The private garden of Rama and Sita, the king and queen of Ayodhya, was awash with the scent of spring blossoms. The purple hued passion-flower, with its hairy, tendril-like petals hung heavily from creepers, casting a fragrance worthy of its name; the white petals of the night jasmine, flowering in thick bunches, cracked open slowly, as if rising from slumber, teasing with a sample of the heavy fragrance that would sally forth as night approached. The evening sun cast soft, angular golden beams.
Sita, her head on Rama’s lap, lay on a swing that rocked back and forth, the squeak-squeak of the hinges punctuated by the chwoo-chwoo-gutur-gutur of bird calls. A branch rustled aside, touching a beam of sunshine to her face. Rama’s hand dashed to shield her from the harshness of the soft evening sun, but stopped. Her translucent skin glowed golden at the touch of mellow sunlight. Unable to decide whether to shield her face or stare at it, he stroked her forehead gently. Sita took his hand and kissed his fingers. The touch of his rough fingers, callused by years of drawing the bowstring, on her soft lips sent a shiver of thrill down her spine. Rama’s fingers stayed still.
“Is something bothering you?” she asked, gazing into his eyes.
“The cares of running a kingdom,” Rama sighed.
Sita twined her fingers around his, “do you long for the forest life?”
Rama nodded, “it’s been more than a year. But…”
Sita squeezed his hand, “the second anniversary is more important than the first.”
Rama looked at her, startled.
Sita continued, “the first year is heady, intoxicating, with the excitement of a new adventure. But if we pull through the monotony of the second year, without taking each other for granted, our love will grow, unabated.”
Rama smiled, but a thin line of worry creased his brow. “Besides,” Sita said, placing his hand gently on her bulging belly, “a forest is no place for our son to grow up in.”
The worry on Rama’s forehead disappeared and he smiled, “or daughter,” he said.
“Or both,” Sita said and moved his hand to her chest. The unspoken assurance of his hand on her heart was comforting and her eyelids fluttered shut.
Rama gazed at her face a long time, his hand feeling the slow, steady rhythm of her heart. He tucked a stray curl behind her ear and stroked her cheek. Sita smiled in her sleep.
The shadow around Rama’s eyes vanished.
Late that night, Rama sat in the little private council hall with his three brothers. Bhadra, the chief of spies, stood facing Rama.
“Speak freely,” Rama commanded. The steely determination in that command startled his brothers.
Bhadra spoke haltingly, “my Lord, it is as you suspected. The vile gossip about the queen is not restricted to the dhobi ghat; the words are on the lips of half the men in the city.”
“And?” Rama prodded.
“F…forgive me, Lord,” Bhadra stammered joining his palms. “There is talk that you are lustful like your father, the late King Dasharatha, that just like him, your queen has you wrapped around her little finger, blinding you to her faults.”
Rama dismissed Bhadra.
Bharata looked stricken, “I must have done something wrong during my stewardship for the citizens to blaspheme thus…”
Shatrughna, quick to temper, cut in. “Anyone who casts aspersions on the queen’s character should have his tongue sliced off!” His right hand drew the dagger at his waist.
Rama’s face turned grim, and his jaw tightened. Lakshmana knew that look. It was the look that had pushed Sita into the fire, after the war in Lanka. He grabbed Rama’s feet. “She has already walked through fire… please… I implore you… do not listen to wagging tongues…”
Rama’s face was set in granite. He pushed Lakshmana away and stood up.
Lakshmana grabbed Rama’s hand. “Please brother… if you want… if you want… send Sita to a forest hermitage for a few days… but… but not what you are thinking…” Tears streamed down his face.
Rama freed his hand. “My decision is made,” he said and strode away.
The next morning, Rama summoned his brothers to the audience hall. Bharata, Lakshmana, Shatrughna, their sleepless eyes red, walked in with trepidation. The hall was packed with commoners, lords, and merchants. The brothers approached the dais and their hearts sank.
Rama was seated on the throne and next to him was a golden idol of Sita! Murmurs of approval rose from the crowd. Lakshmana sank to the ground and sobbed.
Rama raised his hand and the hubbub died. “Everyone deserves a second chance,” he said. “Even you!” he thundered, pointing at the assembled citizenry. “Look within you. Who do you see?”
Bards would later sing that every man looked within himself and saw a Ravana – cowardly, covetous, adulterous, sinful. Not a single man saw within himself a Rama – courageous, forgiving, faithful, righteous.
That day, every man hung his head in shame. Silence hung heavy. A man dressed in common rags walked to the front of the crowd. A dhobi.
He joined his palms in front of Rama. “Forgive us, lord, we have erred. Like petulant children we raved and ranted. But instead of giving in to our foolish complaints, like a kind parent you showed us the error of our ways. Please…” he begged with tears in his eyes, “do not punish the queen for our wrongs. Please bring us our queen back.”
A servant from the inner quarters whispered into Rama’s ears. Rama smiled and stood up. The queen is in safe in her quarters. She has just delivered twins, a boy, and a girl. We have named them Lava and Khushi… love and joy.”
A look of jubilation took over the dhobi’s face. “May you rule us like a father for a thousand years! May everyone get a second chance!”
“And a second anniversary,” Rama muttered under his breath.
Shouts of “Jai Ramachandra! Jai Sita Devi!” reverberated across the hall.