Ladies in the Park

As I sat in solitary splendour
In the cafe by the park
I barely glanced at the table beyond
Ladies out for a lark

But there was something that made me look
At them again and again
They were here as themselves though
I was sure they had put on some feign

They looked like all the others in dress
And their servers had nothing to complain
But take a look now and then
You’d see, they were made to reign

They were queens in their own right
You you see it clearly in their mien
Then what were they doing in this humble place
What cover did they need to maintain?

Where did they come from these ladies of lore
What were they here to gain
Unable to resist, I moved in close
Unabashedly to evesdrop on their domain

“He tries to do what’s right I realise
But it became too much to bear
How can one live with one so smug
Who prioritises by points his care?”

“At least you had one, alone
Who promised there wouldn’t be more
My five I had to deal with myself
And then their wives galore”

“Yours you had with you at least
Mine, careless to the last
We had a kingdom to retrieve and he,
Left me to deal with Yama’s blast”

“Kingdoms were lost to all of us
And we retrieved what was ours
I wonder what happened to those
Who lost the final wars?”

“Oh, Damyanti, you spoke so soft
And yet your words carry a lance
But child, you know the way of the world
Losers barely get a backward glance”

“But Draupadi, you are the only one of us
Who got credit for what she did
You held the brothers to their word
You made sure they were one-as-bid”

“Yes, look at poor Sita here,
Who made each chapter turn
And yet they tell us tales as if
She couldn’t make the purifying fire burn”

“Sita, you smile in gentle content
You know what you have done
Without you doing what you could
Would Ram’s story even be one?”

“What did you gain sister Draupadi
Since the world beheld your fire?
Did they love you more for it
Did they worship you, your ire?”

“They fell so often and yet they stand
In history proud and tall
I fell just once, and I’d been tricked
Turned to stone for your man to recall”

(She looked at Sita, her gaze direct
It was Ahilya, I did deduce
A challenge, not yet gauntlet thrown
For Sita to adduce)

“Has Sita ever in her life
Refused a challenge thrown?
She, who by her gentle guiles
Had restored Rama’s glory and throne!”

(I did not know who this one was
There was a note here beyond the mild
Her bearing, like all the others
Was queenly, if a bit wild)

“Tara, you have suffered much
A queen knows what she must do
You, yourself have borne the brunt
Of the battles of your husbands two”

(Oh, Sita, she does play this well
Fencing with dignity and grace
She parried this thrust so neatly
With nary a mark on her face)

“A queen must bear the sins of one
With whom she shares her crown
Apparently it is her who is
The keeper of the king’s renown”

“Wise words, Mandodari,
What you say is true
And who has lived through this pain
More than you”

“Yes, Tara, both you and I
Who know what it is to be shared
Among us queens gathered here
Only Sita has been spared”

“Oh, not just me, here is Savitri too
Who won Yama with her wisdom
And Damyanti who persevered alone
To restore Nala to his own”

“Why, Sita, you are quick of wit
Your arrow never slow
Then why is it that in tales that are told
Only Rama carries the bow?”

“What can I say, O Tara dear
Of what I have to bear
Of all the things I carry with me
My smile is the heaviest to wear”

“But Sita, you were loved by all
As Tara and Mandodari will attest
The Battle it was fought for you
You even adorn the Diwali fest”

“A battle had turned on your words too
O Draupadi of unfettered locks
The forces will play themselves out
No matter how much one blocks”

“For all the grand affairs of state
And dealings with pelf and strife
Thank goodness for the exiled years
And our simple jungle life”

(The smile that rippled through the group
Could light up the world for years
The gentle grace, the brightened face
These were goddesses through their tears)

“Even I who was still as stone
Will not forget that place or time
The simple peace of being left alone
Untroubled by demanding whine”

“Ahilya, you were loved by all
Your beauty beyond divine
And yet you say you preferred those days
When you lay still and supine”

“I hear you and know you are right
I’d had my fill of intrigue
When the order for the jungles came
It was like a reprieve”

“It was like a picnic though
We never knew how many we’d feed
Thankfully I had my wondrous cook
Who’d meet everybody’s need”

“Was it a cook, a person for real
Or was it some magic you wield
The stories I heard over the grapevine
Spoke of a vessel with unlimited yield”

“Ha ha, that is a laugh
What magic did I hold
If I had any magic to speak of
I’d make my sons serve me when I was old”

“Draupadi, you always knew
How to stop a conversation in its tracks
You leave us all stupefied
Edging away, finding a wall behind our backs”

“But now that you have made us uncomfortable
I feel free to ask you this
Did you truly love all five of them
Or was it elaborately enacted bliss?”

“Why say there were five alone?
I was fire born to consume
I loved all those who matched my meet
With equally powerful flume”

“But sisters what of you,
Who had more than one groom
Ahilya, you were loved so true
Even though it brought you to doom”

“And Tara you had both the brothers
Whose sons and heir you begat
And Mandodari you went to Vibhishan’s side
Tell us the tale of that”

“I was turned to stone, you know
For loving the gods too much
They said I was tricked and cursed me so
Inconsistency, nonesuch”

“But were you tricked Ahilya fair
Or did you fain succumb
To the wiles and charms of the gods
Who spoke with silvered tongue”

“She flushes, she blushes,
Oh, spare her for a little while
I want to ask our Sita here
More about her charming exile”

“Was there really a golden deer
That came upon in disguise
Or was that charm that spread itself
That made you compromise”
“I wouldn’t blame Sita so much…”
“Oh Damyanti, do be quiet,
We all know that mere wooden arms
Don’t satiate a queenly diet”

“All I’ll say that I was lucky
To have been loved so much in my time
Though it was tough to hold my own
I had friends with charms sublime”

“There, she has said it now
Are all of you satisfied?”
“She has said nothing, nothing at all
But with this, we will have to bide”

“This has been lovely, but I have to rush
It is time for my usual routine
We must do this again, it was fun to meet
Call my people, they’ll put you in my stream”

“Ah yes, do look at the time
It is late, I must go too
For all the time we have on our hands
There is much I need to do”

(What does a goddess do I I wondered
Whose place in time is secure
Its not as if she is an immortal
Who is still on their earthly tour)

“Excuse me madam, err Goddess, Lady
I could not help but overhear
Could I ask you a question or two
If you have a moment to spare?”

“Have you not heard enough young one
To fill your head for a while
But ask your question and make it quick
They said with a brilliant smile”

“Madams your tales have been
Told to us as mythology and lore
I’ve seen you here chatting a while
What else keeps you, and wherefore?”

“Cheeky a bit, but I like it so
At least there is little guile
We could tell you the whole of it
But that would take a while”

“A birth or two to understand
What we must do and why
But since you have heard the stories told
You’ll get it by and by”

“We hold the world in its place
We tug and tuck the ends
Till the stuff that is out of line
Does not affect the trends”

“We embody the values that our tales carry though
And more. Since you ask, with you we will share
We hold the line to show incorruptible to folk
We stand for choice, for consequences laid bare”

‘We bring drama and glamour to your little life
We light up the year with festive delight
We bring you to worship the feminine divine
Shaded and shielded, we share our might”

“We are the stories and the glories
Of what could have been and will be
We hold the chain from past to present
We are the bearers of eternity”

I wondered if this had been a dream
For the next moment they were nowhere to be seen
The park glowed with a strange light new
But no trace of the glories – no proof they had been

Till I looked down upon the bench
These words formed themselves, I swear they were sent
They spoke to me and then they were gone
But they had come, I bear testament

“Now that you have seen us in our bower
By rights you have earned a blessed shower
If what you want is to to retell this tale
We grant you the word, the world’s greatest power”

And so, dear reader, the words you see
Have come from that blessed mystery
Who knows, one morn, in a cafe on a bench
You’ll find them again, sipping a genteel cup of tea.

(c) meeta sengupta

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