The Aims of Life
Kausambi, India – Late Summer
In the Reign of Kamaragupta I (5th century CE)
His breath freshened with betel and his body cleansed, Vatsyayana followed the slave boy, Bana.
An image of the yellow flowers around his neck being suddenly scattered on the floor taunted him. His hands itched for the petals, but he closed his fingers into fists, resisting the intense urge. He had better control of his emotions than that.
The boy who walked ahead of him could not be more than half his age, yet Bana held himself with a quiet reserve Vatsyayana envied even now, much less when he was the same age.
They mounted the wooden stairs to the second storey. Down a long corridor open to the garden courtyard below, they walked in silence. Sunlight glinted off the roof and shimmered in the pond at the center of the court.
A few prostitutes idled on the walkway, yawning behind their hands or showing off the jewels in their hair, or on their limbs. All eyed him as he passed. One reached out and caressed the small boy’s shoulders with her hennaed nails. When she grinned at him, Vatsyayana groaned in disgust. Did these women think nothing of including children in their pleasure games, too?
“You’re being a good boy today, my son?” the prostitute asked.
“I am, Mother.” Bana bowed before he continued walking.
Vatsyayana stared at his back and then looked at his mother, horrified.
She laughed and threw her head back, exposing her graceful neck. “Did you believe he was my lover?”
Her companions laughed at him. His face hot, he rushed past them. He followed the boy until they reached the end of the hall.
A turquoise door hanging edged with gold filigree rustled, before the servant Sarama stepped out. She patted the boy’s head. “Thank you, Bana.”
She looked to Vatsyayana. “Mistress will see you now.”
She drew back and allowed him entry beyond the curtain, her hand resting lightly on the handle of the dagger at her waist.
He stepped into the small antechamber. A multicolored round carpet with geometric designs was at its center, encircled among purple and red pillows edged with tassels. The shelves on the left hung with red ashoka and yellow champa flowers and rows of jasmine, durva herbs, incense sticks, scented pots, and bowls of cardamom and citron peel.
Chandi entered the room, sheathed in a plain, white dhoti with a jeweled kamarband belting the garment and a necklace of jasmine adorning her. Her eyes sparkled, as she greeted him with her warmest smile and most reverent bow. A fringe of her dark hair fell over her eyes when she did so. Her vibrant appearance startled him. He had heard her distinct, tinkling laughter echo from the inner courtyard most of the previous night.
“There are dark circles under your eyes, Vatsyayana. Was your evening unpleasant?” She looked at Sarama after she said this. He frowned, wondering why she would think the woman affected his mood in any way.
“I am unaccustomed to the revelries I heard last night.”
Chandi nodded. “Well, yes, you’ve spent several years of your life at Nalanda. But, surely as a child, you must have seen prostitutes bless marriages at Varanasi?”
When he shook his head, she added, “I assure you, your father enjoyed the company of the women here on many occasions. It was our pleasure to entertain him.”
His nostrils flared. “My father did not consort with prostitutes!”
Chandi raised her black eyebrows. “Gatherings in this dwelling extend to more than just courtesans and their lovers. Our guests were storytellers, who recited the legendary epics and ancient history, singers, poets and a variety of scholars, including Brahmins. Kausambi is a gilded city, bedecked as a bride upon her wedding day, and the courtesans of Kausambi are its jewels. Your father never disdained the pleasures of music and dance, or the companionship of beautiful women. He understood the true nature of such refinements.”
Before he could argue further, she gestured to a pillow on the floor before settling herself on another beside it.
He gritted his teeth and joined her. Her servant knelt at her side and stared at him impertinently.
Chandi said, “I delighted in receiving your father’s message. It had been too long since I heard from him, when the court was last at Ujjain before the monsoon rains. But, now I expect his master the Maharaja has returned to Pataliputra and your father with him. Tell me, how does your learned father fare?”
He looked away, but her gaze followed his. “What is wrong?”
His eyes watered. He clenched his fists at his side. He could not show weakness before such people.
Fighting past the lump tightening in his throat, nearly choking him, he whispered, “My father is dead.”
She reached blindly for the jasmine garland around her neck. The knot of flowers ripped in her hand and fell to her lap.
Her servant grasped and kissed her hand. “I grieve with you, Mistress.”
She patted the slave’s head. “Tell me, please, Vatsyayana, how did he die?”
“He had been ill for some time. He chose not to speak of the sickness to anyone, not even me.” Resentment crept into his tone. He rushed on. “My father suffered daily bouts of fever. The Maharaja’s chief physician advised him to bathe in the waters of the Shipra River. It did not help. He lost his appetite for all his favorite meals. He took only lentil broth in the afternoon for a month. My younger sisters summoned me from Nalanda. I arrived in the morning. He died the following night.”
He clasped his hands, his eyes averted.
Chandi nodded. “Then, I cannot mourn, for he is at peace.”
He glared at her. “At peace, you say?”
“Death is inevitable for us all. But, it is not an occasion for sadness. In truth, I will miss your father. His is a great loss for me, for the world. Yet, I rejoice in his passing, for it is but a casting off of the physical body. As the ancient gurus teach us, ‘the soul of man is indestructible, it cannot be pierced by sword, fire cannot burn it, air cannot dry it, water cannot moisten it.’ We must rely on such truths and never mourn your father.”
Breathing harshly, he shouted and tabbed a finger at her. “How dare you? How dare you quote the Bhagavad-Gita to me, one who has studied its meaning all my life? Don’t you know who I am, who my father was? You’re nothing compared to us.”
She rose with her servant’s aid. “Yet, your father admired and respected me and I loved him for it.”
“You’re no more than a well-practiced whore. A whore cannot love anyone or anything, except money.”
The slave beside her gasped, but Chandi smiled. “I did love him, Vatsyayana. Believe what you must of me, but believe also in my love for him. When I visit the temple today, I will honor him.”
“With the trinkets you’ve earned from last night’s debauchery? Such gifts would profane my father’s good name. I cannot allow that.”
“Yet, you cannot prevent me from honoring him as I please.”
“Why do you care if he is dead? You cannot expect me to believe you enjoyed any…relationship with my father. He could not have been your patron. My father kept strict accounts. I oversaw everything his steward did, whenever I returned to Varanasi. He did not add to your coffers, woman. I refuse to believe it.”
When she said nothing, his hearth thrummed and readied to explode from his chest. “Were you and my father lovers? Were you? Tell me the truth.”
She shook her head, a glimmer of sadness sparkling at the corners of her eyes. “You would not understand the truth. You are not ready to hear it.”
When she turned away, he grabbed for her wrist and held her firm. She cried out and shrank away from him.
The slave jerked the dagger from its sheath. “No one touches Mistress without her permission!”
Chandi raised a hand, halting her. “Sarama, Vatsyayana is our guest. You must not harm him.”
He sneered, though his hand fell away from her. “As if she could hurt me.”
Chandi rubbed her wrist. Her servant kissed the reddened area he’d released. “I could hurt you, young master, for her.”
Chandi shook her head. “That is not necessary, Sarama. Please, don’t upset him further. He is in pain. He is right to seek answers at such a time.”
He shook with setting rage. “Then, answer my question. Were you and my father ever lovers?”
Yet, fear soured his belly as he awaited her answer. Could his father have done it, taken this preening peacock of a woman to her chambers, and worshipped at the temple of her flawless body? It occurred to him that he hadn’t truly known his father after all, for how could the old man have kept his liaison with this whore secret from everyone? He shuddered. Did his mother know? Could he wound her so deliberately by betraying such a possibility?
Chandi whispered, “We were never lovers.”
He sagged as relief overwhelmed him. “Then, how did you come to know him?”
She withdrew her fingers from her slave’s hold. “You must not ask me. You are not prepared to learn such things. Not yet.”
She clasped her hands together. “Your father commanded me to teach you the rule of love. For the love I still bear him, I will fulfill his last wish. We will begin our exploration with the three aims of life. It is time for your first lesson.”
He glared at her. “What lesson might that be?”
“Kama,” she answered over her shoulder, before heading toward the door.
He called out after her, “And, what must I learn of desire and voluptuousness?”
“You said earlier you were seeking knowledge,” the servant interrupted, as she gathered a tray of ointments and perfumes. “My mistress will show the way.”
If you liked this chapter but missed the previous one, catch up on Chapter 1.
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