C/O Swat Valley By Manisha Kulshrestha

    “My identity is in question here….I don’t overrate my scholarship but yes, I trust my knowledge.  Let people object, let them say that I am an overreacher, let them say that I am the first in the Rishikul, in the lineage of saint Vachkanu to participate in a shastrartha, a hermeneutic debate and  that too with this scholar of repute, Yagyawalkya …Come what may, but in this Brahmayagna,  this  fire ritual staged around the exposition of scriptures, right in the open court, right before King Janak, I shall ask challenging questions around the notions of the soul and the super-soul.

Don’t prevent me from doing so, dear. Thanks to you, my childhood friend, thanks also to my father for letting me be, letting me argue freely, letting my rational and discursive self flower I am betrothed to you and that doesn’t stop me from emerging as an individual ! I have earned the rationality to refute , question and transcend rules and regulations propounded by scholars in this world of makeshift arrangements, so why hesitate….when will Yagnawalkya be available again for discussion…..it is a rare opportunity…No, you can’t stop me… I know what bothers you! Holding my head high, eyes raised to throw a question open in this  hall full of scholars, all men, would be considered beyond decorum….ok, then, see for yourself, I have thrown a shawl around my sensuous, young body! If that doesn’t satisfy you, I could even smudge my face with ashes from the ritual fire… this will make me ugly, for sure. Take it from me and tell my father too that the body of mine can’t be allowed to play a lock up for my knowledge and my talent… no,  at no cost!” The auditorium echoed with a loud applause.  Sungandha was panting wildly as she entered the green room. Friends surrounded her from all sides and started whispering praise in her ears.

“Wow! Who could say that a first timer will achieve such laurels!”

“You delivered your dialogue exceedingly well. The audience sat spell-bound.”


“Of course!”.

Sugandha dressed up like the rebel scholar, the saint’s daughter, took a good; look at herself in the mirror.  She was still shivering but now her body radiated the vivacity   of dialogues delivered on the stage.

Gargi, one among the Navratnas, the nine precious jewels in King Janak ‘s Court! Gargi, eager for a vigorous participation in the scholarly debate.  And Sugandha ! Who is she? The thread that connected her to her own self was almost broken.

Pulling off the colourful shawl, she wrapped the white shawl around her shoulder.  Her hair rippled down to her knees and she tucked them  together in  a bun as she snatched away the  flowers hanging loose in the hair. With yellow water colour the  make-up artist, Nidhi  painted three long lines of ‘tripund’* interspersed with a red dot in the centre of   her dusky, broad forehead.  Waiting for her turn she kept revising her dialogue.

“What is past, what is present, what is future?  What is time and on what frame has time been time spun over? What is the base for this recurrent pattern? Sire, what lies above the heaven, what lies under the earth, what lies hung up between them? What is Brahmalok? When was it created and when did it start evolving?”

“Don’t overload your head with such queries. Your head may burst!”

Anuj dressed up as Yagyawalkya stood up from his seat and starting looking at her with piercing, angry eyes.  She was about to forget the dialogue but she cooked up a line of her own and then the rest of the dialogue fell in place.”Excuse me, King Janak, but my questions are not futile.” Sugandha cast a questioning look at King Janak’s throne and he lowered his eyes.

“Sir Yagyawalkya, excuse me please as you would excuse young princes of Vaideh or Kashi who challenge warriors for a battle without due preparations, but don’t ignore my questions because you do have the answers.  Look how eagerly these thousand of Kamdhenus await, all set to be driven onto the pious campus of your ashram…. How their large eyes shine with hope and expectation !!” With this Vachkamas’ daughter, Gargi, feel silent to walk upto one of the cows and fondle her.


*tripund: with kumkum-dust dissolved in Ganga water three parallel lines are drawn on forehead after every holy ritual in temples basically to denote the flow of sacred rivers of thought (Ganga-Yamuna-Saraswati) flowing within the forehead.



At this roared Yagyawalkya,

“OK then, O Gargi, here is the answer to your queries.”

Oblivious to all that was happening around her- the closure on  the stage, the curtains drawn, the light flickering- Sugandha stood listless.  The loud applause was trying its best to bring her to the present.  Shyamal’s message glowed on her cellphone-“ Bravo ! Proud of you, Gargi.”

Wiping off her make-up she noticed that bruise under her left eye There was a violet swelling around a scratch. Her limbs grew numb.  That passion depleted…. She grew desolate. Water replaced pride in eyes.  Somehow she dragged herself for a change-over in the dressing room. Admires surrounded her , ‘First performance and so outstanding!’ “’You must have seen Shyamal.  He was shining with pride”. Someone came up with the comment that Vaidic age came alive on the stage, and the audience took time in reverting to the present”

“Do you think so?”


“Thank God that the first show went off well…. Tomorrow the newspaper will carry grand write ups. …”

“Forget it, at best there will be a small coverage tucked up in some corner. Gone are the days when the success of plays scored with politics and films…”

“Are you crazy? This has Shyamal Sir’s stamp on it. It can’t go unnoticed.”

They had all planned a dinner at the Nirula’s. Shyamal was busy responding to  his VIP guests and journalists in the outer corridor.  She knew her boundaries.  Silently she picked up her bag and waved a good bye,

“What is this?”

“Not possible, Anuj! The little one starts missing me in the evening and my husband too is very busy today.  Some other time…….. the best would be that all of you come home for my treat of Pizza and  Thai food…”

“Well, unannounced someday we will all drop in…”


“Good night!”

“Listen, Nidhi, please pass it on to Shyamal that I was in a mad rush. I shall talk to him over the phone…”

Crossing the corridors when Sugandha finally arrived in the open lawns of Sri Ram Centre, she breathed a sigh of relief.  She tied up her hair with a clutcher and stepped out into the tin shed at the bus stop. The weather was making faces since the morning and now the pitter-patter of raindrops on the tin shed reminded her of the rapturous applause. Were they all clapping to celebrate her acting or to mock her?

“I have been watching you for long. You keep looking for an excuse to leave home. Children too don’t claim your whole-hearted attention. Look at Manya’s report-card. From the first position in class she has dropped down to the fifth rank.”

“You know this already, she was suffering from chickenpox.”

“But this too could not hold you back.”

“Please don’t start a scuffle.”

“I don’t argue. I can’t stand argument, I throttle it then and there.  Straight-away I tell you to leave it all behind and concentrate on kids. Your vocations start playing big only at times when I am busy at my end in the office:  You wasted so much on learning French and then this theatre came up.”

“No mood swings today, Vinay! Today is my first stage performance.”

“See for yourself! Nannu is running high fever, I shall come back late at night, you can’t afford to go out.”

“Manya is there and then I have given him crocin syrup, right now he is asleep.  It is a matter of three hours only.”

“No, don’t go.” 

“Please…the play has been announced. Tickets have all been sold out. I have a lead role to play. Substitution at the last hour is just not possible.

“Rascals! This is just an excuse to loiter around…”

“You are always busy: eight to eight you are out. Children also are in school… but I care for them, we kept all the rehearsals at home just because I did not want to leave them alone.”

“OK fine, rehearsals were performed during the day. Now you want to venture out at night too, knowing full well what kind of a city this is. Your security is a matter of concern at least for me.”

“OK then, you come along.” she gave another try.

“To watch my wife perform a Nautanki, Hish” In great disgust he spat out those word.  Sugandha kept quiet for some time and he kept undoing his tie in the mirror.

“Don’t cook for me. I am dining out with a client today and I want you to come along.”

“Why? Just because this young wife is a precious, presentable possession! “Words had hardly slipped out of her lips when he pounced upon her to twist her arms, Stop this bullshit?”

“Is it bullshit,You must learn to tell a play from a nautanki,” releasing her arm she pushed him back.

“I have learnt all my lessons. Even in my absence your good for nothing, cheap actor friends have a nice time here…And that Bengali Babu, Shyamal! His bandwagon feminist wife, Anama, is always on the media screen, and he is seen here with you…”

“You are crossing your limits. Your daughter is here and you are not ashamed of spitting out this filth.… I am leaving”.

“How dare you go out !” With this he pushed her on bed, but she was determined to leave.  Swinging her bag on the shoulder she shouted back, “Stop me if you can.” Now he could hold himself back no longer, with his fist on her face he hit her hard. The marriage ring in the ring finger gave her that scar and soon there emerged swelling around that. Fondling her face she took a flight down the stairs and rushed out of the gate. From the window he cried-

“Don’t you dare come back.”


Ignoring all threats she took a taxi to the metro-station and reached the theatre much before the scheduled hour. Had there been no fight, she would have fed her children well before leaving and would have planted soothing kisses on their forehead too!...But the maid will come in time, she will cook but children won’t eat well. Had it been a regular day, she would have cooked pizza or burger or something special for them.

She proceeded towards the stage. There was a dim light around the stage and Shyamal was engrossed in setting up the stage with his team. The stage had been done up with the interplay of the best of techniques. Curtains and paintings had been joyfully replaced with virtual images in multiple colours produced by the laptop.  This had turned out to be less expensive and more effective.  The dawn at the Gurukul had been beautifully created on the stage: the virtual images of dancing trees and the cottage had produced the right kind of effect.  The pre-recorded mantras and chirpings of the birds had produced the right kind of sound effect too.  On the screen at the background the image of planetary movement created the effect of golden curtains in King Janak’s court. On one side the shadows of a thousand cows were created.  A yagnakund was to be placed in one corner and the fire effect had to come from flying orange curtains. To represent the thousand cows in question a real cow also was brought on the stage. So much goes into the making of a single play. So much of hard work. From a distance it is not easy to guess how much ! Sugandha was taken aback and this wiped off bad memories of the tumultuous evening from her mind. Shyamal is so reserved and truly great. How he has helped him discover her own-self, Shyamal whose very presence soothes her to the core, Shyamal whom she had seen eight months ago in the company of her elder brother, Anurag.  Both of them had been College friends.  That was the day of the hundredth show of one of his popular plays. For weeks the hangover of this play stayed intact. She had not imagined in the wildest of her dreams that someday she would work under the direction of this great one. One day in one those movements of charmed leisure she had rung up Shaman “May I get the role of a tree or a pole in your play?”

“No, for that also there is a queue. There is a vacancy for a curtain raiser, will you manage that? “Anything to be a part of your team…”

“What’s your qualification?”

“M.Sc., Botany”

“O Gosh!”

“Have you ever had anything to do with arts?”

“ No”

“Have you read plays?”


“Seen some?

“In school I saw some but acted in none.”

“Have you heard about Gargi?”

“Which Gargi”

“The Gargi from the Purana?

“That rings a bell… yes, in one of the Sanskrit or Hindi lessons in school… but now I hardly recall anything”

“Look that up on net. Research first and get back to me,”

“ I was praying for a minor presence on the stage.”

“Stage comes later, work offstage first”


Those two months of researching on the  script had flown so fast! Shyamal turned out to be  a great teacher.  She learnt a lot from him and got really involved in the making of a play.  Gargi’s character left a deep impact on her. When Shyamal’s wife, Anama chose a TV soap opera over the less glamorous, unusual role in her husband’s play, Shyamal also started  looking for his Gargi in Sugandha. Young, cascading hair, broad forehead, broad jawline, large, liquid eyes, always eager to learn, eyes which hardly  blinked, cleft in the chin and a long nose spelling out obstinate behavior, thick voice, tall and fulsomebody.

“ Will I do  justice to the role?

“You will” Director Shyamal trusted her and this trust kept her going.  She immersed herself in preparation.  Milk was brought to a boil and she was busy learning her dialogues by heart.

“Yagyawalkya, tell me please, it is said about water that it dissolves everything, what dissolves water…”

“O.K. Atman, what are the characteristics of a true Brahman?”

Watching her body covered up by soap bubbles, she kept chatting with the shower.  “See for yourself, I have flung the shawl on my youthful body, and am willing to smudge my face with the ash from the pot of the ritual fire…..  Convey this to my father  that this body of  mine can’t play a lock-up to my life and my talent.”

For the past few months, she  had been living in the virtual world  of dreams.  This was the day to touch the ground.

“Here comes my learned Gargi. One among the nine jewels in King Janak’s Court.  St. Vachkanu’s daughter.”

“Shyamal, I still doubt,.”

“Yes, come up and clear all your doubts before stepping up on the stage.”

“What I hold in doubt is the marital status of Gargi. The internet underlines her as a celibate who never considered marrying anyone.  Some people say, she was married to Yagnawalkya, and some are of the opinion that staying single was a decision she took late in life. You have visualized her as betrothed to a boy who might object to her participation in a public debate. Is this your reading of the text or it has  mythological back-up too?”

“How does it matter? Everything is fair in love, war and the scripting of a play if it adds up to the effect. I have a feeling that casting this revolutionary beauty from the Brikadaranyak  Upnishad as absolutely lonely is not fair. She is questioning the notions of time and space at that point of time. She wishes to know what lies beyond the grip of time and space at a time when the ‘Cosmos’ around  her are being linked up to the Cosmos beyond her and she wishes to know who controls the ‘Cosmos’. Whatever Yagyawalkya says in response to that makes no head and tail to me.”


“Why so?”

“He answers vaguely- there is an immortal consciousness which manages all !  All rubbish. Instead of answering her, he starts threatening her.  May be, he doesn’t have an answer, may be, this has been added up. Quite possible that Gargi came up with her own answers and credited the acclaimed saint with the plausible answers.  After all, this is a man’s world, and as a Brahmin  male, only he has the right to answer.  To keep the tradition alive, she may have put all the answers in his mouth.  After all,, humiliating the saint or showing him his p lace was not her objective….. She wanted him to go back with the well –deserved award of a thousand cows.  He was a Brahmarishi after all.  He deserved the award….  This is why Gargi did not bring the question of  woman’s identity to the fore…. I wish to do so, but if I twist the given facts or give it an imaginary ending, I also run the risk of the theatre been set to fire….

“Yes, that is a fact”

“Our tradition is rich but facts have not always been allowed to fall in place. This renders us helpless Brahmins played a lot with the facts and censured a large chunk just to maintain their own supremacy.  There are lots of interpolations too.”. When Sugandha started reading his agony, he controlled himself, “Well, there were lapses in your memory,Sugandha. Have you rehearsed well ! I just wish that it goes off well  The hall is full.” “ Yes, I shall sail through, don’t unnerve me now.”

“Keep your expression sharp and dramatic.  It is rooted in the Pauranic tradition  Rehearsal in the daylight is different performance amidst stage light may unsettle you a bit but you will sail through.  Your pronunciation is your real asset.  Good luck, Sugandha.  Go ahead, I shall join you in the greenroom.  Nidhi is there with your costume.”

The costume was rooted in the Pauranic period.  Wrapover for the breasts, sari tied below the naval...  the golden shawl was a big relief.  Shyamal is extra-cautious in designing of  costumes.  She was combing her hair when Shyamal entered the greenroom.

“Nidhi, Sugandha’s hair will cascade in the first scene, in the second and third scenes when she takes a vow to stay single, her hair will be tied up in a bun.  The ‘tripund’  chandan will stay intact.  This golden shawl will be replaced with a white one. Makeup should be simple but well-defined.  Natural lipstick, deep eyes.

As he was saying this, he advanced towards her and in utter dismay he asked-


“Sugandha,  this bruise ! So deep a  scratch, so blue a bruise ! It was not there yesterday.”

“I slipped in the bathroom and got hit by the tap.”  She almost mumbled. Shyamal didn’t trust her.  He had known the world. His eyes knew it all, he kept mum, only his eye spoke- “I have been in the world of theatre for more than fifteen years. You have run out of excuses.Year after year  Gargis, Ampralies, Vasantsenas, Vasavudattas, Devyanies, Sharmisthas have appeared on stage wearing the marks of protest.  Excuses also are just the same- I slipped in the bathroom, my child hit me with a toy, bumped into the door of a bus or a taxi. You are not the first one, Sugandha.”

Apparently he said just this much, “Doesn’t matter !  Apply icepack on it to smooth out the swelling, after that you could apply the concealer and then a deep foundation.  It’s time.  Hurry up now”.  This unnerved her. Left all alone in the greenroom, she felt as if she would forget her dialogues. Quite ashamed of herself, she drew out the bunch of dialogues.  Unmindfully she started reading the black words whose meanings outgrew them, going beyond their narrow confines….. Let it be,  this p lay has run full stage..and it is over now.

Bus was  taking long to arrive.  Fed up- people were all going for taxis, she also headed toward one.

“Whereto, Madam?”

Like a pebble, some words popped up from the widow and hit her hand on back  “Don’t come back home.  You are outrageous and I don’t want to you to come back ever.”

“Madam, it’s raining hard.  Whereto?”

“Where? Has she forgotten?”

“Pull yourself out of Gurukul and Vaideh’s court,  Gargi. Beyond the theatre and the stage you have a home too. Your kids are there, Vinay too is there. Vinay is dining out. The maid must have cooked for them but you can’t trust kids with food cooked by someone else…. They would be busy watching TV. Manya’s homework  may be incomplete. Nannu is running fever.  Idiot, how could you forget it all?”

“Madam, whereto?”

“Well, home, where else.”

“Which side? Homes have an address.”

“O yes.” she entered the taxi, and as it moved on, she dropped her head against the seat.  It was raining outside and eyes too captured rain, but she held her tears backand soaked them in a hanky.  The heart whispered, “My address? I am hung somewhere between my wisdom and my womb. Wisdom wishes to kiss the sky and the womb keeps  me rooted to the earth.  But yes, I have a definite address too.  Take it from me, I let everyone hear.”

Softly she started mumbling, I am Gargi, C/o Yagyawalkya, I am Ahilya, the loose woman,
C/o Gautam Rishi.  I am Bhanwarni Devi and Roop Kunwar C/o Chastity Belt! The girl beaten up in the pub, c/o Shiv Sena! I am Noreen Faradic, C/o Tehran Jail! That young girl whipped up in the public……C/o Swat Valley”.

Translated from Hindi by Anamika