A cloud passed by, obscuring the last faint scatterings of the evening sun. Shadows of swallows returning home fell upon the forest grounds creating patterns of life and play, and the sound from their whispery flaps entered Krishna’s mind. To see the arc of their flight, he looked up again, but his muscles had begun to cramp and his body now ached. Despite the serenity of that hour, a murmur of despair shimmered within him when he realized that this was to be the last evening he would see this world in this avatar known as Krishna. So incredible was it to be alive. This fullness of being, of feeling air ripple past his skin, of opening his eye to be greeted by something so resplendent and improbable as the world, which neither sought the approval of humans nor their humanity to render it meaningful. In that moment of transcendental clarity, even as the aureole of blood grew larger around him, as the blessedness of Vishnu-Narayana, the supreme being, the mover of all worlds, descended into Krishna, a squall of nostalgia rushed onto the shores of his consciousness. It overwhelmed him, as he sat there dying in that unending forests which covered much of Saurashtra, no different than a gored animal, bleeding, one drop at a time. For reasons unknown to him, his thoughts returned to that someone he had not remembered since he was a young man. It had been so long since he had uttered that name to himself. His friend, lover, confidante, critic, the possessor of his being. Radha…
But before this thread of thought could unspool in ways he could no longer control, Krishna’s mind stilled and returned to the present only to be greeted by Jara, the very same hunter who had wounded him inadvertently, and now nursed him with the patience of a mother. Then, suddenly, a touch irritated by his inability to kindle a new fire to life, Jara turned to Krishna and said:
‘My lord of Dwaravati, that blessed city of gates that we common-folk call Dwaraka—they say you once helped Agni, the God of Fire, burn down the whole of Khandava forest. Will you not then be kind enough to summon the Fires. I have been struggling for a while to light one.’
‘They, the people. I have heard them tell tales of you lifting mountains and killing demons as a child.’
Krishna laughed and said: ‘Never believe what storytellers tell you. They marry lies and truth to give birth to pleasure. You surely know that?’
Jara ignored that remark and asked once again, ‘So, you truly are not a God?’
‘No, I am just Krishna. What you describe is the handiwork of magicians or the Gods. I am neither.’
‘What then are you, my dear sir?’ Jara said with a touch of exasperation.
Krishna kept silent and let Jara work the stone. A few moments later, the flint rocks, surrendering to the inevitable laws of cause and effect, gave birth to a small flame. On that fire, Jara placed a cob of corn. With the sun set and darkness nearly everywhere, the air was now rife with the smell of food. Then, unprompted, Krishna said: ‘The most wondrous thing about our world is that forms change. From a stone you make fire, from fires we make food. But the real wonder is . . .’
Jara spoke suddenly, in a voice that was his, but it was now inflected, heavier in tone, and more assured, as if someone else had taken possession of him. ‘. . .how wondrous it is to live, watch others live, to see others die willingly. Like in a great War.’
A moment’s silence later, Krishna suggested, ‘Perhaps you could tell me about the war in Kurukshetra, about Bhishma, Arjuna, about Duryodhana . . . about how it all came to end.’
‘How can I tell you about them? I know nothing, I am a mere hunter,’ Jara protested distractedly.
Krishna then kept silent, and watched the spectral presences of the Gods whisper into Jara’s ears,
‘Speak, and the words will come. You have heard them before. In the marketplace, from your wife, from whores and priests, from the forests and the woods. Let them guide your tongue. Let that be your atonement for injuring this son of Devaki. Speak the story of Bhishma and Arjuna, of Draupadi and Duryodhana, of others too, as well as you know. Speak freely, and the words shall form on their own.’
Jara kept silent till the luminous presences vanished. Then his body stirred, as if he had awoken from some deep meditative stupor, and said to Krishna,
‘The words that I speak come from somewhere within me but from where they emerge, I do not know. This is not the story told by scholars and priests, but it is one told by hunters and fishermen, men who have neither learnt grammar nor the histories of learning. I speak from my heart, which is corrupt and venal. Please forgive me if these words only echo falsehoods. They are merely truths and lies as I have heard them.’
Krishna noted that Jara’s voice was no longer struck by doubt or hesitation, despite the qualifications he offered. He spoke as if he was Krishna’s equal, a friend who had found his own voice. It was if an unseen mind had begun to whisper words and ideas into Jara’s body and being.
Krishna smiled and said, ‘Speak that which you can remember. Do not worry if it is true or false. Do not worry if it is brimming over with excesses or if it has been obscured by time. Let me, the listener, find my own way through the forest of your words.’
Assuredly, Jara began to speak in the cadences of oracles and soothsayers, as he slowly prepared the grounds. ‘It was the darkest of nights. The ninth day of battle on the fields of Kurukshetra. Death stalked everyone.’
‘That is a terrifying start. A most auspicious way to begin. I am already loving it,’ Krishna said with mischief and longing in his heart. What followed was a night full of stories, tall and true, tales of human loves and misery, lusts and blood feuds—all of which were of Krishna’s own making—with Jara the hunter as the narrator and Krishna, the God among all Gods, as the listener. The hunter spoke freely, unconcerned by convention or morality,
‘Who shall you start with?’ Krishna asked, like a child awaiting his bedtime story, even as blood continued to pour from his feet and life was being drained from him.
‘Let us start with Bhishma. The oldest of the Kurus. His is a good story. They say he was the most venerable. The greatest of warriors among the Kurus, the oldest of humans. He served the throne of Hastinapura, but they say he never married. He commanded the armies of the kinds we have never seen but he himself never became king. His own life had seen many spectacles and wonders but none was as wondrous as his own deathless life that would now have to die . . .’
Thus began—not a celestial song, set to meter and grace, immortalized by poets and philosophers but rather a human song, narrated by an imperfect and unreliable narrator who helped our avatar of God remember all that he had wrought in the quest for Dharma.
Excerpted from The Dharma Forest by Keerthik Sasidharan with permission from Penguin Random House India. The book is published today.