An Indian Jataka

by Achmed Abdullah

An Indian Jataka affirms that “love demands eternal vigilance,” published in The Ten Foot Chain; or, Can Love Survive the Shackles? (1920). (A “jataka” is an Indian story about the former lives of the Buddha.)

This is the tale which Jehan Tugluk Khan, a wise man in Tartary, and milk brother to Ghengiz Khan, Emperor of the East and the North, and Captain General of the Golden Horde, whispered to the Foolish Virgin who came to him, bringing the purple, spiked flower of the Kadam-tree as an offering, and begging him for a love potion with which to hold Haydar Khan, a young, red-faced warrior from the west who had ridden into camp, a song on his lips, a woman’s breast scarf tied to his tufted bamboo lance, a necklace of his slain foes’ skulls strung about his massive chest, and sitting astride a white stallion whose mane was dyed crimson in sign of strife and whose dainty, dancing feet rang on the rose-red marble pavement of the emperor’s courtyard like crystal bells in the wind of spring.

This is a tale of passion, and, by the same token, a tale of wisdom. For, in the yellow, placid lands east of the Urals and west of harsh, sneering Pekin, it is babbled by the toothless old women who know life, that wisdom and desire are twin sisters rocked in the same cradle: one speaks while the other sings. They say that it is the wisdom of passion which makes eternal the instinct of love.

This is the tale of Vasantasena, the slave who was free in her own heart, and of Madusadan, a captain of horse, who plucked the white rose without fearing the thorns.

This, finally, is the tale of Vikramavati, King of Hindustan in the days of the Golden Age, when Surya, the Sun, warmed the fields without scorching; when Vanyu, the Wind, filled the air with the pollen of the many flowers without stripping the trees bare of leaves; when Varuna, Regent of Water, sang through the land without destroying the dykes or drowning the lowing cattle and the little naked children who played at the river’s bank; when Prithwi, the Earth, sustained all and starved none; when Chandra, the Moon, was as bright and ripening as his elder brother, the Sun.

LET ALL THE WISE CHILDREN LISTEN TO MY JATAKA!


VASANTASENA was the girl’s name, and she came to young King Vikramavati’s court on the tenth day of the dark half of the month Bhadra. She came as befitted a slave captured in war, with her henna-stained feet bound together by a thin, golden chain, her white hands tied behind her back with ropes of pearls, her slim young body covered with a silken robe of the sad hue of the tamala flower, in sign of mourning for Dharma, her father, the king of the south, who had fallen in battle beneath the steel-shod tusks of the war elephants.

She knelt before the peacock throne, and Vikramavati saw that her face was as beautiful as the moon on the fourteenth day, that her black locks were like female snakes, her waist like the waist of a she-lion, her arms like twin marble columns blue-veined, her skin like the sweetly scented champaka flower, and her breasts as the young tinduka fruit.

He looked into her eyes and saw that they were of a deep bronze color, gold flecked, and with pupils that were black and opaque—eyes that seemed to hold all the wisdom, all the secret mockery, the secret knowledge of womanhood—and his hand trembled, and he thought in his soul that the bountiful hand of Sravanna, the God of Plenty, had been raised high in the western heaven at the hour of her birth.

“Remember the words of the Brahmin,” grumbled Deo Singh, his old prime minister who had served his father before him and who was watching him anxiously, jealously. “‘Woman is the greatest robber of all. For other robbers steal property which is spiritually worthless, such as gold and diamonds; while woman steals the best—a man’s heart, and soul, and ambition, and strength.’ Remember, furthermore, the words of—”

“Enough croakings for the day, Leaky-Tongue!” cut in Vikramavati, with the insolent rashness of his twenty-four years. “Go home to your withered beldame of a wife and pray with her before the altar of unborn children, and help her clean the household pots. This is the season when I speak of love!”

“Whose love—yours or the girl’s?” smilingly asked Madusadan, captain of horse, a man ten years the king’s senior, with a mocking, bitter eye, a great, crimson mouth, a crunching chest, massive, hairy arms, the honey of eloquence on his tongue, and a mind that was a deer in leaping, a cat in climbing. Men disliked him because they could not beat him in joust or tournament; and women feared him because the purity of his life, which was an open book, gave the lie to his red lips and the slow-eddying flame in his hooded, brown eyes. “Whose love, wise king?”

But the latter did not hear.

He dismissed the soldiers and ministers and courtiers with an impatient gesture, and stepped down from his peacock throne.

“Fool!” said Madusadan, as he looked through a slit in the curtain from an inner room and saw that the king was raising Vasantasena to her feet; saw, too, the derisive patience in her golden eyes.

“A fool—though a king versed in statecraft!” he whispered into the ear of Shivadevi, Vasantasena’s shriveled, gnarled hill nurse who had followed her mistress into captivity.

“Thee! A fool indeed!” cackled the old nurse as, side by side with the captain of horse, she listened to the tale of love the king was spreading before the slave girl’s narrow, white feet, as Kama-Deva, the young God of Passion, spread the tale of his longing before Rati, his wife, with the voice of the cuckoo, the humming-bee in mating time, and the southern breeze laden with lotus.

“You came to me a slave captured among the crackling spears of battle,” said Vikramavati, “and behold, it is I who am the slave. For your sake I would sin the many sins. For the sake of one of your precious eyelashes I would spit on the names of the gods and slaughter the holy cow. You are a light shining in a dark house. Your body is a garden of strange and glorious flowers which I gather in the gloom. I feel the savor and shade of your dim tresses, and think of the home land where the hill winds sweep.

“My love for you is as the soft sweetness of wild honey which the bees of the forest have gathered among the perfumed asoka flowers—sweet and warm, but with a sharp after-taste to prick the tongue and set the body eternally longing. To hold you I would throw a noose around the far stars. I give you all I have, all I am, all I shall ever be, and it would not be the thousandth part of my love for you. See! My heart is a carpet for your little lisping feet. Step gently, child!”

Vasantasena replied never a word. With unwinking, opaque eyes, she stared beyond the king, at a slit in the curtain which separated the throne-room from the inner apartment. For through the embroidered folds of the brocade, a great, hairy, brown, high-veined hand was thrust, the broad thumb wagging mockingly, meaningly, like a shadow of fate.

And she remembered the huge star sapphire set in hammered silver that twinkled on the thumb like a cresset of passion. She remembered how that hand had plucked her from amidst the horse’s trampling feet and the sword-rimmed wheels of the war-chariots as she crouched low above her father’s body. She remembered the voice that had come to her, clear through the clamor and din of battle, the braying of the conches, the neighing of the stallions, the shrill, angry trumpeting of the elephants—

A voice sharp, compelling, bitter—

“Captive to my bow and spear, little flower, but a slave for the king, my master. For such is the law of Hind. He will love you—not being altogether a fool. But perhaps you will not love him. Being but a stammering virgin boy, perhaps he will heap your lap with all the treasures in the world. Being an honest gentleman, perhaps he will treat you with respect and tenderness, with the sweet fairness of the blessed gods. And perhaps—even then—you will not love him, little flower.

“Perhaps you will turn to the captain of horse as the moon rises like a bubble of passion from the deep red of the sunset. Perhaps you will read the meaning of the koel-bird’s love-cry, the secret of the jessamine’s scent, the sweet, throbbing, winglike call of all the unborn children in the heart and body and soul of Madusadan, captain of horse.”

“A bold man, this captain of horse!” Vasantasena had smiled through her tears, through the savage clang of battle.

“A reckless man—yet a humble man, little flower. Reckless and humble as the moist spring monsoon that sweeps over the young shoots of bluish-white rice. For”—here he had put her in front of him, on the curve of the peaked, bossed saddle—”will the rice ripen to the touch of the savage, clamoring monsoon?”

And he had drawn slightly away from her. He had not even kissed her, though they were shielded from all the world by the folds of the great battle flag that was stiff with gold, stiffer with darkening gore. In the fluttering heart of Vasantasena rose a great longing for this insolent warrior who spoke of love—and touched her not.

This is the tale of the grape that is never pressed, that never loses its sweetness, though white hands squeeze its pulp, day after day, night after night.

This is the tale of the book that is never read to the end, though eyes, moist and smarting with longing, read its pages till the candles gutter out in the gray dawn wind and the young sun sings its cosmic song out of the East, purple and golden.

This is the tale of love which rises like a mist of ineffable calm, then sweeps along on the red wings of eternal desire—the tale of love that is a chain forged of steel and scent, a chain of unbreakable steel mated to the pollen of the glistening areka-flower.

LET ALL THE WISE CHILDREN LISTEN TO MY JATAKA!

“See!” said Shivadevi, the old nurse, to Vasantasena, who shimmered among the green, silken cushions of her couch like a tiger-beetle in a nest of fresh leaves. “Vikramavati, the king, has bowed low before you. He has removed from your hands and ankles the pearl and gold fetters. He has taken off your robe of mourning and has thrown about your shoulders a sari woven of moonbeams and running water. He has seated you beside him on the peacock throne, as a free woman—not a slave.”

“Yes,” replied Vasantasena. “He has placed his head and his heart on the sill of the door of love. He brought me his soul as an offering. And I”—she yawned—”I love him not.”

“He has heaped your lap with many treasures,” went on the old woman. “Jasper from the Punjab has he brought to you, rubies from Burma, turquoises from Thibet, star-sapphires and alexandrites from Ceylon, flawless emeralds from Afghanistan, white crystal from Malwa, onyx from Persia, amethyst from Tartary, green jade and white jade from Amoy, garnets from Bundelkhand, red corals from Socotra, chalcedon from Syria, malachite from Kafiristan, pearls from Ramesvaram, lapis lazuli from Jaffra, yellow diamonds from Poonah, black agate from Dynbhulpoor!”

Vasantasena shrugged her slim shoulders disdainfully.

“Yes,” she said. “He put the nightingale in a cage of gold and exclaimed: ‘Behold, this is thy native land!’ Then he opened the door—and the nightingale flew away to the green land, the free land, never regretting the golden cage.”

“He grovels before you in the dust of humility. He says that his life is a blackened crucible of sin and vanity and regret, but that his love for you is the golden bead at the bottom of the crucible. He has given you freedom. He has given you friendship. He has given you tenderness and affection and respect.”

“Yes,” smiled Vasantasena. “He has given me his everything, his all. Without cavil, without stint. Freedom he has given me, keeping the bitter water of humility as his own portion. But all his generosity, his fairness, his humility, his decency—all his love has not opened the inner door to the shrine of my heart. In the night he comes, with the flaming torches of his passion; but my heart is as cold as clay, as cold as freezing water when the snow wind booms down from the Himalayas. The madness of the storm and the waves is upon him, but there is no answering surge in the tide of my soul. In my heart he sees the world golden and white and flashing with laughter. In his heart I see the world grim and drab and haggard and seamed with tears. For—generous, fair, unstinting—he is also selfish and foolish, being a man unwise in the tortuous, glorious ways of love. Daily he tells me that I am the well of his love. But never does he ask me if his love is the stone of my contentment.”

“Perhaps he does not dare,” cackled the old nurse.

“Being modest?”

“Yes.”

“Only the selfish are modest, caring naught for the answering spark in the heart of the loved one. And the love of woman is destroyed by humble selfishness as the religion of a Brahmin by serving kings, the milk of a cow by distant pasturage, and wealth by committing injustice. There is no worth in such wealth—nor in such love. This is Veda-truth.”

And in a high, proud voice she added:

“I love Madusadan, captain of horse. I will kiss his red, mocking lips and bend to the thrill of his strong body. Pure he is to all the world, to all women—so the bazaar gossip says—but I, and I alone, shall light the lamp of passion in his heart. Free am I! But the unsung music in his heart shall be a loved fetter around mine. Clasped in his arms, life and death shall unite in me in an unbreakable chain.

“I will bury my hands deep in the savage, tangled forest that is his soul and follow therein the many trails. I will read the message of his hooded, brown eyes, the trembling message of his great, hairy hands. His heart is a crimson malati-flower, and mine the tawny orchid spotted with purple that winds around its roots.”

“Gray is the hair on his temples. He is the king’s senior by ten years.”

“Years of wisdom,” laughed Vasantasena. “Years of waiting. Years of garnering strength.”

“He is not as kindly as Vikramavati, nor as great, nor as generous.”

“But he is wise—wise! He knows the heart of woman—the essence, the innermost secret of woman.”

“And that is—”

“Patience in achieving. Strength in holding. Wisdom in—not demanding unless the woman offers and gives sign.”

And she went out into the garden that stretched back of the palace in wild, scented profusion, bunching its majestic, columnar aisles of banyan figs as a foil for the dainty, pale green tracery of the nim-trees, the quivering, crimson domes of the peepals bearded to the waist with gray and orange moss, where the little, bold-eye gekko lizards slipped like narrow, green flags through the golden, perfumed fretwork of the chandela bushes and wild parrots screeched overhead with burnished wings; and there she met Madusadan, captain of horse, whom she had summoned by a scribbled note earlier in the day, and her veil slipped, and her white feet were like trembling flowers, and she pressed her red mouth on his and rested in his arms like a tired child.

The road of desire runs beneath the feet all day and all night, says the tale. There is no beginning to this road, nor end. Out of the nowhere it comes, vanishing, yet never vanishing in the nowhere; renewing each morning, after nights of love, the eternal miracle, the never-ending virginity of passion.

You cannot end the endless chain of it, says the tale. You cannot hush the murmur of the sea which fills the air, rising to the white, beckoning finger of Chandra, the Moon.

Love’s play is worship.

Love’s achievement is a rite.

Love’s secret is never read.

Always around the corner is another light, a new light—golden, twinkling, mocking, like the will-o’-the-wisp.

Reach to it—as you never will—and there is the end of the chain, the end of the tale.

LET ALL THE WISE CHILDREN LISTEN TO MY JATAKA!

“You broke your faith, faithless woman!” said Vikramavati as he saw Vasantasena in the arms of Madusadan, captain of horse.

The girl smiled.

“It was you who spoke of love,” she replied, “not I.”

“I tried to conquer your love by the greatness of my own love.”

“As a fool tries to take out a thorn in his foot by a thorn in his hand.”

“I gave you freedom. I gave you the wealth of all Hindustan, the wealth of the outer lands. I gave you my soul, my heart, my body, my strength, my ambition, my faith, my secret self.”

“You gave me everything—because you love me. I gave you nothing—because I do not love you.”

“Love can do the impossible,” gravely said the captain of horse, while Vasantasena nestled more closely to his arms. “It was because of love that Vishnu, the Creator, changed into a dwarf and descended to the lowermost regions, and there captured Bali, the Raja of Heaven and of Earth. It was because of love that, as Ramachandra, helped by the monkey folk, he built a bridge between India and Ceylon, and that, as Krishna, he lifted up the great mountain Golonddhan in the palm of his hand as an umbrella with which to shield his loved one against the splintering, merciless rays of Surya, the Sun, the jealous, yellow god.

“Love can do all things—except one. For love can never create love, wise king. Love can force the stream to flow up-hill, but it cannot create the stream when there is no water.”

Silence dropped like a shadow of fate, and Vikramavati turned slowly and walked toward the palace.

“To-morrow,” he said over his shoulder, in an even, passionless voice, “you shall die a death of lingering agony.”

Madusadan laughed lightly.

“There is neither to-day nor to-morrow nor yesterday for those who love,” he replied. “There is only the pigeon-blue of the sunlit sky, the crimson and gold of the harvest-fields, the laughter of the far waters. Love fills the cup of infinity.”

“To-morrow you will be dead,” the king repeated dully.

And again Madusadan laughed lightly.

“And what then, O wise king, trained in the rigid logic of Brahmin and Parohitas?” he asked. “Will our death do away with the fact that once we lived and, living, loved each other? Will the scarlet of our death wipe out the streaked gray of your jealousy? Will our death give you the love of Vasantasena, which never was yours in life? Will our death rob our souls of the memory of the great sweetness which was ours, the beauty, the glory, the never-ending thrill of fulfillment?”

“Love ceases with death.”

“Love, wise king, is unswayed by the rhythm of either life—or death. Love—that surges day after day, night after night, as year after year the breast of the earth heaves to the spring song of the ripening rice, to the golden fruit of the mango groves.

“Death? A fig for it, wise king!

“Let me but live until to-morrow in the arms of my loved one, and the sweetness of our love shall be an unbreakable chain—on through a thousand deaths, a thousand new births, straight into Nirvana—into Brahm’s silver soul!”

“Ahee!” echoed Vasantasena. “Let death come and the wind of life lull; let the light fail and the flowers wilt and droop; let the stars gutter out one by one and the cosmos crumble in the gray storm of final oblivion—yet will our love be an unbreakable chain, defying you, O king—defying the world—defying the very gods—”

“But not defying the laws of nature, as interpreted by a wise Brahmin!” a shrill, age-cracked voice broke in, and Deo Singh, the old prime minister who had come down the garden trail on silent, slippered feet, stepped into the open.

“No! By Shiva and by Shiva! Not the laws of nature, the eternal laws of logic, as interpreted by a priest well versed in Sruti and Smriti—in revelation and tradition. Not the laws of nature, rational and evidential, physical and metaphysical, analytical and synthetical, philosophical, and philological, as expounded by a Parohita familiar with the Vedas and the blessed wisdom of the ancient Upanishads of Hind!”

He salaamed low before Vikramavati.

“It is written in the Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Books, the Lay of Brahm the Lord, that each crime shall find condign punishment, be it committed by high caste or low caste, by prince or peasant, by raja or ryot. To each his punishment, says the Karma, which is fate!”

“And—these two?” demanded Vikramavati. “What punishment shall be meted out to the faithless woman and the faithless captain of horse, Brahmin?”

Deo Singh spread out his fingers like the sticks of a fan.

“They have chosen their own sentence, these worshipers of Kartikeya, God of Rogues and Rascals,” he chuckled. “Of a chain they spoke. An unbreakable chain that defies all laws, except belike”—again he laughed deep in his throat—”the wise laws of nature. Weld them together with such a chain, forged by a master smith, made so strong that not even a tough-thewed captain of horse may break it with the clouting muscles of his arms and back. A chain, ten feet long, so that they may never be far away from each other, so that they may always be able to slake the hot, turbulent thirst of love, so that they may never have to wait for the thrill of fulfillment as a beggar waits at life’s feast, so that day and night, each hour, each minute, each second they may revel in the sunshine of their love, so that never they may have to stand helpless before the flood-tide of their desire.

“Grant them their wish, O king, being wise and merciful; and then lock them into a room containing the choicest food, the sweetest drinks, the whitest flowers, the softest, silkenest couch draped with purple and gold. A room such as lovers dream of—and fools! Leave them there together for three days, three nights, three sobbing, crunching, killing eternities! With no sound, no touch, no scent, no taste, but their own voices, their own hearts and souls and minds and bodies! And at the end of the three days——”

“Yes?” asked Vikramavati.

“They will have suffered the worst punishment, the worst agony on earth. Slowly, slowly for three days, three nights, three eternities, they will have watched the honey of their love turn, drop by drop, into gall. Their passion—slowly, slowly—will turn into loathing; their desire into disgust. For no love in the world can survive the chain of monotony!”

Thus it was done.

A chain of unbreakable steel, ten feet long, was welded to the girl’s right wrist and the man’s left, and they were locked into a house—a house such as lovers dream of—that was guarded day and night by armed warriors, who let none within hailing distance, whose windows were shuttered and curtained so that not even the golden eye of the sun might look in, and around which a vast circular clearing had been made with torch and spade and scimitar so that neither bird nor insect nor beast of forest and jungle might live there and no sound drift into the lovers’ room except, perhaps, the crooning sob of the dawn wind; and at the end of the third night carefully, stealthily, silently the king and the Brahmin walked up to the house and pressed their ears against the keyhole, and they heard the man’s voice saying:

“I love you, little flower of my happiness! I love you—you who are all my dreams come true! When I look into your face the sun rises, and the waters bring the call of the deep, and the boat of my life rocks on the dancing waves of passion!”

And then the girl’s answer, clear, serene:

“And I love you, Madusadan, captain of horse! You have broken the fetters of my loneliness, the shackles of my longing! I waited, waited, waited—but you came, and I shall never let you go again! You have banished all the drab, sad dreams of the past! You have made your heart a prison for my love, and you have tossed away the key into the turbulent whirlpool of my eternal desire!”

“Did the chain gall them?” asked the Foolish Virgin, who had come to Jehan Tugluk Khan, a wise man in Tartary and milk brother to Ghengiz Khan, Emperor of the East and the North and Captain General of the Golden Horde.

“No, Foolish Virgin,” replied Jehan Tugluk Khan. “Their love could not have lived without the chain. It was their love which WAS the chain—made it, held it, welded it, eternal, unbreaking, unbreakable. Ten feet long was the chain. Each foot of steel—eternal, unbreaking, unbreakable—was a link of their love, and these links were: Passion, patience, completion, friendship, tolerance, understanding, tenderness, forgiveness, service, humor.”

This is the end of the tale of Vasantasena, the slave who was free in her own heart, and of Madusadan, a captain of horse, who plucked the white rose without fearing the thorns.

And, says the tale, if you would make your chain doubly unbreakable, add another foot to it, another link. There is no word for it. But, by the strength and sense of it, you must never lull your love to sleep in the soft cradle of too great security.

For love demands eternal vigilance.

LISTEN, O AZZIA, O BELOVED, TO MY JATAKA!