No 16 - January 2002
The Song of a Rusty Nail
[When the rains failed in the kingdom of Anga and famine stalked the land, wise men who could foresee the future advised the king that if the young ascetic Rishyasringa, who had been a forest-dweller ever since his birth, could be brought to the capital, the calamity would end. Rishyasringa, though young in years, was a front runner in ascetic power, and had never even seen a woman with his eyes: hence only he could accomplish that difficult task, but for that it would be necessary to rob him of his virginity. Commanded by the ministers, an old courtesan took charge of the project. Her own daughter, young and beautiful, cleverly caused the ascetic to stray from his celibate path, after which it was not difficult to bring him to the capital. As soon as he entered the city, it rained heavily. King Lomapada gave his daughter Shanta in marriage to Rishyasringa.
Many scholars think that the story of Rishyasringa is the original source of the older, non-Christian part of the European legend of the Holy Grail.]
There was this rusty nail lying, jutting out from a piece of rotten wood.
it was an Ashwin morning, with an old woman patting cowdung
cakes on a wall,
the bud of a red lotus stirring in the breeze, when it beckoned me -
that rusty nail jutting out from a piece of rotten wood.
I was on my way, but I stopped. Suddenly it seemed
before me was a prince in disguise, a fallen ascetic, stricken by a curse.
A curtain of amnesia was torn apart, and in the wind charged with
the fragrance of adolescence
a song rang out, piercing the sky’s silence.
‘Listen to me, I must speak. In my previous birth I was Rishyasringa,
but I didn’t find happiness in Shanta’s arms. It rained in the country,
they brought in a huge harvest,
young women came with babies In their arms to pay their respects.
I was a blessed hero, the saviour of creatures, the liberator of the rains. -
‘But to me the royal palace had no zest, nor did the princess, my
my days were colourless; my nights, made up of bitter lust, were loveless;
bitter was our sanctioned union, tormented the seminal flow that had
propelled the rain,
ripened the grain. In the very land where I had brought on joyous
showers, I alone was dry.
‘I was a prisoner of their bullying, for they wanted to live. My manhood
was in bondage to them, for they were helpless. My penance-power
was their meagre subsidy, so that pumpkins might hang from their trellises
and their cows get pregnant. But I had another dream.
‘I kept dreaming of that apparition, of that unsheathed dawn that
broke my sleep,
I didn’t know what woman was; she made me understand it.
I hadn’t realised that I was male, until her touch ignited
a fire in my blood and sparks In my pores, and made a whole ocean
roar in my ears.
‘”Who are you, ascetic? A messenger of heaven, or a god in disguise?
What stringent discipline has given your limbs such a death-defying glow?
Why is your sight plunging me in a thrill of delight?”
- She laughed like a rill, like the gurgle of a sinking pitcher.
‘Her voice tied me like a living rope, like notes from Narada’s vina,
or chanting from the Sama Veda, to be drunk with the ears.
“I’m your friend, I’m a friend to all troubled mortals.
I’ve come from the nether regions to save the world.”
- With a sinuous gesture of her arms she came forward, quivering
like moonlight in a current of water.
Like particles of sunlight between leaves were the rays reflected
from her bangles.
Her neck was like a conch-shell, her ears were shaped like shining
the twin lumps of flesh on her breast were as smart and rounded as
‘Like the rain of the post-monsoon season her gaze was limpid and moist,
upon her face was the joy of a full-moon night of Chaitra,
her knees and legs had the rhythm of incantation -
thus did she come forward, until her breath touched me.
‘It was more fragrant than flowers, joss-sticks, sandalwood, and
At her touch a meditative darkness descended on my eyes.
The heart stopped beating, all the senses shut their shutters.
My body and mind sank deep, deeper - from emptiness to a
profounder emptiness. -
‘Where heaven, earth, underworld are concentrated in one point
- still and indivisible -
where past, present and future are one spotless level plain,
where all dualities dissolve, and there is none but you and me -
in her embrace in that Brahman-realm I found myself.
‘And then they put me in a cage like an animal, in this cagelike samsara,
so that they could bring forth children through sheer undented habit,
so that nothing would be unbearable any more, everything would become
pale and common through daily use. - But I had another dream.
‘In my dream I still see that heaven, that unfolded moment,
when eternity was bodied forth in the darkness that was pouring
from the sun’s heart,
and I was spread from star to star, from seawave to seawave -
I was grass, I was the banyan tree, both deer and tiger, the
Himalayas and the green cockatoo. -
I was the gander, the sound of the flute, wandering everywhere yet
both god-sage and primitive huntsman, five jewels and the Jatayu bird -
in that luminous flood of non-existence, behind the screen of that
- I don’t even know her name. But I haven’t forgotten her.
‘I haven’t forgotten her. I couldn’t. That’s why I am cursed.
From age to age heaven was the goal of my desire.
So the gods punished me. I lie like a thing that’s mute, inert.
You don’t recognise me. But I remember.’
This is the song I heard one Ashwin morning
and a centipede curled on the ground heard it too
when on the earth covered with grass, dew, and adolescence
a rusty nail was lying - outside the seasons,
Translated by Ketaki Kushari Dyson
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