The epic story of Nala-Damayanti has stuck around for a while now. What is our take-home from it for our everyday lives? Do we see a touching message in it about mutual tolerance and about trying to cut through appearances to discern the real person underneath? Damayanti, as everyone knows, is a beautiful princess doted on by her father, the king. A swan messenger tells her one day about handsome, clever king Nala and she falls in love with the idea of Nala (Raja Ravi Varma’s painting of Damayanti and the swan hangs in the Sri Chitra Gallery in Trivandrum).
Comes her swayamvar and the very celestials want Damayanti for their bride and stand in a line as suitors with Nala. Through their powers, they make themselves look exactly like him and poor Damayanti must pick out the real Nala from a row of look-alikes. This is a tough call for a human being. But interestingly it is our very humanity that allows us to find each other. The celestials are too perfect, their eyes don’t blink, their feet don’t quite touch the ground, they have no signs of dust or sweat on them. Whereas Nala, just another human being like Damayanti, for all his skills and socialising with celestials, shows these human characteristics.
Damayanti, who tries to focus her mind, looks again at the look-alikes and plays ‘spot-the-difference’, except this is no game, it’s her hopes and dreams at stake.
Is that what we all go through when choosing a partner or friends? Are we dazzled by the picture-perfect images held up that are not real? Or do we try to understand the human being underneath and see if something in their nature is open to something in ours while also trying to recognise their frailties? If their ‘faults’ impinge badly on our peace and well-being, do we give them a chance to redeem themselves, while trying ourselves to show a proof of good faith?
Nala and Damayanti go through terrible hardship and separation after they get married. But Nala sincerely repents of his behaviour and besides, there was the jealousy of a ‘senior’ to trip him up. Nala and Damayanti hang on to each other while the bad stuff is being worked out. They don’t want gods, they want a person, because they’re just people themselves. It’s Nala’s imperfection that finally enable Damayanti to step forward bravely with her garland.
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture