for me when I need you? What a fat, lazy slob of a brother you are!”
I glance down at my sweaty immensity and blush, reminded of how I look, what I’ve become. I can’t recover my earlier forthrightness. This Ravana has always cowed me. “When did I say I wouldn’t fight?”
Head number one, its job done, clears the deck for head number six, smiling warmly. “So glad to have you on the battlefield, brother. Just destroy the Vanaras – leave Rama for me, of course – and you can go right back to sleep. I won’t offer you anything to eat because I don’t want to ruin your big breakfast, but how about a drink?”
I know what he wants to do. He wants to get me drunk, which will be easy thanks to my empty stomach. He knows I get loud and aggressive when I’m drunk. He wants me like that on the battlefield, free of moral second-guessing. If I have to do it, maybe it will be better that way? I can slaughter these monkeys over the course of one long bender, black out, and remember nothing about it. They can hose the blood out of my beard while I snore.
“All right,” I say meekly. “I guess I could go for a couple of barrels.”
“Six months from now, brother, this will all be a dream. Look, the beer barrels are already here. It’s like they were waiting for you! And here’s your favourite mug. Let’s raise a toast, brother. To Princess Sita!”
Excerpted with permission from Sitayana, Amit Majmudar, Penguin Random House India.