It was cold in the cave that night. He could feel the crude robes of tree bark chafing his skin. It barely gave them any protection from the biting wind. He turned over and raised himself on his elbow to check on his brother as he always did when he woke up. His face was twitching violently with emotions spilling over from his dreams. The nightmares had become all too familiar a routine for Lakshmana now- it would begin with the sweat on Rama’s face and then he would mumble and toss around before he woke up choking back sobs and screaming Sita’s name. Lakshmana would rock him back and forth like a child till his dreams were slowly engulfed by reality.
He had become worse ever since they had come to Kishkinda. Lakshmana gently stroked his brother’s feverish forehead with his cool hand hoping that the dream would pass quietly. Then, suddenly, Rama got up crying. Lakshmana gently placed a hand on his shoulder and began to mechanically murmur the same reassuring words that Sita would be found soon when Rama interrupted him abruptly “I do not fear just for her safety today, Lakshmana. I miss her. I miss seeing her angry pout, her mischievous smile, the skeptical arch of her eyebrows but I can’t see her face! Do you remember her atleast, Lakshmana? I had a dream now just as vivid as all those other nightmares. I found Sita standing with her back to me, I touch her lightly on the shoulder to turn her towards me and she had no face! No face! I can’t remember what the love of my life looks like!” and he started shivering again.
Lakshmana felt his eyes fill up seeing his brother suffer. He had been the crown prince, darling of the nation and now here he was in the middle of a forest, searching for his wife. He could feel his jaws become tense as he attempted to maintain his composure. He began talking slowly of the first time they went to Mithila, the grand Swayamvar, Lord Janaka and the mighty bow in the middle of it all. Rama’s face relaxed as Lakshmana continued “I can see Sita now, Lakshmana, sitting beside her father resplendent in a saree the color of honey. I see her smiling at me.” He slowly drifted back to sleep on his brother’s lap.
Lakshmana moved a little closer to the walls of the cave to rest his sore back. His thoughts ran back to that beautiful day in spring when they had gone for the Swayamvar. He could still remember seeing Urmila’s face peeking from behind a pillar, giggling with her friends, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man her sister was to marry. He smiled to himself when he recalled how Urmila's expression had changed from a mischievous smile to a slow blush rushing from her forehead to her cheeks when she realized they were actually discussing her own marriage to Lakshmana.
She had barely looked up at him throughout the wedding. All he had seen when he tried to peek was the edge of the red bridal saree covering her head and face. Once they were alone, she reminded him of a shy deer, walking gingerly in the room lightly touching each new object in her new home. He had watched her amused till it dawned on her that she could no longer avoid meeting the eyes of her new husband. She had looked at Lakshmana bashfully and before she could help herself had seen the big scar on his left shoulder and burst out “How did that happen? Did it take long to heal? Do you fight a lot?” His laughter had made her retreat into her shy cocoon once again “Do you always ask these many questions at once?”
She had a quiet fascination for everything in the world around her and would sit near Dasaratha and listen to stories for hours about the Ikshvaku dynasty and her innocence was so endearing that everyone in the palace still saw her as a child. The only time Lakshmana ever saw her completely serious was when she painted. Lakshmana was filled with pride as he recalled those beautiful canvases she created; their palace was full of Urmila’s work. She had often joked that they would soon run out of walls if he put up everything she painted on the walls. He wondered with a pang of sadness if she painted now or was she too distraught to go near her favourite colors?
That day would be etched in his memory forever. He had stormed into her room, furious and with the veins in his forehead prominent and throbbing with rage. She had been startled and fell with her color palette onto her canvas and upset everything. She had looked at him with such fear in her eyes that he instantly regretted the decision he had taken a few minutes back without asking her. Everything was still a haze to Lakshmana. Kaikeyi had manipulated their father to take the kingdom away from Rama and also insisted that Rama be exiled for fourteen years! How could this ever happen? She gently made him sit down and went to get water to calm him down. When she returned he had abruptly told her he was going to follow his brother into the forest. She had not uttered a single word as she picked up her canvas from the floor, set it on the easel and tried scrubbing the red and blue from the floor. “Sita is going with him too” he had slowly revealed. Her face had brightened instantly “So that means I can come too?”
He had to take a few minutes to steady his quivering voice “I am going with Rama to protect him, if I take you along, Will I be able to give him the attention he needs? Besides, if Sita and you come with us, there will be no one to look after the queen mothers. What will Bharata do to them once he comes back? I will feel a lot better if I know you are here for them”. She had buried her face in her hands “But who will protect me, lord? What am I do in this palace without you or my sister here? What will happen to me?”
He had kept his distance for both their sakes and to make the separation that much easier. “Urmila, please understand. I need you here, for my sake.” She had continued to cry quietly but he had seen resignation in her face and knew immediately that she would let go of him. He had asked for one promise from her, it seemed cruel in hindsight- to not shed a single tear till he returned. He couldn't bring himself to meet her eyes properly which reminded him disturbingly of a hunted animal filled with conflicting panic and resignation of its ultimate fate. He had felt his heart pounding in his mouth when he glanced behind as he left and saw her standing next to his mother on the palace balcony biting her lower lip hard to try and keep the tears inside.
It had been a difficult thirteen years and tonight, he wondered if he had been selfish. His brother, who couldn’t even sleep properly, without his wife by his side and he, on the other hand, had left his behind because of his own sense of duty.
Left her to an exile that was never her choice.
He shut his eyes as he thought how easy it had been for all of them to forget her- all everyone saw was a wonderful son who would follow his father’s promise blindly even if it meant sacrificing the throne, a loyal brother who would choose to follow his sibling into the forest just to protect him and a princess willing to sacrifice the comforts of the palace and risk the dangers of the wild just to always be by her lord’s side. He had let himself get carried away with those words. His heart had brimmed with pride when they spoke of the inseparable love he had for Rama. He wondered now how all of them could have so easily forgotten the child whose life revolved around him and whose innocence he had probably taken away forever. Had her sacrifice not counted enough to even be noticed?
He sighed deeply and wondered if she had changed much in these thirteen years- if she still slept with her fist buried in her left cheek, if she still liked to paint the sky a vivid orange instead of blue, if the ducks from the palace lake still followed her around, if she still twirled around in her skirt embroidered with tiny mirrors to see the lights dancing on the ceiling…
And what if after all these years apart they were nothing but strangers to each other? Would she ever be able to forgive and forget? He shivered slightly as he looked out at the valley just as the tips of the trees turned orange with dawn.
Had it really been thirteen years? She had walked in to see Kausalya and Sumitra animatedly discussing how they only had a year left to see their sons return from exile. She had maintained a constant smile through their conversations while her brain furiously tried to make sense of the last few years of her life.
She still had that sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach when she thought of the day the three of them left. She knew she had to keep her promise to him so she had held the tears in as she watched their retreating backs. She would honor her word to him even if it broke her.
Even when her father-in-law died, her face had remained impassive as she arranged for his final rites, despite loving the man much more than her own father. Not even when she heard one of the sages describing the perils that the princes were facing in the forest. Or even when her hopes were dashed after Bharata came back empty handed after failing to convince his brothers to return from their exile.
She had expected to be excited at the talk of their imminent return but in its place she only found exhaustion within her, exhausted from trying to pretend that she was strong enough to handle everything and being there for everyone. She could hear the clock tower in the palace signaling the time of day with four clear chimes which rang through the air. It was time for her to go to the temple but today she had no inclination to go stand before a God who had never granted in thirteen years what she truly wanted.
She picked up a bag of birdseed and walked to the tiny lotus pond tucked away in a quiet corner of the palace. As always, it was completely deserted except for the birds. There was stillness in the air here and she had always felt the trees whispering reassuringly to her. This had always been her refuge in these difficult years away from all the prying eyes and wagging tongues discussing the princess who preferred her soft mattress to being with her husband. She would come and sit with the ducks for hours thinking of what she could have done differently.
Should she have insisted like Sita that she would refuse to leave her husband?
Or could she have dared to use her love to prevent Lakshmana from leaving?
Even as she thought it, she knew how futile it would have been. Lakshmana had loved her a lot certainly but even she wouldn’t dare asking him to choose between her and his brother. She knew it went beyond mere hero worship for Lakshmana. It was a relationship between siblings such as she had never seen before- a wonderful mixture of love, trust and respect. She had seen it in Lakshmana's eyes-the brother whom he adored even more than his own twin.
Why had she and Sita never been that way?
She thought of her childhood in her father’s palace. She had always been the quiet one always preferring to laugh at a joke privately in the shadows. Sita, on the other hand, had been the very life of the palace- laughing all the time, making the entire palace revel in her playfulness. All Sita had needed was a tiny quiver of her lips to get their father to do anything she had wanted. A mighty king he certainly was but ultimately a father who couldn’t bear to see his child unhappy. Urmila still wasn’t sure if she herself played the part of the ideal daughter to keep her father happy or to finally get some attention from him away from Sita.
'Am I still doing the same thing?' She asked the ducks as they looked at her hand for the next batch of food. She was still attempting to play the part of the ideal wife willing to bear separation from her husband to fulfill her duties to the family she was married into and once again, she remained in the shadows and it was Sita’s stubborn insistence to refuse to leave Rama that had everybody in tears.
When they were young, Urmila and Sita's mother used to tell them the story of an a king who was a tyrant and terrible to his subjects until he was ultimately punished by the gods to turn invisible and wander on the streets of his own kingdom forced to listen as a mute spectator what his subjects really thought of him. She wondered what she could have done to deserve her invisibility.
She had always taken for granted that she loved Sita but she slowly realized now that she had probably resented her all her life. Urmila would have given anything to go along with Lakshmana, after all, he had always been the one person who had truly seen her and loved her for it.
And yet, even he had not thought of her when he decided to leave her behind.
One of the ducks meandered up to her and gently pecked her toes demanding to be fed. The sun’s descent could be seen from where she sat with Ayodhya’s mighty fort silhouetted against the pinkish blue sky. Her expression softened as she saw the orange flag flapping in the breeze. Ayodhya had certainly also been kind to her.
She remembered crying by this lake as a young bride missing her mother terribly when Sumitra had come down the steps and hugged her tight and told her how she had always wanted a daughter.
She smiled as she recalled sitting at the foot of Dasaratha’s bed and listening to the stories of the mighty battles that he had been part of and gasping at his description of each wound.
She could still feel Lakshmana’s hands on her eyes as he took her to the garden for a surprise- her very own fawn with such beautiful eyes.
She remembered slowly exploring the palace with Sita and discovering secret passageways much like they had in their old palace.
Yes, it certainly wouldn't be fair to say she had only experienced pain in this palace. There had been tiny moments of joy interspersed along with the sadness of her memories of Ayodhya. She had endured thirteen years; it was but a year more for her Lakshmana to return. She knew she had changed in these years of exile, transformed from a child to a woman holding her stead while facing adversity.
She was very different from the Urmila that Lakshmana left behind. She now anticipated the look of admiration in his eyes when he returned. Tickling him on his neck and hearing his deep, throaty laugh. Having his hand protectively over her stomach. Never letting go of him again. As the stars began to dot the sky, she got up slowly looking forward to the many more happy mornings ahead.
After all, she couldn’t be invisible forever