Martine Le Coz
Translated by Regan Kramer
Art by Gauri Gill
The King of the Mountain is a story that has taken a circuitous and curious route to being a book: it follows in the arc of the Siddhartha-becoming-Buddha story, but in this case the protagonist wills himself to be born into the womb of an Untouchable woman. For over fifteen hundred years, to over eight million Dalits—living across northern and eastern India and Nepal, and the diaspora in Mauritius, Guyana, and Suriname—the saga of Salhesh has been what the Mahabharata and Ramayana and their allied lore are for most Hindus. Who is Salhesh? Born Prince Jaybhardan, he wills himself to be reborn as an Untouchable, so that he may one day become Salhesh and lead all humanity and all sentient life into a world where the binaries of high and low, of Brahmin and Chandala, of caste and outcaste—binaries that fascinated Nietzsche—will perish. The incandescent telling by the French writer Martine Le Coz is translated into English by Regan Kramer. In this excerpt we see Jaybhardan, the crown prince of Mahisautha, explaining why he is not keen to be king. He wishes to be the Emperor of All Consciousness and liberate humanity from both its thrall and will to power. A triangle haloed within the subtle throb of awareness. He is on his way to becoming Salhesh, the King of the Mountain.
— S. Anand
While everyone in the king’s court was satisfied with Moti Ram’s, Budeshwar’s and Karikant’s progress, the courtiers found Jaybhardan deeply annoying. The prince had a mind of his own. Somdev, himself an intrigued onlooker, replied enigmatically to anyone who complained: “My son does novel things.” Jaybhardan had turned the park in Mahisautha into an experimental field; he ploughed it like a peasant, and except for marking the sacrificial rites, spent less time in the temple than his father. Those who presumed to urge marriage on him were promptly sent packing. One day, at Somdev’s suggestion that he get some practice in oratory, he stepped atop a box placed before the royal sal tree1 and upset the assembly of knights by declaring that henceforth the duties transmitted from father to son should be handled by “responsible” men. No one understood. As for Somdev, he just smiled.
Jaybhardan expressed a desire to build huts for the palace servants, whom no one had yet imagined needing a roof of their own to dwell, eat, or sleep under. His elephants had been tasked with clearing the land: knocking down trees, trampling, digging, and leveling—it had all been most impressive.
Of course, the tender shoots of ornamental plants were also trampled, but Somdev was so proud of the great beasts he let them get away with anything. Bhuranand was inseparable from Jaybhardan, close as a shadow. The prince only ever traveled on foot or elephant-back, adamantly refusing to use a sedan chair. He spoke little, his gaze lost in the distance, no one knew where. In his presence, Somdev rarely did more than bob his head in agreement. The frustrated courtiers brooded, all the more bitterly in that Jaybhardan had started holding forth on “the necessity of educating children.” Someone had even heard him talk of including the sons of mahouts and bricklayers—whom the knights called “the dregs of the earth.”
They had been watching Somdev keenly. Given the king’s ridiculous indulgence, his eldest son was sure to establish a grotesque form of government. They had to get the young man sent away and keep the senile old sovereign on the throne for as long as possible.
Apart from nursing personal grievances against a prince bent on poking holes in their privileges, the knights lambasted him for two suspicious characteristics: first of all, Jaybhardan spoke much too gently, even to his elephant, the soles and nails of whose feet he insisted on tending to himself. And he was worryingly self-assured.
A gentle voice. Worrisome self-assurance.
1 Shorea robusta, a tree common to the Himalayan plains.
Somdev knew his son’s heart. Jaybhardan’s words were charged with the original force of unspoilt humankind: to him, thinking, saying, and accomplishing were of a piece. No gap, no loss. His rectitude never weakened, nor did his senses go astray. The Brahmins came close to admitting that a trace of divine freedom seemed to gleam within him: the guru had awakened him to the infinite nature of his character. That would explain the irresistible attraction he held for people of all ages and from all walks of life. Graced with such a son, Somdev had the satisfaction of knowing that the world he would leave behind held reflected glimpses of celestial splendor. In the meantime, he was old and wise enough to keep a watchful eye on his court. Although the people were fond of Jaybhardan, it was still too soon to hand all power over to him. Or the knights would have him atone for the sin of his existence as harshly as if he had stolen a holy man’s cow.
“People’s cynicism will be his downfall,” the king was telling his advisor, yet again.
“Then send him away from court, your majesty. He will come back battered and bruised, but stronger.”
His power comes from the heart and from his cosmic affinities, Somdev realized while pondering certain alchemical formulae. Because it emanates from the original substance of the universe, it cannot be corrupted. When combined with wisdom, his innocence is his supreme power.
“You’re right, my friend,” he eventually replied. “Jaybhardan must go beyond the borders of the kingdom to be toughened up.”
Jaybhardan had received a well-rounded education, like his brothers and his nephew, Karikant. Nonetheless, from a young age, he had refused to hunt. The refusal had exposed him to mockery, but since he excelled with the bow and arrow, the critics were foiled. His archery master even compared him to the ambidextrous Arjuna. “Once the anguish of life and the fear of death have been dissolved, you will be unreachable,” the admiring master was given to saying.
A few knights also bowed to him, impressed by his example. Knowing that a heart at peace made one indestructible, they begged to know his secret.
“Meditate, draw the bow, and shoot the arrow in your mind. Nothing more,” he replied sincerely.
For all that, everyone agreed Jaybhardan was turning into a risk for the stability of the kingdom.
To oust him from Mahisautha, the wicked began spreading strange rumors about him. First, the wet nurses said that when he was born, the night ran away from the day, and a bit of time had gone missing ever since. The result was that the calculations of astrologers had been thrown off. The wet nurses also told an incredible story against the midwife who had attended his birth. Her name was Urmila, and they said she was even more unclean than the rest of her kind.
“May the Son of the Wind dry her husk and scatter it!” they cried. “The woman claims that Jaybhardan wanted to be born again, to grow inside another body—this when his mother was queen! What’s more, he wanted to do this in the womb of a Chandala, a dog-eater, some pauperess like herself! The vile nag made it up, of course . . . wretch that she is, she insists it’s true. She says he wanted to be reborn outside the courtly circle, among the Untouchables! That the prince, not long ago, had shrunk himself back to an embryonic state in order to be reborn amongst the poorest of the poor. She even adds that he won his brothers over to the plan. May the gods wreak her downfall and throw her in five pieces to the crocodiles!” The wet nurses had an explanation for everything. Jaybhardan had run into an impoverished pregnant woman in the forest during the previous lunar cycle. In the throes of labor, she was moaning because her offspring would be condemned to a life of blows, to being spat upon and scorned like her.
“The Chandalin was crying her heart out. Jaybhardan began the kind of speech he’s used to making under the sal. He wanted to offer her some dignity, if you please. As though our fates weren’t already decided by our birth! Nor did he stop here. He and his brothers performed magic. All three shrank themselves until they were small enough to replace the contemptible runt in the Chandalin’s womb, and then she delivered them with the help of the midwife.”
So it came to pass that the sons of the royal couple were birthed a second time by a vile, despicable woman, and those who told the tale emphasized that that precisely had been Jaybhardan’s intention: to be reborn amongst the dregs of the earth.
When he learned of the scandal, the Brahmin summoned the prince posthaste. He waited for him outside the temple, a silhouette of rage framed by two broad pillars. The scantily clad young man stood straight as a lance before him. “The vile and the dregs are of the same divine essence as gold, as are Brahmins and pigs, the lotus flower and the smelly mulch whence it grows,” he declared to the Brahmin, who blanched in horror. “A royal womb and a lowly one are equal, I can assure you, and the experience of being born from them is the same. You teach Divine Oneness: observe that I believe in it absolutely.”
The Brahmin collected his thoughts, hesitated briefly, then bowed to Jaybhardan, not out of guile, but because his soul was moved.
The courtiers exiled the midwife, and prayed that the wolves would rid them of her. Later there were rumors that she had been abused by a brigand and had sought refuge on the Mountain. Somdev got wind of the embryo story. It plunged him into an abyss of reflection, but his attitude towards his son barely changed, which thickened still more the atmosphere of mystery around them in the palace.
The tale spread across the plains and along the valleys and even climbed the foothills of the Himalayas, where it brought solace to many miserable people who had not yet dared challenge their own reality. No one knew what had happened to the midwife the wet nurses had called a dog-eater; but everyone knew that the prince and his brothers continued to visit families cast into violence and filth. To anyone in Mahisautha who referred to the scandal, Jaybhardan replied that the forest had initiated him into the Revolution of Love, and this revolution would spread far and wide. He spoke of sharing, of looks and gestures measured with respect, of simply paying attention. Above all, paying attention to other beings.
The embryo story sent imaginations reeling across the country, even infecting populations halfway up the Mountain, but back in the guru’s cave, the prince remained tight-lipped about the whole affair. The old man couldn’t let it go. The subject raised essential issues, but how could he introduce it into their lessons? Should he start with a paradox? Say to his pupils, for instance, “A human being’s reality is spiritual first and foremost, and yet he springs from a tiny speck of physical matter, how do you reconcile that?” No, that would take too long, when there was just one question he was itching to ask, “Jaybhardan, did you or did you not manage to return to the state of an embryo?”
The rest hardly bothered him. He was confident in the idea of the continuity of forms among the living, from the humblest to the most high-ranking, and a prince’s body passing through an Untouchable’s did not shock him in the least. Change was part of life, and nature had the means at her disposal.
He could have brandished “caste duty” before Somdev’s heir, as everyone else did, but in the end, he opted for a different approach: “So, my boy, speak frankly: is it acceptable for midwives to be singled out for disgust, as though they wallowed in uncleanliness, when what they serve is sacred life?”
Jaybhardan nodded slowly, to show that he appreciated the question, but he didn’t take the bait. His face remained still, his gaze wide. His companions followed his example as best they could. The scent of betel hung heavily in the den, and the guru had to hold back a sigh.
“Every matrix is indeed sacred, my boys,” he commenced, prudently. “And that isn’t true only of wombs and birth canals. At whatever point one becomes absorbed in the universe, the Divine Whole reveals itself. Every point in the universe is a center . . . the mystery of the center!”
Turning to face Moti Ram, Budeshwar, and Karikant, he went on, “So tell me . . . where would your center be, if you had to choose one?”
“The heart, master,” all three boys replied in unison, their faces polished by the light of a torch suspended from the rock.
The guru assented, then turned and drove his gaze directly into the eyes of the eldest, who barely lowered his eyelids.
“Penetrate deeply into your heart, Jaybhardan. Put yourself fully into the situation. Into the state, I mean. What escaped through your senses is contracting and becoming concentrated, withdrawing from the world and gathering itself. Yes, all of your energy is gathering . . . is it well compressed? As big as nothing and as serious as the universe?”
With eyes half closed, the young man seemed to pull his presence in, away from them. The light became more intense, caressing his forehead, the ridge of his cheekbones where they met his fine eyes, and the bridge of his somewhat long nose.
“Plenitude or vacuum, at the intersection!” a host of Invisibles clamored ’round. “At the poles, energy gathers itself and takes root in the eternal.”
The old guru cleared his throat and changed his tone. “You have reached a-temporality and a-causality, haven’t you?” he insinuated. “The Real is in the center. No more contingencies. No more limitations: you don’t feel yourself any more, you don’t worry about wondering if you are identical to your body or your mind. So tell me whether or not everything is possible in the center?”
The prince brought his hands together. Was he or wasn’t he going to spit it out at last? The guru’s piercing eye rolled from one corner to the other. The old man pressed on, not worrying about the other three any longer. “One moment a giant, the next, an embryo...”
Jaybhardan smiled gracefully, but didn’t say a word. The other sniffed in vexation, and spat out, his forehead furrowed, “The Real and the True vibrate at their intersection, everything is there, and you are with it. You don’t know which way it will go, inwards or outwards . . . you are at the point of equilibrium, where everything is equal. But it doesn’t last. Everything will accelerate.”
No matter how he plumbed and probed his prince, the young man was imperturbable. His best disciple ever. What level of consciousness had the precocious young fellow attained?
The young man let his words slip softly towards his teacher and, in an almost inaudible voice, said, “In the center, consciousness and energy coincide at a point that draws the entire universe into itself.”
Yes, yes, that’s it, the guru mused. Let’s wait for what comes next.
“Then, the polar end projects towards the exterior, whatever karma allows for. This is where strength of character is expressed.”
The guru was amazed. Excellent, his pupil was truly excellent. Suddenly, realizing he had been thwarted, he spat out in exasperation, “Let’s get to the point, Jaybhardan. Are you trying to drive me crazy? The midwife, this Urmila woman . . . everyone is telling wild stories about you all over the place. But speak to me; I’ll believe you. Tell me the truth.”
He was practically begging now, not even bothering to hide his desperation.
“So, what happened? Was it a witch’s spell, or the manifestation of divine generosity? Is Jaybhardan capable of compressing the powers of the universe to such an extreme that he can render them in a phenomenal way . . . in his own way?”
The prince’s eyes went frosty. He crossed his hands beneath his chin, suddenly distant. The guru lost his composure, “Are you capable of producing an earthly phenomenon from the powers of the universe? Are you? Of transmutations? Materializations? Tell me, damn it! Are you capable of planting yourself as an embryo in a woman’s womb?”
The old man cared only about the magic. That was it. He paid no attention to his pupil’s decision to be a bridge between the Untouchables and the rest of society. A shadow passed over Jaybhardan. Without meaning to, the grasping old man had just taught him one last lesson: displaying your gifts was risky for adepts of the mystical way. The temptation of claiming powers was too great.
The guru knew he had disappointed his pupil. He muttered to himself and gave up. “Time will tell how powerful you are, Jaybhardan, and how far your abilities stretch,” he concluded in a trembling voice, with a vague fluttering of his hand.
His disciples saw his eyes searching for his bag of betel as he muttered incomprehensibly, his beard twisting and coiling on his chest. The young men were about to prostrate themselves at his feet when he suddenly sat up straight for one final declaration, puny and superb, draped in white, his tongue slapping. “Your liberation, young men! Go for it, for goodness sake. Knead matter to its essence! Emancipate yourselves, my odd little boys!”
Gutted, he slumped into a pile of rags on the floor, sobbing like a child.
“No woman ever rolled my betel leaf and stuck a clove into it,” he whined. “None ever sprinkled it with cardamom or ground acacia bark. Not one woman has ever prepared it for me. Ah! Follow your path as best you can, but take care to provision yourselves with happiness.”
The Invisibles vanished one by one, whispering their dismay. A discreet flurry filled the cave. To his companions—spellbound by the red hues streaking their guru’s face—Jaybhardan shot a reassuring glance. He leaned over and placed his hand lightly on the old man’s shoulder.
“Great master, you speak true,” he whispered, overcome with emotion, kneeling before what was now no more than a white haze. “Freedom is our vocation. We will achieve it by working selflessly. We wish neither to forge new chains for ourselves, nor make them for others.”
Martine Le Coz
Martine Le Coz is a novelist, poet and artist from Amboise, central France. Her historical novel Céleste won the Prix Renaudot in 2001. Her work with artists of the Mithila region since 2012 has led to three books: Mithila, l’honneur des femmes (Mithila: Women’s Honour, 2013), Les Filles de Krishna prennent la parole (Krishna’s Daughters Speak Up, 2016), and a set of oracle cards (drawings and text) called Sept Saris (Seven Saris, 2018). She is the author of The King of the Mountain.
Regan Kramer is a bilingual and bicultural translator who divides her time between Paris and New York. Her translations include Olivier Bourdeaut’s Waiting for Bojangles (2019).
S. Anand is a poet, translator and raga musician. He is better known as the publisher of Navayana, where, over the years, he has collaborated with several authors and artists to broadcast the ideas of B. R. Ambedkar, the militant philosopher of equality and author of the revolutionary "Annihilation of Caste." Anand lives in Delhi.
Gauri Gill (b. 1970, Chandigarh, India) earned BFAs from the College of Art, New Delhi and Parsons School of Design; and her MFA from Stanford University. She has exhibited internationally, including at the 58th Venice Biennale; Museum Tinguely, Basel; MoMA PS1, NY; Documenta 14, Athens and Kassel; Kochi Biennale 2016; 7th Moscow Biennale; and Wiener Library and Whitechapel Gallery, London. Her work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, NY; Tate London; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC;, and Fotomuseum, Winterthur. She was awarded the Grange Prize, Canada’s foremost award for photography.