There she stood, at the balcony of her private chamber, in the palace of Ayodhya. Urmila felt restless. Her ears were alert even for the slightest sound but there were no signs of Lakshmana’s arrival. Six days had passed since the next crown king of the Raghuvamsa dynasty was announced. It was her beloved brother-in-law, Rama. She recalled the day when she had heard the news. She had rejoiced the whole day with her elder sister Sita, the wife of Rama. There was no limit for her husband Lakshmana’s happiness too. He wouldn’t stop talking about the prosperity that the Rama’s reign would bring to Ayodhya. Their days had got longer with the preparations for the grand coronation of Rama and Sita, and only two days were left for the big day.
She walked into the bedroom and her eyes fell on the elegant bed. Covered in a pearly white soft-cotton sheet, the bed gleamed under the lamps on its sides. They shone in silence. Urmila looked away. The mere sight of the bed made her heart burn. She decided she wouldn’t sleep alone. Not that night. She hastened back to the balcony and sat on one of the chairs which were placed in the corner of the semi-circular balcony. She touched the empty chair beside her as if it were a person. It was on those two chairs, Lakshmana and she had spent many memorable evenings, since the day she was married.
It was always Lakshmana who talked more. She listened to him with a childlike curiosity. The world knew him as Rama’s brother, but for her he was so much more than a loyal brother. He was her warrior prince, a loving husband and the only spark in her mundane life. She was one of the four princesses of the royal family. But she always felt her existence was quite trivial in the palace. The royal family consisted of King Dusharatha, his three wives – Kausalya, Kaikeyi and Sumitra, their children Rama, Bharata, Lakshmana and Shatrughna, respectively. She always kept herself away from the royal proceedings and the issues in the royal family. Other than her husband and her sister, she loved spending time with Sumithra, her mother-in-law, listening to the lore of Raghuvamsa dynasty. It was just six days, since they sat on those chairs and had their long conversations, but it felt like ages to her. She walked to the marble railings of the balcony. She pulled her hair into a bun while the smooth sari clung to her body in the blowing wind. She gazed at the rising moon and sighed.
She was startled by the sudden whisper as Lakshmana embraced her from behind.
“Is that really you or am I dreaming?”
“Why don’t you turn around and see?”
She felt the restlessness seep away, temporarily. The familiar warmth filled her, as his rough hands touched her bare abdomen. She closed her eyes and felt his warm breath on the back of her neck. She held his hands tight, with a deep desire of not letting the moment pass.
“I missed you”, she said.
She turned around and looked at him. His light brown eyes reflected the moon.
“I missed you too”, he said.
She hugged him tight and buried her face in his chest.
“May I ask what is bothering my princess?”
Urmila lifted her head and paused for a while.
“I don’t know but I feel restless constantly since last few days. As if something isn’t right in our lives and things are going to fall apart.”
“I understand your worry my love. You are just overwhelmed about the coronation ceremony. Trust me, the preparations are going really well and everything will be fine.”
She nodded as his words felt reassuring, but she knew that it was not about the coronation ceremony. Something else was wrong and her instincts were warning her.
Lakshmana pulled her close and whispered in her ear.
“I am sorry for being busy since past few days. I will make it up to that tonight.”
She smiled and her ears went red. He kissed her forehead and caressed her cheeks. He raised her chin and slowly, he kissed her lips. Her hands went around his neck and he drew her closer holding her waist. They kissed until their shadows changed their positions under the moonlight.
He lifted her in his arms. She clung to him holding his neck. She could hear his heart beat as he walked briskly. He placed her gently on the bed, closed the balcony door and went to draw the curtains of the windows.
“Let the windows be open,” she said.
“As you wish”, he turned and smiled to her.
Their clothes lay beside the bed haphazardly. The room was bathed in the midnight-moon’s rays. For the rest of the night, there were no words spoken yet each other’s needs were heard.
The moon had travelled farther west. A tiny lamp blinked in the corner of the bedroom. She laid her head on Lakshmana’s chest as he breathed heavily in sleep. She looked at him and it seemed like he was smiling in his sleep. Slowly she shifted her head on to the pillow and kept watching him sleep. His face was utterly calm, but her restlessness was back. She turned and lay on her back. The restlessness grew into a fear in the darkness of the night.
The next day, palace of Ayodhya was buzzing with people. It was getting ready to witness one of the greatest events in the history without any hint of the tragedy that would follow.
Urmila looked into the mirror as she reluctantly tried on different jewellery. None of them impressed her. Confused with the large number of choices she had, she decided to take the opinion of her sister Sita. When she was about to leave the private chamber one of the royal servants came rushing into the hall.
“Princess, princess Urmila, I am here to deliver a terrible news. Queen Kaikeyi has asked king Dasharatha to banish prince Rama from Ayodhya and send him to forest for a fourteen years of exile”, the female servant blabbered.
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Many years ago when queen Kaikeyi had saved the king’s life in a war, he had granted her two wishes. He told her she could ask for anything that she wished for. She never asked him anything and she chose to ask now.”
“Why would she ask for Rama to be exiled? What rubbish are you talking?”
“Queen Kaikeyi wants her son Bharata to be the king of Ayodhya. She wants Rama to be banished from Ayodhya, so that he would be no threat to her son.”
“You can leave now. Please convey my words to Lakshmana as soon as possible. Wherever he is, tell him I need to see him.”
She couldn’t just accept the news that she had heard. Her heart beat fast and her vision blurred. The words flashed in her mind- Rama, exile and Lakshmana. Rama, the righteous prince will be going on the exile and she could clearly see, Lakshmana following him. Her mind raced with the thoughts. May be this was just one of the fights that queen Kaikeyi usually had with the king. Nobody was leaving the palace and the coronation would still happen the next day. May be this was what her heart feared. The more she thought, the more disoriented she felt. She paced across the hall and waited for hours.
Finally, at hours past mid night, Lakshmana walked into the hall of his private chamber. His cheeks were wet and his eyes in pain. Urmila ran to him and hugged him tight.
“You heard the news?”, he asked.
“Yes I did. Is everything alright now?”
Lakshmana looked at Urmila with kind eyes, feeling sad for her optimism. He pulled her to the bedroom and sat with her.
“Urmila. You know how stubborn queen Kaikeyi is.”
Urmila nodded. So it was true, Rama was being exiled and Lakshmana would follow him. She could clearly see that in his painful but determined eyes.
“What does Bharata has to say? Can he talk to her?”
“He’s not yet back in Ayodhya. I bet he would be happy to hear the news.”
“Oh! Lakshman. Don’t talk like that. I am sure he loves Rama.”
“You are too innocent Urmila, to understand all this.”
If it was some other night, she would have argued with him that it was her choice, not her innocence that kept herself away from the royal issues. But it was the time for decisions.
“So we will be leaving to forest tomorrow?”
“Urmila, my love, you need to understand.”
“What is it?”
“It’s only me, brother Rama and Sita, going for the exile.”
The words pierced her ears. She glared at him in shock.
“Why? Do you think I cannot survive in the forest?”, she asked.
“It’s not about surviving. Brother Rama is not just exiled to the forest. He’s supposed to leave all the luxuries of a prince. He’s supposed to live his life like a hermit and I will be there to serve him.”
“I can do that and moreover if sister is allowed to accompany her husband then even I am allowed.”
“Who’s going to take care of our parents then?”
“Lakshmana, you don’t have to give me reasons for making me stay at Ayodhya. I clearly understand that you have to take care of Rama and Sita, but I promise you, I’ll be your strength and not your distraction.”
“Oh Urmila. You are my strength and you will always be. I have thought this through. Please stay in the palace, for my sake.”
“I am not asking for your permission, prince Lakshmana. I am coming with you and that is my final decision.”
She rushed to the balcony. The Sun had set and it felt like she wasn’t going to see it rise ever again. It appeared as if the sky was mourning for her. Even the moon wasn’t there to console her.
She always found Lakshmana’s stubbornness attractive. It added a charm to his fierceness. She never knew that the same quality that made her love him more will be the one taking him away from her. She glanced at the palace. It would be just a mansion of marble without him. She couldn’t comprehend the world around her. Why would someone ask for a person like Rama to be banished? He would have happily let go of the crown if Kaikeyi had just asked him to. Why couldn’t she accompany her husband, while Sita could? She didn’t understand why life had to be always so complicated for the people of the royal family.
“Please try to understand. I don’t want to lose you. We don’t know what dangers we will be facing in the forest. I want you to stay here, safe and happy”, Lakshmana said.
“How in the hell would I be happy without you Lakshmana?”
“I beg you Urmila. I want you to stay here, for me. Will you not do that for me? Please, I beg you.”
She stared at him with her tear filled eyes. The sight of Lakshmana in pain stung her. She had to choose between her pain and his pain. She then moved to the corner of the bed. She sat with her head on her knees. She felt like she was in some trance. She consoled herself that it was all just a bad dream. Lakshmana sat beside her and embraced her. She buried her face into his chest and cried more. She felt his warm tear drops on her back, as she hugged him tighter.
That night, they cried for each other, for Rama, for the fate that had shaken their fairy-tale-like-life. She felt like she was sinking into an endless pit of agony. It was no nightmare and there was no waking up.
“We will leave by the sun rise”, he whispered.
She did not reply. He lifted her face and kissed her swollen eyes and wiped her cheeks. She held his face in her hands and looked at him, like she had to capture every fine detail of his face. She kissed him on his forehead, then his cheeks and his lips. She smiled, as she recalled the last time she had kissed him, life was so simple and then it felt like it was a different life. The memory felt distant.
“Will you do something for me?”, she asked.
“I would give my life for you, but you can’t ask me to take you with me.”
She smiled and fresh tears ran on her reddened cheeks.
“Promise me, you will not think of me, even for a moment, when you serve Rama and Sita for the next fourteen years. I don’t want you to wake me up when you leave. I don’t want to bid you a farewell.”
Lakshmana drew a long breath as his eyes welled up. He nodded. She placed her head on his lap and her eyes closed.
The reality around her melted away and she slipped into a deep sleep.
Urmila did not wake up for the next fourteen years.