Maha·bhárata Book 3: The Forest, vol. 4: A Translator's StoryWill Johnson

Click here for the translator's synopsis of the book.

I had known Sávitri's story for a long time – I can't quite remember how long. Perhaps I first came across it in the form of Gustav Holst's chamber opera. I knew it was about Death and a temporary reprieve from death; I knew it was about a resourceful woman. I don't think I came to the Maha·bhárata's version directly until some time later, and even then I skimmed such stories because I was impatient to proceed with what seemed to be the narrative core of the Epic. (I say 'version', but the Maha·bhárata story, if not the original, must at least stand for it now.) Yet an image stayed with me: a black figure in a red robe, suddenly appearing in a forest clearing to a woman cradling her husband's head in her lap. And for some reason – perhaps because of the inherent drama of the situation – I always imagined this scene being played on an empty stage: a man and a woman in a pool of light, and this third, threatening figure, which seems like a man, but is not a man, at the edge of darkness. It was this image that came to mind when I was asked to translate some of the Maha·bhárata for the Clay Sanskrit Library, and so it was there that I decided to start.

As I made a first draft of the translation, the urge to dramatize the story became irresistible. Others have been similarly seduced, for different reasons: to glorify a faithful wife, to teach schoolchildren about a Hindu wedding, to impart some metaphysical truth. Perhaps mine was a middle-aged motive: to explore an encounter with death, and the accommodation to mortality. So as to my left there crystallized a not quite literal, but close rendering of the Sanskrit, to my right, there grew a 'translation' only in the loosest sense. Yet both seemed to have a similar purpose: to retell an old story in a modern idiom for a contemporary audience. For no better reason than that it grew organically out of my Sanskritist's translation, and casts an oblique light on it, here is my other version.

Sávitri
(The KING, NÁRADA (the KING'S friend and advisor), and SÁVITRI (the KING'S daughter) are found standing together in a group.)

SÁVITRI (to the KING).
Father, I have found the man I shall marry.

KING.
Who is he, my child?

SÁVITRI.
His name is Sátyavat.

KING.
And?

SÁVITRI.
And ... he is perfect in every way.

KING.
For example?

SÁVITRI.
For example... He is the son of a king himself. He has perfect manners. He is cultured, and strong with it. He is young...

KING.
And handsome, and witty, no doubt. But you forgot to tell us that this prince is rich.

SÁVITRI.
He is rich, father, most rich, in merit. For he and his family have taken a forest vow, and keep their court in the woods where they live like ascetics.

KING.
Then he is wealthy indeed, in that peculiar sense, although a pauper in general.

SÁVITRI.
He lacks nothing except a wife.

KING.
He will remedy that, I am sure. But perhaps someone else should help him.

SÁVITRI.
We are of equal rank, we are of similar age. We are young, but not too young. You allowed me a free choice, and I have chosen Sátyvat. His parents have approved the match.

KING (softening, teasingly).
Have they? But tell me, does this prince have no flaws at all?

NÁRADA (speaking before SÁVITRI can reply).
Just one.

(The others turn to look at him.)

A year today, he will be dead.

(Silence. SÁVITRI trembles.)

KING (eventually).
Ah...

SÁVITRI.
A year today?

NÁRADA.
Dead.

KING.
Why?

NÁRADA.
An illness, an accident, a curse ; who knows why? But it is certain.

KING.
My dear...

SÁVITRI (mumbling, mantra-like).
I have made my choice.

KING.
Sávitri ...

SÁVITRI (as though something has suddenly occurred to her that makes it ineluctable).
Death falls when it must. Long-lived or short-lived, good or bad, I have made my choice.

KING.
My daughter ... shall keep her word. And if what you say is true, Nárada, this time next year, she shall be a widow, and as good as dead herself. (For a moment he is lost in thought.) But I cannot believe it. It's true you're a great seer, but are you sure? Is there no ambiguity, no condition attached? How can you really know? Whatever you've heard, you can't be certain. The future cannot be reduced. Shall we be alive in a year's time? We can't live our lives thinking each year our last. Not for long.
(He puts an arm around NÁRADA'S shoulder, and they wander off together.)

SÁVITRI.
I believe it. I believe it beyond persuasion. But in this one instance, I also believe that it doesn't have to be so.

(SÁVITRI and SÁTYAVAT are married. Their wedding procession crosses the stage. A year passes and they are living in the forest. SÁVITRI is discovered meditating in the heat of the sun. Her MOTHER-IN-LAW enters.)

MOTHER-IN-LAW.
Sávitri, what's the point of this fast? This immobility? You have done far more than your duty. Come in out of the sun and eat with me. Your husband has already taken his food and is ready to go to the forest.

SÁVITRI (coming to).
The forest? Sátyavat is going to the forest today?

(SÁTYAVAT enters with an axe over his shoulder and starts to cross the stage.)

SÁVITRI (rising).
Husband, where are you going with that axe?

SÁTYAVAT.
To the forest to collect firewood.

SÁVITRI.
Then you must let me come with you.

SÁTYAVAT (surprised).
With me? In all the time we've been married you've never come with me before. Not once in a whole year.

SÁVITRI.
A whole year? No, it has not been a whole year yet. Not quite.

SÁTYAVAT (puzzled).
That's true, but why today? You must be weak from fasting.

MOTHER-IN-LAW.
I've just told her to come in and eat with me.

SÁVITRI.
Forgive me, mother. My fast is at an end, and I shall eat with you soon. But it cannot be today. Today I must go with my husband into the forest. I have made a vow to do so, and I cannot break it.

MOTHER-IN-LAW.
Well, if it's a vow, my child...

SÁTYAVAT.
Ah women and their vows, as if the world stopped or started for a vow.
(He puts down his axe, bows to
SÁVITRI and his mother, and then, taking up his axe again, leaves with SÁVITRI following him. His mother watches them, goes to call SÁTYAVAT back, stops herself, and exits looking troubled.)

(Now in the forest, SÁTYAVAT enters again with SÁVITRI following him. He is carrying a bundle of sticks and sweating. He puts down the bundle and leans on his axe.)

SÁTYAVAT.
I don't feel well. Perhaps I should have fasted before I came out. My head seems to be coming apart.

SÁVITRI (worried).
Sit down for a moment. It's midday. Here ... (she sits) Rest your head in my lap. (Lying down he puts his head in her lap and closes his eyes. She strokes his head, and rocks to and fro, singing softly as though to a child. He falls asleep.)

(Brightness drains from the air. SÁVITRI and SÁTYAVAT are left in a pool of cold light. SÁVITRI looks up, and at the edge of the light sees YAMA. He is black, and wearing a scarlet robe. In his hand, he holds a noose. SÁVITRI quickly, but gently, lays SÁTYAVAT's head on the ground, and stands up. YAMA comes close to SÁTYAVAT and stands over him. He seems not to have noticed SÁVITRI.)

SÁVITRI.
Who are you?

YAMA. (absentmindedly)
I am Yama.

(SÁVITRI looks at him hesitantly.)

Yes, I am Death. But what's that to you? I am here for Sátyavat.

SÁVITRI.
You know his name? You don't usually know names. What good is a named soul to you?

YAMA.
Indeed. But I've remembered him for your sake, Sávitri, because you love him so. For your comfort, his death will be noted; it will be neither anonymous nor collective, and it will belong to you. But no talk of 'souls', Sávitri; that's just childish, and you must grow up now. Especially now...

(YAMA bends over SÁTYAVAT with his noose and draws from SÁTYAVAT's body a person the size of a thumb. The body becomes a corpse. YAMA winds the person in his noose and carries it away. SÁVITRI starts to follow them, as though bound herself.)

YAMA (noticing her following).
Go back, Sávitri. Go back and perform your husband's funeral rites. Then your debt will be paid, your obligation over. Your life will go on. There's nothing more to do here. Nothing more you can do.

SÁVITRI.
When I was a girl they always told me, 'Go where your husband goes.' You might have stopped me once, but I've been fasting since then. I'm stronger than I was. Besides, you know the saying: 'If you walk seven steps with someone you've made a friend for life'. And I've walked at least twelve with you already, yes, I have been counting. So, out of friendship, tell me if you recognize this ... There's a law, well, if not a law, a principle that governs us all. And it's something other than, or more than you. How do I know that? I know it because you're included in it. For that reason alone you can't be the only principle. There is another, at least as strong. And in the name of that other principle I beg you to release my husband. Let Sátyavat live. He's still young; we have no children yet. And if he dies, I'm as good as dead too, a widow. In the name of that of which you're a part, but only a part, let him live again. Let me live. Let our children live.

YAMA.
This is not a debate you can win, Sávitri. I don't say this out of vanity; I have none. I don't say it to demoralise you: it is simply the way things are, the nature of beings, of being, just being. Debate cannot change that, any more than debate can change the number of leaves on a tree. That you can talk to me misleads you. You think I am like other creatures, which may be held to account and persuaded. I am no such being: I am a tree with a fixed number of leaves. The equivalent of a botanical fact. Even in that company I am peculiar in my certainty: a fact both before and after the event. The only fact left standing, so to speak. Laws and principles have nothing to do with it ... But I respect you, Sávitri. Your thoughts are desperate and imperfect, yet I can see how you feel them. I can see why you would want to love and be loved. So let me give you something ... Not quite anything, but certainly something. Therefore, tell me, what shall it be? (SÁVITRI goes to speak, but YAMA forestalls her) - Apart from your husband's life, of course. That I may not give you. You know how these stories work.

SÁVITRI.
There is nothing else.

YAMA.
Yes, but in this case something ought to come of nothing. Ask me. Humour me. Do me that courtesy. I didn't have to say a word ... (He makes to go on)

SÁVITRI.
Wait. My husband's family ...

YAMA.
Yes?

SÁVITRI.
His father's old. He has cataracts. He's almost blind. If he lost his son now... I know, I know. I was going to ask for his sight to clear for what's left of his life. But if he can see only to burn his son's body, better to leave him blank.

YAMA.
You can't suffer or end his suffering for him, Sávitri. But you may be right. Ask for something else.

SÁVITRI.
I have had no children.

YAMA.
Some would say, just as well. No child wants to be born fatherless. The superstitious think it's a curse, or something bad incubated in another life, and now grown up to suck your eggs in this. It may happen yet - you're still young.

SÁVITRI.
So was my husband, and so are many men and women who are still alive. Were all their other lives better than his or mine? What do the superstitious have to say about that? Why can they have children when I cannot? What did I do to make me childless?

YAMA.
I can make it happen, if that is your wish. I shall come for them, too, sooner or later. It's all ... (He grimaces.) But if you insist.

SÁVITRI.
No, I request.

YAMA.
Your request is granted.

(SÁVITRI hesitates, as if realising that what she's about to say will be crucial.)

SÁVITRI.
But I am a widow, and widows don't remarry - you must know that.

YAMA.
Ah, I see where this is going...

SÁVITRI.
So whose child am I to have? Yours? That wouldn't go down well either. No - the only children I can have are Sátyvat's. And since I'm not pregnant now, and since you've promised me children, you must return my husband to me, alive and fertile.

YAMA.
That was a poor trick, Sávitri. Quite unworthy of you. You won't enjoy this for long. He'll never know he died, and never know you revived him. He'll expect nothing but boys. You'll live to regret this, Sávitri.

SÁVITRI.
I never thought death would be so graceless.

YAMA (laughs).
You've heard the wrong stories, my dear. Never mind, I'll grant you your dubious wish. Take him with you. (After a slight pause he drops the homunculus into SÁVITRI's hand. They don't touch.) Return him to his body ... and shoe him back to life. Enjoy your troops of children. Au revoir. Go back now; it's getting cold ... and dark.

(The light fades. YAMA is drowned by the dark. SÁVITRI is left alone kneeling by SÁTYAVAT's body.)

SÁVITRI (nervously, and quietly at first).
Wake up ... Sátyavat, wake up ... Wake up! (She starts to panic) O God, wake up! I should never have believed him. I shouldn't have let him go before - And now it's too late.

(She covers her face with her scarf and begins to weep.)

SÁTYAVAT.
Oh ... I've slept forever. Why didn't you wake me? The darkness was ... everything. (Suddenly, he half sits up and looks about him in alarm.) Where's...?

SÁVITRI (calming him).
There's nobody. It's nothing. You've been dreaming. (She glances up.) Look! It's night! In spite of everything, it's night.

(They stare at each other.)

My dramatization finishes here - ambivalent and unresolved in the modern way; the original goes forward with greater confidence to its own culturally specific conclusion.

After I had finished a draft of the Sávitri episode, I began to look at the episodes on either side of it, and at the Forest Book as a whole. Slowly I realised my mistake: the Forest Book with its multiple stories, rather than being a diversion from, or accretion to the core narrative of the Epic, was in many ways its replicant. If, as it claims for itself, the Maha·bhárata contains everything, so in a sense does the forest (and its Book), but in a different register. Even without the benefit, or anachronism, of modern psychological analysis, the whole might be imagined as a series of clearings in the forest - clearings in which critical and transformative encounters take place. These are not just places where men and women get lost, where they encounter death and demons, they are also spaces in which individuals have a chance to discover themselves, in Indian terms, to realise their dharma. (The same might be said of our modern equivalent, and the site of most of our present fictions, the urban 'jungle'.) It is therefore no accident that Sávitri's encounter with death takes place in the forest, that Sita; is abducted there, that the Pándavas, after a mortal trial with Dharma disguised as a yakṣa, die and are brought back to life there. More widely, it is no accident that it is to the forest that renouncers go in search of liberation, and that a change of location is equated to an inner transformation. In short, I realised that the Epic forest, has many clearings, and, like Prospero's (and Caliban's) island, many voices. I also saw that each story, in its own way, could be as dramatic, and as potentially unsettling as Sávitri's debate with Death. The Forest Book lay before me: what better way to discover it than to go to the beginning and start to translate.