Background: At one point in the Hindu epic Mahabharat, the virtuous Yudhishthir brings his brothers back to life by answering a series of questions put to him by a spirit guarding a lake. Earlier, his brothers had refused to heed the spirit’s warnings and started to drink the lake’s water because they were very thirsty. In the epic, Yudhishthir’s answers to the questions provide insight into Hindu values. Here, the questions are taken from the translation of the epic by CR Rajagopalachari. The answers are modified.
Dharam Raj was starting to feel better. A numbness had set into his clenched pelvis, and it soothed the rest of him. He often marveled at the varied colours of nipples of Indian women. To him, they were the true embodiment of unity in diversity. He wondered what the angel’s looked like. The silvery atmosphere tended to suppress colour.
Her gaze turned colder, and she frowned without losing her serenity. “I would think about more important points if I were you,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” Dharam Raj said. He really was. With his four colleagues lying there, with his bladder about to burst, in this strange dreamy situation, he really should focus on the task at hand. It was different when he was on his judicial bench in the Major Court in Indranagar.
The five of them had been drinking together since sundown, in the state guesthouse by the lake in the middle of the Rampur forest range. They had gone there as part of their enquiry into deer poaching. Dharam Raj was already looking forward to the day, five years from now, when the results of the fast track enquiry would be out. He was sure the report would be a seminal contribution to the development of the nation. The Dharam Raj Committee report would be widely cited. He could kick-start the citations.
He had lost count of how many Black Label and soda pegs he’d had by the time he stepped out of the main hall and walked towards the lake with fast but doddering steps. Black Label had done its job, as always. He couldn’t be higher than he was. He had helped himself to another one while he waited for the others to return. Nakul Chandra was the one who came up with the idea of walking over to the lake and peeing into it. He had announced what he was going to do as he stood swaying, glass in one hand and cigarette in the other. Sachdev Kumar said he would join in. A little later, Bheem Singh said he needed to pee and would check what the other were up to. Then, Arjun Tripathi said he might as well lighten himself with the others. Dharam Raj had just started to sip a peg, and he decided to hold on for some more time.
A little later, he had downed the peg and none of them had come back. The waiter had also left after pouring the last round of drinks. When he reflected on it later, Dharam Raj thought that maybe he should have been scared then. But he wasn’t. He just walked out into the cool full-moon night. As he got closer to the lake and saw the huddled shapes, he first thought he should run back and get help. But something propelled him forward. His thoughts were muddled—he was thinking that he must pee, he must not wet his pants, he must get help… He forced himself to calm down by focusing on his pounding heart. It had been a long time since he had needed to do that. Usually he was the one making others’ hearts pound.
Sachdev was the only one lying on his belly. He turned him around. He looked around carefully. They were all sprawled by the side of the lake, all four of them, with their flies open. Arjun’s shriveled member drooped out. What an ugly sight it was. To a man, nothing was uglier than another’s organ. That was better, he thought, he was starting to get a grip on himself. He noted that there were no signs of struggle. Their faces weren’t contorted. In fact, they were completely at peace. It was weird. He would not have believed it if it had not been happening.
He took a few deep breaths and took in the scent of the jungle and the lake, a blend of a million individual scents. He noticed that it was not a silent night at all—there was a high-pitched, soft, throbbing drone, which he hadn’t noticed till then. The moonlight was bright enough for him to make out the features of each of the faces. He thought he must be imagining it, but the scent turned a little stronger, the noise a little louder and the light a little brighter. Was the place haunted? The four of them did look like a spirit had done something to them. He shivered, and shook his head. He must get in control.
First things first: he must pee and then go back for help. He hadn’t carried his mobile here. Of course. He was surprised that the urge to pee had actually become less intense. But it was still there. He unzipped himself.
“Don’t do that, please,” a voice boomed. A woman’s voice, soft but firm. Was he going nuts? Was it the liquor?
She appeared suddenly. She stood a few feet away. On the water! He had never seen a woman so beautiful. She wore a white burkha with coloured markings, which seemed to be in Arabic and in Sanskrit. Her hands were clasped. Apart from her hands, only her face was left uncovered by the burkha, and it was angelic.
It must be the liquor, he thought.
“Why do you think so?” She asked.
“How can this be?” He mumbled.
“Isn’t what is more … compelling that how it can be?” She smiled.
He stood silently. His breathing had turned ragged. He pushed a nail into his left arm and ran it till his wrist. It hurt. So it was happening.
“Yes, it is happening,” she said. “If you can see, hear, smell and feel it, that’s enough evidence for you to judge if it’s happening. You are the witness yourself.”
Yes, he thought, this is happening. What is this?
“This is a short cross examination. Don’t look so startled. We can converse without your talking, OK?”
He took this in. It took a while. Then he nodded. “Yes,” he said.
“Now, it’s all very simple. You see, each of these four didn’t stop when I asked them to, and you see what happened to them. I see you are a bit wiser. You did heed me.”
Dharam Raj realized that he still had his fly open. He zipped it up. The pressure was just short of unbearable. “What is all this? Who are you?”
“Well, the first and the important thing is that you must not urinate now. Just answer the questions I will ask you, and I might set all of you free. But if you get a single question wrong, you will join your colleagues here. Do you believe I have the power to do what I say?”
“Yes,” he said. He realized he was slouching. He drew himself up and spoke a bit louder. “Please, what is this about? Is it too much to ask?”
“No. But it might be too much for your bladder to bear. So why don’t you let me start the questions?”
He had been wondering what was different. He got it. It was silvery all over. There were many shades of black and white, but there was no colour. His mind wandered to her nipples. That was when she scolded him.
“Can we start with the questions now?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
He thought very hard. What was it? “First I have to ask you, do I tell you what should be, or what is?”
“What is. It’s in the question. And let me make it easier for you—don’t bother to say it. Just think it. Anyway you can’t hide what you’re thinking from me. How does that sound?”
OK, he thought.
“So, what makes the sun shine every day?”
His mind went blank. He took a few deep breaths. The Gandhi family? He thought.
“Correct. What rescues man in danger?”
A phone call to the SHO.
“Yes. But tell me, and this is not in the list of questions, why are you sweating? Try to relax a bit.” She smiled. She had dimples.
Dharam Raj realized he was clammy all over, in that cool air. It’s strange, he thought, that of all people…he was actually known to be very calm in conflict situations.
“I believe so. Let’s continue. By the study of which science does a man become wise?”
A man becomes wise by learning how to bribe, not be studying any science.
“What is more nobly sustaining than the earth?”
A Swiss bank account.
“What is higher than the sky?”
A pile of the files of pending court cases.
“What is fleeter than wind?”
News on the asking rates for judicial services.
“What is more blighted than a withered straw?”
A judge who can’t find a reason to adjourn a hearing.
“What befriends a traveller?”
An escort service.
“Who is the friend of the one who stays at home?”
Paid news channels.
“Who accompanies a man in death?”
Hair where he doesn’t want it?
“Which is the biggest vessel?”
A politician’s belly.
“What is happiness?”
A rival getting a bad annual rating.
“What is that, abandoning which, man will be loved by all?”
Reluctance to take bribes.
“What is the loss which yields joy not sorrow?”
Loss of semen.
“What is that, giving up which, man becomes rich?”
Reluctance to give bribes.
“What makes one a real Brahman? Is it birth, good conduct or learning?”
None of them. A backward caste certificate issued by me.
“What is the greatest wonder in the world?”
Everyone here thinks everyone else is more corrupt than him.
“Or her. Well, what can I say, except congratulations. You’ve mostly done fairly well.”
Dharam Raj was tired. He thought, what should I expect? Will I be showered with flower petals from the sky?
She smiled, and he noticed the dimples again. He felt a splotch on his right shoulder. It was a bird dropping. It wasn’t too smelly—as he often commented in private, there’s no shit as odious as human shit. But it broke his spirit. “No! No! No!” He shouted. “This is …” he stopped. “Please, please let me go,” he mumbled.
“Sure,” she said. “But why don’t you choose one of your friends for me to revive?”
“Why one?” He asked.
He felt his jowls on his chest and realized he was slumping. This had to end soon. OK, he thought, I choose Nakul.
The angel folded her hands. “And why did you make that choice?”
You already know that. He collected the money for the last case, and he still hasn’t given me my share.
“You’ve been very honest,” she said. “I’m pleased. I’ll grant you all your lives.” And she vanished, just like that. There weren’t even ripples on the lake.
He knelt first, and then crashed on the ground. The grass was dewy and soft.
“Let me be, I’m tired,” he shouted.
“Did you hear that? He’s tired he says!” It was Bheem. Dharam Raj’s throat was parched, his head hurt like hell and the light blinded him. When he got used to it he saw he was in his bed in the guesthouse, and four of them had crowded into his room. They were actually laughing, and the laughter was raucous.
“He’s up now!” Bheem shouted. There was a bit of backslapping. Their faces came into focus slowly.
Dharam Raj bolted up and then walked to the sink in the corner. He realized he was limping—his knees hurt like hell. He splashed water onto his eyes. One of them handed him a bottle of water, and he gulped from it greedily, and then put it on the sink. He stood with his back leaning on the wall. He realized he was wearing his crumpled trousers.
“What’s up?” His voice was a croak. He cleared his throat.
“What’s up, he asks!” It was Sachdev this time. The merriment continued. Sachdev walked up and bounced Dharam Raj’s belly up and down by holding it from below. “Ha ha,” he said, “what’s up is that we had to lift you up from the lake shore and carry you here, you rascal!”
“You bunch of… I actually saved your lives!” He was still a bit hoarse.
This time the laughter was louder. “Saved our lives, oh man, this is priceless!” Arjun was holding on to his stomach.
“You ungrateful bastards,” Dharam Raj was louder. “I actually faced those questions…” he saw their looks and hesitated. “From the angel…” he said. They laughed even harder. He knew he should stop then. The light was so bright that it almost hurt. Dharam Raj drew himself to his full height and said, “OK, that’s enough. I’ll come down in a while for breakfast.”
Arjun actually crashed into the bed and Sachdev was wiping his eyes. The other two were starting to get hysterical.
Sachdev said, “Dharam Raj ji, it’s time for lunch. It’s 12.30.”
After some time and much persuasion, Dharam Raj had got them to leave him alone. He told them he would join them in half an hour after freshening up. They were still repeating his words to each other while they walked out. He knew he had given them enough material to rag him for the rest of his life. He sat there for a while, with his head in his hands, wondering about it all. It must have been a dream. He must get over it. He needed to propel himself with his hands when he got up.
As he got up, he noticed the scratch on his left arm. Then he saw his shirt placed neatly on the backrest of a chair. It still had the splotch.