This slender, supple work achieves its ends through forms of imagery and symbolism that are revealed at each turn. The story itself, which rests upon relatively slight narrative foundations, suggests that basic antinomies in human character may yield results that are entirely unexpected; the exotic, indeed seemingly mythic setting seems to heighten the moral tension felt in this work even as it diminishes the impact of what otherwise would be some rather shocking events. Moreover, while enough details of the specific time and place are supplied to convey a distinctive and extraordinary atmosphere, these effects do not impose limitations on the more nearly universal issues that are also called forth. All the while, there is enough wry wit in the author’s tone to suggest that such matters need not be taken too seriously.
At the outset, two young men become friends possibly because their seemingly dissimilar qualities are actually complementary. Shridaman, the older, has been educated in grammar and philosophy and is a merchant, and Nanda, who is more given to physical labor, tends livestock and is a smith. In quiet, secluded places, they discuss ultimate questions of truth and understanding, although they reach no particular conclusions. Their musings are pleasantly interrupted one day when a young woman, not knowing that they are about, comes to bathe in the river nearby. Without any improper overtones, they regard her lithe, delicately curved form; in particular, they admire her delicate, golden brown skin. Her graceful, unaffected movements seem admirably suited to her splendidly proportioned figure. Shridaman is inspired by her appearance to launch into a disquisition about relations between the image and the beholder in aesthetic theory; yet both he and his interlocutor seem bemused and distracted in a way that is far from intellectual. Some time later, Shridaman confesses to his friend that his philosophical cast of mind has been dulled by yearnings of a more worldly sort; Nanda maintains lightheartedly that, though Shridaman is seemingly given to cerebral pursuits, he actually cannot find means to contain the urges of his lovesickness.
It does not take very long for courtship to blossom into marriage. Although he and Sita initially are quite happy together, some misgivings begin to trouble Shridaman. His religious precepts offer him no guidance; when he enters a shrine of the goddess Kali, he becomes possessed instead with dark thoughts of propitiation. Shridaman fears that his very essence has been divided hopelessly by the conflicting claims of the mental and physical facets of his existence. The goddess is intent on exacting her due in blood and sacrifice. Accordingly, and in a stroke that admittedly seems improbably difficult to carry out, Shridaman takes up a sword and in one movement severs his head from his body. Nanda, who has been disquieted by his friend’s air of gloomy preoccupation, comes upon Shridaman’s corpse when he visits the temple; after only a moment’s reflection, he takes up the fatal sword and decapitates himself.
When Sita comes upon this gruesome spectacle, she is, at first, inclined to join the others in death; at this juncture, however, the goddess reproaches her for any thoughts of self-sacrifice. Instead, Sita succeeds somehow in affixing the heads back on the bodies of the men. When they come back to life, however, there is an unusual twist: For each of them, the head of the one has been set upon the other’s body. This turn of events leads to some oddly comic discussions between the new Shridaman and the new Nanda. At issue is whether each should construe his personal identity on the basis of his physical or...
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his mental qualities. Both are actually a bit amused at the situation but recognize that the confusion cannot continue indefinitely. In particular, Sita would need to determine which one actually is her husband; thus, the three of them go off to a forest sanctuary some distance away, where they consult the eccentric old hermit Kamadamana. He advises them that it is the head, not the body, that confers the unique personal status identified with each individual.
The new Shridaman continues to live in a wedded state with Sita. For a time it seems that all is well; eventually, however, it appears that something is awry. Sita initially is rather pleased with the more powerful and fully developed physical state of her husband. Yet, the body is soon dominated by Shridaman’s head, the limbs and chest becoming so thin and weak that they cannot be distinguished from those of the original Shridaman. Meanwhile, the child who was conceived early in their marriage is born and is found to bear some resemblance to all three of them. Sita wearies of Shridaman and develops a pronounced penchant for Nanda; indeed, her interest has been aroused by her past experience with him as a transposed body. When she comes upon him again, she finds that, true to his calling, his body has come to resemble that possessed by the Nanda of old. Their blissful liaison lasts a day and a night; then Shridaman discovers them together and becomes distraught.
At last, Shridaman and Nanda agree to a trial by combat, with the added stipulation that neither will allow his body to betray his head. The outcome is as precise and symmetrical as their earlier decapitations; each pierces the other’s heart with his sword, and both fall dead simultaneously. It remains for Sita, who has contemplated this final act all along, to commit ritual suttee by placing herself upon the funeral pyre which consumes the two men. As an afterthought, the narrator adds that young Samadhi, the son of Sita and Shridaman, is obliged by his nearsightedness to take up contemplative pursuits. He soon becomes known as Andhaka (little blind one) and acquires wide renown for his precocious mastery of learned subjects. By the age of twenty, he has become a reader to the King of Benares.