Despite having a fondness for the
Rakshasas because one appeared in Kolchak: The Night Stalker, my
favorite character in India's great epic the Ramayana is the villain Manthara. This
is not for her evil, which is of a pretty banal sort, but for the wit of the
scene where she comes to the fore. She is a minor character who engineers the
central plot complication by persuading her mistress, the malleable Kaikeyi, wife of King
Dasaratha, to request the banishment of Rama, the epic's hero. She works on
Kaikeyi by arousing (implanting, really) fears that Dasaratha's naming of his
son (by another wife) Rama as heir-apparent will eclipse Bharata, her own
son by Dasaratha, and, alas, Kaikeyi's own influence will go into decline.
The scene is constructed around
an interesting inversion and a clumsy speech of praise by Kaikeyi, both of which highlight
the wit and literary skill of Valmiki, the author to whom the poem is traditionally
ascribed (in something like 550 BC). Oddly, this wonderful scene has been banished from the selections
of the Ramayana in the new edition of the Norton Anthology of
World Literature, and although no editorial reason has been given, it is
not too hard to guess at the reason. One of Manthara's distinguishing features
is a hunched back, and while Valmiki as author never makes sport
of Manthara's deformity, Kaikeyi does so extensively (if unintentionally). This
is done not only for the sake of humor but also for the sake of moral instruction,
picking up on the old idea that ugly souls are housed
in ugly or distorted bodies. We must
transcend our distaste over a seemingly cruel mocking of deformity--irrelevant, after all, to the content of a person's character--to
read the passage sympathetically and thus make out the morally edifying lesson
Upon discovering Rama's good fortune, Manthara is immediately "consumed with
rage" (2.7). She lacks the Hindu virtue of dharma,
which (among other things) requires self restraint and deference to authority.
Valmiki quickly establishes this and reveals more about her twisted character
by showing her bullying her mistress Kaikeyi to stir up trouble for Rama (2.7):
"Get up, you foolish woman!
How can you lie there when danger is threatening you? Don't you realize that
a flood of misery is about to overwhelm you? Your beautiful face has lost
its charm. You boast of the power of your beauty, but it has proved to be
as fleeting as a river's current in the hot season." So she spoke, and
Kaikeyi was deeply distraught at the bitter words of the angry, malevolent
Manthara reveals what she has discovered
about Rama, and we see that the beautiful Kaikeyi (for this is her
distinguishing characteristic, as Manthara notes) has an inherently good heart
After listening to Manthara's speech,
the lovely woman rose from couch and presented the hunchback with a lovely
piece of jewelry. And when she had given the hunchback the jewelry, Kaikeyi,
most beautiful of women, said in delight to Manthara, "What you have
reported to me is the most wonderful news. How else may I reward you, Manthara,
for reporting such good news to me? I draw no distinction between Rama and
Bharata, and so I am perfectly content that the king should consecrate Rama
See how Valmiki contrasts Manthara's
malevolence and deformity with Kaikeyi's beauty and initial generous impulse.
But Manthara pulls out all the stops and by misrepresenting Rama in every way
argues that if made king he would naturally wish Bharata eliminated (one way
or another) as a rival for the throne. This hits Kaikeyi where she lives (she
loves her son), and Manthara succeeds in planting evil intent in her heart.
Manthara cooks up a scheme whereby
Kaikeyi can cash in two old boons Dasaratha owes her (he cannot go back on his
promise) and ask him to banish his own son (2.9). At this point Kaikeyi is nearly
overcome by relief and gladness (not to mention evil), and issues a clumsy,
impromptu speech (almost a hymn) praising Manthara. It is a
parody of rhetorical high style (2.9):
"Hunchback, I never recognized
your excellence, nor how excellent your advice. Of all the hunchbacks in the
land, there is none better at devising plans. You are the only one who has
always sought my advantage, and had my interests at heart. I might never have
known, hunchback, what the king intended to do.
There are hunchbacks who are misshapen, crooked and hideously ugly--but not
you, you are lovely, you are bent no more than a lotus in the breeze. Your
chest is arched, raised as high as your shoulders, and down below your waist,
with its lovely navel, seems as if it had grown thin in envy of it. Your girdle-belt
beautifies your hips and sets them jingling under you, while your feet are
long. With your wide buttocks, Manthara, and your garment of white linen,
you are as resplendent as a wild goose when you go before me.
And this huge hump of yours, wide as the hub of a chariot wheel--your clever
ideas must be stored in it, your political wisdom and magic powers. And there,
hunchback, is where I will drape you with a garland made of gold, once Bharata
is consecrated and and Raghava has gone to the forest. When I have accomplished
my purpose, my lovely, when I am satisfied, I will anoint your hump with precious
liquid gold. . . .
You too shall have hunchbacks, adorned with every sort of ornament, to humbly
serve you, hunchback, just as you always serve me."
Kaikeyi's praise seeks to make the
ugly beautiful but succeeds only in clumsily and unintentionally underscoring
the ugliness and drawing it out. Manthara, eager to shut her up, perhaps, impatiently
sets Kaikeyi in motion (2.9): "One does not build a dike, my precious,
after the water is gone. Get up, apprise the king, and see to your own welfare!"
Valmiki stages a neat inversion of
this state of affairs by making the beautiful Kaikeyi ugly as she goes through
with her plan. "Under the spell of the hunchback," her growing inner
evil is mirrored by her voluntary and symbolic forfeiture of her beauty in a
stereotypical attempt to simulate grief (2.9):
There the lovely lady removed her
pearl necklace, worth many hundred thousands, and her other costly and beautiful
jewelry. And then, under the spell of the hunchback Manthara's words, the
golden Kaikeyi got down upon the floor and said to her: "Hunchback, go
inform the king that I will surely die right here unless Bharata receives
as his portion the land, and Raghava as his, the forest."
And uttering these ruthless words, the lady put all her jewelry aside and
lay down upon the ground bare of any spread, like a fallen kimnara
woman. Her face enveloped in the darkness of her swollen rage, her fine
garlands and ornaments stripped off, the wife of the lord of men grew distrought
and took on the appearance of a darkened sky, when all the stars have set.
(The Norton Anthology offers
in a footnote that a kimnara was a demigoddess with the face of a horse
and the body of a human.) At this point we have come full circle. Where Manthara
at first berated Kaikeyi for losing the charm of her face, thanks to Manthara
her face really has lost its charm. Valmiki was not only skilled in
exposition of the virtues of Rama, but a very talented literary artist, as this
small gem of ring composition in the Ramayana shows.
All quotations are from Robert P.
Goldman's translation excerpted in the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces,
expanded edition, volume 1 (1995), pp. 862-867. All quotations are from Book
2 (Ayodhya), sargas 7-9.