The brāhmaṇas left in search of Naḻa, as per the words of Damayantī. Several days later, a brāhmaṇa named Parṇāda came back and said to Damayantī, “Mother! As per your directions, I set out in the search for the king of Niṣadha, Naḻa, and after traveling for many days, I ended up in the royal court of Ayodhya. I narrated your account there. Neither the king Ṛtuparṇa nor his associates had anything to say about this. However, his charioteer, Bāhuka came to me when I was alone. He is ugly-looking and of a short stature. He has the skill of driving the chariot at great speeds, apparently. I was told that he also cooks extremely well. He heaved a sigh, called me aside, and enquired after my health. He said, “Women of noble birth take care of themselves when faced with calamities; she should not be annoyed with him because he has lost all his wealth, is in penury, and has left her (his wife) behind. When he tried to lead a life with all the difficulties, the birds snatched away even the tiny piece of cloth he was left with. She should not let herself down because she had to face so much of difficulty in the company of her husband!” I rushed to meet you, to communicate to you whatever I had heard, soon after my conversation with Bāhuka. It is left to you how you take it forward – you can either inform the king or think of a different solution.
Damayantī’s eyes turned wet upon listening to the account given by Parṇāda. She went to her mother and said, “Mother! I shall call for Sudeva now and send him on a certain task, right before you. If you really love me and care for me, please do not inform about this to Father. Just as Sudeva came to fetch me in the past, let him leave for Ayodhya to bring Naḻa back.” She sent for Sudeva, honoured Parṇāda for his job and gifted him some money. “O revered one! You have been of great help to me! As soon as Naḻa is back here, you will be rewarded even more!”
She told Sudeva, “Sudeva! Go to Ayodhya and make an announcement: ‘Damayantī is willing to marry again and a svayaṃvara is organised for the purpose. All the kings are heading to the event. They have scheduled the event for tomorrow. If you are interested in participating, you will need to leave immediately!’ Please do so!” Sudeva carried out her wish.
Ṛtuparṇa called for Bāhuka and said, “I would like to go to the province of Vidarbha to attend the svayaṃvara of Damayantī. You have the skill of aśvahṛdaya. You must drive me there in a day’s time!” Hearing these words, Naḻa’s heart split into two. He wondered if Damayantī was doing this out of her sorrow, being caught in a helpless situation or if she was planning this to get reunited with Naḻa. He thought 'I have wronged her with my small-mindedness and due to my shortcomings. Even so, what she's planning to do now is difficult to bear. It seems like the nature of women is thus – they are utterly fickle. Of course the magnitude of my mistake is great. Yet it is unlikely that she will give up all affection for me and behave in such a disappointed manner! Moreover, she is the mother of two. I can also discover the truth once I go there in person. In addition, it will fulfill Ṛtuparṇa’s request and my curiosity will be quenched too!’ With these thoughts, Naḻa made his mind up and said, "So be it, revered king! I shall take you to the province of Vidarbha in a day!”
Naḻa went to the horse stables and chose horses that belong to the Sindh province. They were good breed and could gallop faster than the wind. They were beautiful and had curls on their body. Looking at those horses that were lean, Ṛtuparṇa was disappointed and said, "What's this? Why are the horses in such a pathetic condition? Will they be able to drive us at good speed? They almost look lifeless!” Bāhuka said in reply, “I'm sure that they will take us on time. If you don’t want to have these, I shall chose a different set of steeds.” Ṛtuparṇa said, “What do I know of horses? You are an expert in the field of horse-riding. Prepare the ones you think will serve our purpose!” Naḻa prepared the chariot with the horses that he had initially chosen. Ṛtuparṇa and Vāṛṣṇeya got on to the chariot. Bāhuka merely clicked his tongue and they started running at great speed. Ṛtuparṇa was amazed hearing the sound of the chariot and seeing Naḻa’s capability. He thought, ‘Is he Mātalī, the charioteer of Indra, or is he King Naḻa? He seems to be of Naḻa’s age and is as matured as him. But it is unlikely that he is Naḻa. I don’t think I can ever mistake this ugly-looking fellow for Naḻa!’ His thoughts knew no bounds. Ṛtuparṇa expressed his pleasure and appreciation for Naḻa’s skill. As the chariot sped through forests, hills, and rivers, Ṛtuparṇa’s upper garment fell off on the way. He said, “Halt the chariot for a moment! Looks like I've lost my garment! Vāṛṣṇeya, can you please fetch it quickly?" Bāhuka said, "We have already traveled a great distance from the place you lost it. We will not be able to get your garment back!"
They went ahead and found a tree that was full of fruits. Looking at the tree, Ṛtuparṇa said, "Look at my skill at numbers! Everyone does not have to know everything; no one is omniscient. But, tell me, how many leaves does this tree have? How many fruits does it bear? What is the number of fruits and leaves fallen on the ground? The number of leaves fallen down is one greater than the number on the tree. Similarly, the number of fruits fallen down is one greater than the total number of fruits on the tree! The branches here possess five crore leaves and two thousand ninety five fruits!” Bāhuka immediately jumped off his chariot asking Vāṛṣṇeya to hold the reigns for a moment and counted the fruits. Ṛtuparṇa was accurate in his estimate, to the last fruit! Greatly astonished by Ṛtuparṇa’s skill, Naḻa was desirous of learning it too. Naḻa taught Ṛtuparṇa the art of aśvahṛdaya and got akṣahṛdaya in exchange. Kali, who was housed in Naḻa’s body until them came out, spitting out the kārkoṭaka poison. ”I was in great pain in your body because of Damayantī’s curse and also because of the presence of the kārkoṭaka poison!” With these words, Kali entered into the tree and disappeared into it. Naḻa’s anguish came down and was free from all troubles. However, his ugly features did not leave him.
They reached Kundinapura the same evening. It was not just Damayantī who recognized the chariot’s sound, but even the elephants and horses in the palace displayed signs of happiness hearing the sound. She climbed up to one of the higher stories and saw Ṛtuparṇa, Vāṛṣṇeya, and Bāhuka in the chariot. Ṛtuparṇa hopped off the chariot and met King Bhīma. The king welcomed him and asked what the purpose of his visit was. He wasn't aware of the plan that his wife and daughter had concocted. There were no other kings there, except for Ṛtuparṇa. There was no sign of celebrating the svayaṃvara of Damayantī. Looking at all this, Ṛtuparṇa was confused; he merely said, "I've come all the way only to see you and pay my respects to you!” Bhīma, however, didn't believe Ṛtuparṇa; he wondered why this king travelled such a great distance merely to greet him. He guessed that this was not the real reason. He sent Ṛtuparṇa away to the guesthouse. As Ṛtuparṇa and Vāṛṣṇeya left, Bāhuka was resting in the chariot after having fed the horses in the stable. Damayantī saw them and thought, “The chariot sounded like Naḻa’s, but I don’t find him here at all. Probably Vāṛṣṇeya has learnt aśvahṛdaya too. It is also possible that Ṛtuparṇa can drive a chariot just as Naḻa does.” She called for her maid, Keśinī, and said, "Can you please find out who the ugly person in the chariot was? He was also driving the chariot. I have a great suspicion that it must be Naḻa. My heart too tells me that I am right. Go, talk to him, and tell him what Parṇāda has told us. Let me know what his reaction will be upon hearing your narration.”
To be continued…
This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada classic Vacanabhārata by Arjun Bharadwaj and Hari Ravikumar published in a serialized form. Thanks to Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh for his review and astute feedback.