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 it contains.

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 hunchback.

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 (2.7):

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 as king."

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.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.