After 12 years of deprivation and a year spent in the soiled black robes of a palace cook, it felt good to have maids waking me up in the morning with hot water for my bath and fresh, clean silk robes to change into.
We had been installed in the palace of King Virat, who insisted that till our future course of action was decided, we would remain in Matsya as his guests. I thought it proper to let him know that I had killed Keechaka.
He took the news with surprising calm – in fact, I thought I even detected a sense of relief. “Keechaka was a hedonist, the bane of my life but he was my wife’s brother, there was little I could do,” he told me. “With him in charge, my army has had neither proper training nor a good leader. The men are loyal, and fierce fighters, but they need someone like you to teach them the arts and strategies of war. Now that you no longer need to hide who you are, it will please me if you could take charge of the army.”
We were seated in the king’s main audience chamber, waiting for Krishna, Yudhishtira and the others. The talk, once they took their places, revolved around whether the Kauravas had managed to uncover our identity before the stipulated period of exile was over. Would we need to start the whole twelve plus one cycle all over again?
“Don’t worry,” Krishna assured us. “I did all these calculations even before I left Dwaraka. You started your exile on the eighth day of the Sarvadhari Shravana’s dark phase of the moon,and your 13th year ended on the 7th day of the dark phase of the Plava Shravan – the night before the Kauravas attacked Matsya and were defeated by Arjuna.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, and I didn’t care much either. Even if we had been discovered before the end of our stipulated period, there was no way I would willingly accept another cycle of exile. Yudhishtira could talk of dharma all he liked, but I was done hiding and running – here on, it would be war, for revenge and to recover what was rightfully ours. And I knew that if it came to that, Arjuna, and my two youngest brothers would be with me – and that is all I needed anyway.
The court astrologer confirmed that Krishna was right. “Duryodhana can argue that according to the solar calendar, he uncovered your identity one day before the 13th year ended – but it is the lunar calendar that we follow across the land, and Bhisma and the other acharyas will have done their own calculations, and they will know we are right,” he told the king.
At the king’s behest, Matsya celebrated the return from exile of the Pandavas. Our own celebrations were enhanced by an unexpected marriage proposal – and that was Krishna’s doing.
“King Virat has been a good friend to the Pandavas,” he told the five of us that evening. “We need to bind him to our side, and there is no better way than through marriage. I’ve seen Princess Uttara – she is beautiful, and just the right age to be married.”
Arjuna caught my eye and smiled – I should say smirked. He seemed sure that he was about to add one more to his collection of beauties.
“Uttara will be just right for Abhimanyu,” Krishna said, pretending not to notice Arjuna’s smile. “He will be here soon; I have already sent word to Dwaraka. He has grown into a fine young man – and without exaggeration, I can say that in the arts of war he is more skilled than his father, and both his uncles. You,” he said, addressing Arjuna directly, “were Uttara’s guru; itwould be inappropriate for you to then accept her as your wife.”
Two days later, Drupada and Dhristadyumna arrived from Panchala. Yudhishtira, Krishna, Virat and Drupada immersed themselves in their discussions; Dhristadyumna joined Satyaki and me in working with the Matsya army, teaching them the arts of moving into the various formations, shifting at a signal from one formation to the other, and similar skills they were deficient in.
In these 13 years, Dhristadyumna had grown into the most impressive warrior I have ever seen – in physical stature he was my equal, and in all but hand to hand combat and wrestling, the young man was clearly my superior.
“They are thinking of sending a messenger to the Kauravas, asking that they give you half the kingdom as your share,” Dhristadyumna told us the next morning. “It’s a waste of time – Duryodhana will never give up an inch of the territory he has cheated you out of, but my father thinks this is the right thing to do.”
Yudhishtira too believed that peaceful means had to be tried first. “War is always the last option,” he told us that afternoon, when we met for a meal. “And besides, we have no certainty of victory in a war where the opposing forces are led by Bhisma, Drona and Kripa.”
Draupadi seemed about to say something, but Dhristadyumna beat her to it. “Not going to war is even less of an option,” he told my brother, not bothering to hide his disgust. “Everyone knows how you were treated. Even if you established another kingdom someplace, not one of the kings of this land will respect you if you do not face the Kauravas on the battlefield.
“And as for those gurus – this war will not be won by them,” the Panchala prince said. “This war is our generation’s, and we are the ones who will win it – Bhima and Satyaki and Arjuna and I.”
Yudhishtira did not contest the assertion, but next day an envoy set out for Hastinapura with a message to Dhritarashtra from Drupada. “Messengers will go from here, they will come from there – these things have to be done, so no one can say tomorrow that the Pandavas did not explore all the options,” Drupada told me, taking me aside as I was heading off after the usual morning conclave.
“But that does not mean that your preparations must wait. I have sent a messenger to Panchala; within days, a contingent of our most seasoned troops will be here, and they will help you and my son train the Matsya army.”
Drupada had aged in these last 13 years – but he was still unmistakably regal, his authority unchallenged even by the Yadavas who deferred to him, while King Virat almost seemed a guest in his own palace, content to let Drupada do all the talking and even installing him on a throne placed next to his own.
When the messenger returned, we all gathered in the audience chamber. This was a professional – such men don’t just carry messages, they act it out, infusing their words with all the authority of the sender.
“I went to Hastinapura and was received by King Dhritarashtra in the great hall,” he told us. “This is what I told them, as coming from King Drupada:
“O Dhritarashtra, you know that you and Pandu are sons of the same father; your respective sons merit an equal share in the kingdom. And yet, you and your sons have systematically cheated the Pandavas out of what is rightfully theirs. You fobbed them off with wasteland; when they built a kingdom on it, you cheated them out of it with a crooked game of dice. In their name I ask – no, I demand – that you give the Pandavas their due, if you wish to avoid a conflagration that will consume your tribe.”
Reverting to his normal tone, the messenger said, “As soon as I finished my words, the venerable Bhisma said you were right, and advised Dhritarashtra to offer you half the kingdom. But uproar then broke out; Karna shouted the loudest and with the Kauravas backing him, refused to permit Bhisma to speak. Finally, Dhritarashtra said he would send his reply in a few days; I was given food, and silk robes, and a purse of a hundred gold coins, and told to return.”
It was a week before the messenger from Hastinapura arrived – and it proved to be none other than Sanjaya, Dhritarashtra’s ‘eyes’ and his closest confidante. Virat welcomed him and had his retainers take him to a private chamber so he could rest after his journey. Sanjaya joined us for the evening meal, but it was in the audience chamber the next morning that he officially delivered his message.
“O Drupada,” Sanjaya said, speaking as Dhritarashtra’s voice, in the manner of skilled messengers, “my brother Pandu’s children are my own, and I am happy beyond measure that they have survived their exile and are under your protection, and that of King Virat.
“I have no quarrel with you, Drupada. It is not to you but to my son Yudhishtira – for he is, and he knows he is, my eldest son – that I now speak. He knows that he lost all he had in a game of dice he voluntarily played; he was given the choice to accept defeat and withdraw with all his possessions intact – it was his decision to stake all, and having staked it all and lost it all, he knows no longer has the right to claim any part of it. He is the embodiment of dharma, of all that is right and good, and he will know this better than anyone.
“The forces of Drupada and Virat and Dwaraka and others, led by Bhima and Arjuna and Krishna and Dhristadyumna, can never be defeated. But equally, a war against the forces of Hastinapura and our friends, led by Bhisma and Drona and Kripa and Karna and my second son Duryodhana will be disastrous for anyone who dares oppose them.
“My son Yudhishtira, I ask that you be patient, that you be tolerant, that you adhere to the principles of dharma that you have held dear all your life. I ask, my son, that you do nothing that will pave the way for the destruction of our tribe.”
That was the message Sanjaya delivered in a ringing voice that reverberated around the audience hall – and at the end of it all, I had no idea what our situation was. Had Dhritarashtra accepted our demand for half the kingdom, or no? Was he counseling patience while he worked out the details?
“The message is simple enough,” Dhristadyumna, seated beside me, said. “The old king is completely in the control of Duryodhana and his evil genius, Karna. They have no intention of giving you anything, of giving up anything they tricked you out of. Didn’t you hear – Sanjaya said, in Dhritarashtra’s words, that the Pandavas lost in a fair game and now have no right to claim anything.”
Affecting the courtly manners he could assume at will, Yudhishtira thanked Sanjaya for his message and asked about the wellbeing of the king, and valiyamma Gandhari and our cousins. “We will discuss your message, and give you our answer tomorrow,” Yudhishtira told Sanjaya, signaling to a retainer to guide him to his quarters.
A tinkle of anklets distracted me. I turned around, and saw that Draupadi had slipped into the audience chamber through a side door. She must have heard all that had transpired. Catching my eye, she looked at me long and hard, then abruptly turned and walked away.
I was not conscious of having come to my feet. “There is no need to wait,” I heard my voice say. “We have nothing to discuss, our answer is simply this: Prepare for war, we come to claim what is ours by right, and to be avenged for all the wrongs that have been done to us.”
Sanjaya stopped in his tracks; the hall fell silent. I felt the heat of Yudishtira’s stare, and I knew my brother would be angry. I had breached protocol; I had given an answer that was not mine to give, but his.
For once, I did not care for protocol, for my brother’s anger, or even for what Drupada, Virat and Krishna thought of me. I had given my answer – and as far as I was concerned, it was final.
It would be war – and even the gods wouldn’t be able to keep our cousins safe from me.