Book Excerpt: Bride of the Forest- The Untold Story of Yayati’s Daughter by Madhavi S. Mahadevan
An exclusive excerpt from Bride of the Forest: The Untold Story of Yayati’s Daughter by Madhavi S. Mahadevan. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2020.
The forest was already a lush, tangled dream. In the runny light of dawn what appeared surreal to the girl’s eyes was the city of Pratisthan—the yellow of its brick walls, the disarray of its streets. The citizens were still abed. The network of narrow, paved alleyways was silent but for the sighs from the night just spent. However, the smells lingered and gossiped of the frenzied drinking and dancing, of clandestine desires and sated hungers, of enticement, seduction and indulgence. In the street of the courtesans, bruised garlands of marigold and jasmine drifted in sluggish drains. A tambourine lay in a pool of vomit. At the city’s intersections stood enormous clay lamps that had burned bright all night, but now held curls of blackened wicks, like stillborn worms. The only signs of life were the lean, brown stray dogs scavenging through animal innards and fishbones.
As the sun rose, honeycombs of gold-coloured light appeared on the flat rooftops. The people of Pratisthan stirred listlessly to life. The pious, who had been up long before sunrise for their ritual ablutions, returned from the ghat. Susurrations of grass brooms echoed across courtyards. Mothers yawned as they washed their babies and spooned millet porridge into their pink mouths. Holy men in tawny robes knocked on doors and wordlessly held out their wooden begging bowls. Yodelling calls, from vegetable vendors selling brinjal, bitter gourd, pumpkin, jackfruit and greens, flitted from street to street, reminding the girl of birdsong in the forest.
Her throat felt dry and scratchy. The new cloth bodice wound around her budding breasts chafed against her skin. Sweat trickling down her neck stung like ant bites. She glared resentfully at the woman in whose wake she had trudged these past three days. Some time ago, she had arrived at the conclusion which every child, at a certain age, reaches: that she was a foundling. This woman, she had decided, was not her real mother. The word ‘father’, however, was a complete mystery to her. She hadn’t even known she had one until three days ago, when she’d been abruptly informed, ‘You are now going to live with your father.’
‘Where does he live, this father of mine?’
‘In a web of his own making.’ Her mother had laughed but, typically, did not explain.
The girl’s face had clouded with misgivings. As one nurtured by the forest she knew that a web was intricate—a spider’s web. Beginning with just a single fine silken filament exuded into space, all it announced to the world was an intention. Yet, such was the industry, craft and intelligence of the spinner that from one thread could arise many elaborate creations: a snare for preys, a hideout from predators, a haven for young ones. What web had this unknown father spun? She asked, ‘Why do I have to live with him?’ When her mother did not reply, a note of anxiety entered the girl’s voice. ‘Will I ever come back to this forest?’
Speaking as if to herself, her mother said, ‘No one leaves entirely. There is always a fragment to return to.’ Seeing something, not in the child’s face but in the far-off future, she added with uncharacteristic gentleness, ‘The forest is yours. It will be here for you.’
The possibility of living elsewhere was scary but also exciting. Ever since her twelfth birthday in the winter past, it had taken over the girl’s dreams. On that balmy day, she had gone with her friends to the sandbank in the river. Accustomed only to the dimness below trees, she was at first dazzled by the clarity of the landscape. Under the crystalline blue radiance of the sky her skin had tingled, as if its pores were millions of buds opening up to a new truth. Curving in a broad irregular arc, the river had seemed to her like the longest line in her palm, flowing into the unknown. The fields of wheat toasting in the sun, and beyond them, the grey humped hills receding into the distance…where did this world end? On the rutted dirt track beside the water no one had passed for a long time. Then a young carter singing a song had come by. The jingle of his donkey’s harness bells had embellished the warm baritone voice. For days afterwards the lilting melody had haunted her, igniting a longing in her heart for something new. It was coming, she had felt it in her bones, her life was about to change. However, now as they picked their way through the rabble and babble of the city, the girl tucked cautiously into her mother’s shadow.
Situated downstream from the forest, Pratisthan lay at the confluence of two mighty rivers. Commerce was its lifeblood. On that morning, as the girl walked through the streets, she saw animal carts piled with merchandise streaming out through the city gates towards foreign lands. Along the riverbank sailboats laden with local goods dropped anchor. Auctioneers ran a quick eye over the inventories. In the improvised marketplace on the waterfront, stalls were set up. Buyers sauntered past nonchalantly, all the while quietly assessing the goods; sellers put on their smoothest smiles; brokers stood to one side in a small cluster; court officials arrived in a flurry of activity. The day’s business began. There was a sense of purpose to it all. The girl was struck by the presence of men. They were everywhere. She had never seen so many men in one place, nor so few women—there were hardly any.
‘Your father is an important man,’ her mother said, using the same scornful tone in which she had first spoken to the girl about him. ‘Owns everything you see here.’ The child sensed that the words were meant to separate rather than unite. Like everyone else in the forest, her mother owned nothing. Even her skills as a healer belonged to the tribe. There was a seam of tenderness in her, narrow but deep, reserved only for the wild creatures, orphaned or maimed, whom she rescued. On them she bestowed her caresses and softly crooned endearments. She could also, out of kindness, kill with her bare hands an animal that was too mutilated to survive. To humans, however, she had never had much to say, as if their speech itself were absurd. Yet the girl had not lacked for attention or affection in the forest. As an infant she had never gone hungry. There were always a few women around to suckle her at their breasts and care for her in the same rough-and-ready manner they used for all the children of the tribe. It dawned on her that in this teeming city of strangers, where one man owned everything, she was going to be all alone. She would have welcomed a sign of reassurance from her mother, something as simple as a shared smile, or just a slowing down of pace to accommodate her astonishment at the new sights, but, oblivious to her need, the woman walked through the busy streets with her usual detachment. She was like a sleek panther padding through the undergrowth, unmindful of the stir her presence was causing among the citizens.
Excerpted from Bride of the Forest: The Untold Story of Yayati’s Daughter by Madhavi S. Mahadevan. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2020.
About the Author
Madhavi Mahadevan has published two collections of short stories, Paltan Tales and Doppelganger, and an e-novella, Swansong. Her first novel, The Kaunteyas, was a retelling of the Mahabharata from the viewpoint of Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas. She has also written fiction for children.