I stood beside my brothers, in water that came up to our chest.
Ganga’s embrace was warm, soothing — and yet, as we watched the long line of people walking towards us, a chill worked its way up from the soles of my feet to freeze my heart and numb the mind.
The brides of our sons came first, heads down, walking in single file towards the river bank – absurdly young girls in the white robes that signaled the widow, their hair hanging loose and unbound, with no sign of ornamentation. Behind them walked valiyamma Gandhari, her hand on my mother’s arm.
Subhadra and Balandhara walked behind them, supporting Uttara on either side. Tears flowed down Uttara’s face, unchecked and unheeded. Someone had told us she was pregnant.
Draupadi came last. Though she had no husband to mourn, she too was dressed in sober white in memory of the five sons she had lost in one night of madness.
They came on, this long line of white-robed women, mute testament to a war we had won — and lost.
We stepped out of the river, walked up to where the priest waited for us and stood with our heads bowed and hands folded in prayer, mentally preparing to pay our final dues to those the war had taken from us.
Mother left Gandhari’s side and walked up to us. “When you honor the dead, don’t forget the name of a hero who died fighting on the Kaurava side…”
Arjuna looked at her, bewildered. Yudhishtira must have had some inkling of what was coming – eyes fixed on hers, he waited in silence for her to utter the name.
“Your elder brother, the one you know as Radheya…”
“Karna?!” The word exploded from Arjuna, half question, half exclamation.
“I shot an arrow into his heart as he begged for life… I took deliberate aim while he lay there bleeding, and shot an arrow into his throat… I killed my brother!” Arjuna crumpled to the ground, overwhelmed.
“Karna.” Mother’s face was impassive, her tone even. “The child I bore when yet a maiden, the child I abandoned to hide my own shame…
“I ask this of you in the name of one who never got his due in life – please, my children, one handful of water, one final prayer in Karna’s name…”
Turning, she walked back to her place beside Gandhari.
For long moments Yudhishtira stood there silent, unmoving, as if he had turned to stone. And then he looked up, and I saw the tears in his eyes. He clapped for an attendant; several rushed forward.
Find Karna’s widow and his children, he commanded; bring them here so they may stand with our women when we pay him our respects.
The priest recited the mantras for the dead and named each person we had lost; in turn, we took a handful of water and offered it up to Ganga.
As Yudhishtira paid his respects, I thought back to all those encounters, all those years. To the time outside the elephant paddock when he had stood there watching while Duryodhana and Dushasana attacked me…. to his voice, which I heard clearer than all the rest, calling for rope so they could bind my hands and feet and throw me in the river…
I was the one who had insulted him that day, during the trial of strength. In my mind I heard the echoes of my own mocking laughter. “What is this suta putra doing with a bow and arrow? Give him a whip — that is all he is fit for, all that he deserves,” I had taunted then…
Karna, the brother I had never known.
I tilted my palms, and let the water trickle out.
So many years ago, one of Ganga’s little daughters had accepted a bundle entrusted to it by a shamed maiden. Ganga had taken the bundle in her arms, cradled it, rocked it, and brought it safe to shore.
Today, with the same impassive calm, she accepted my tribute to that child she had nurtured so long ago.
We were now the masters of Hastinapura and yet, as I walked along the corridors of the palace, I felt like a stranger, an interloper.
All those years in the jungle, all through the war that followed, I had dreamt of this homecoming; I had consoled myself with visions of the celebrations we would have when we finally won back our inheritance.
Now we were back, and there was no celebration. The streets of Hastinapura were deserted; behind shut doors the womenfolk mourned their dead.
At the entrance to what used to be Duryodhana’s palace I saw an enormous iron doll, its body dented in several places. Its face, with a hideous smile plastered on it, was a cruel mockery of mine. This, I thought, must be the statue Visokan had told me about – an iron contraption created by an engineer, with hands that moved when levers were pulled.
Duryodhana had constructed it to look like me and each morning, he had ‘practiced’ by smashing at it with his mace.
I walked into the main palace, now dark and dismal. In the great hall, Dhritarashtra sat alone and unmoving, waiting for I don’t know what. As I penetrated deeper into the castle a single, heart-rending sob from an inner room stopped me in my tracks. Hastily, I retraced my steps and walked out of the palace, seeking the solitude of my own quarters.
On the way I passed Arjuna, walking with no aim, no direction. He couldn’t sleep, he said — his nights were haunted by visions of Karna’s eyes, fixed on him in entreaty.
“Did you know?” To avoid replying, I wrapped my arms around him in a hug. How could I tell him I had known for some time, that I could have stopped him from killing a brother with just a word?
He walked away, cursing our mother. I will never be able to forget, he said – and I will never forgive her.
I thought of Karna. Of how he had lived his life with kshatriya blood in him, yet constantly reviled as a suta putra. He was a king, yet one who owed his kingdom not to the might of his arms but to the charity of his friend; he wore a crown, yet lived his life a vassal, never accepted as an equal in the company of his fellow kings.
No, I wouldn’t be able to forget either.
But then I thought of my mother, of the life she had lived. Brought up a princess, she had one day, without warning, without even a chance to say goodbye to her own mother, been handed over to a childless cousin of her father’s — who in turn had given her to a rishi for his personal maid, so the rishi would be pleased and bless him with a son.
I had spent enough time with the rishis of the forest to know what that meant – she would have cooked for him, cleaned for him, bathed him, waited on him hand and foot and even, if he so desired, given herself to him because how could she refuse?
Marriage to a king must have seemed to her the escape she had prayed for so desperately during those lonely years of her lost childhood – and yet she found she had to share her impotent husband with another, a younger, more beautiful wife who clearly dominated the king’s affections. And then she had lost him; her sons, princes born to rule, had been forced to wander the forests like outcasts while she survived on the goodwill of her youngest brother in law…
No, I couldn’t bring myself to curse her either.
“I haven’t seen you since we returned to Hastinapura.”
Yudhishtira was waiting for me in my chambers. I touched his feet, and sat down opposite him.
“I thought this was surely the one place I would find some sura…”
I had never known him to drink in our presence. I summoned a maid. She came, and poured. We drank. Yudhishtira looked after her as she walked away – she, too, bore the signs of recent widowhood.
“So this is what we fought for, this is what we won – a nation of widows!” My brother sighed.
“I spent a lifetime trying to avoid war… I did things my wife, my brothers, hated me for. I, who love each of you like my sons – I pledged you on a turn of the dice…”
“Kshatriya dharma… you couldn’t refuse a challenge.”
In some strange way, we seemed to have switched places — here was my brother, voicing the thoughts I had bitten down on all these years, and here was me making his excuses for him. “It is done,” I told him. “It’s over. What is the point in thinking of all that now?”
My brother drank some more. “Oh, I could have gotten out of the game if I wanted to,” he said. “I could not refuse Duryodhana’s challenge, but it was not our cousin who played against me — and there is no dharma that says I have to accept a challenge by proxy.”
“Why, then? We could have walked away; we could have gone back to Indraprastha, built it into the greatest kingdom of our time… we could have been so happy, with our children around us …”
“Our children. All dead. One day I will die — and there will be no one to do my last rites.” Yudhistira jumped up from his seat and paced the floor, his agitation manifest.
I had never seen him like this, so totally devoid of the calm self-control that characterized him at all times, a self control that had at times maddened me almost beyond endurance.
“Do you think, my son, that they would have let us rule Indraprastha in peace?”
He picked up the skin of sura, found it empty, and clapped his hands.
“As long as our cousins ruled Hastinapura, they would have found one pretext or other for war. When they invited me for that game I thought, this is our best chance – if we can win the kingdom without bloodshed, in a game of dice, our cousins won’t be able to hurt us any more, their power will be neutralized…
“But I lost!”
We sat in silence, in the gathering dark, each lost in our own thoughts.
“I never told you this at the time, because I thought you would never agree – I knew none of you would agree,” Yudhishtira said. “Remember when I sent Krishna as my final emissary, with the message that we would accept five villages as our share? Later, in private, I told him if he saw the slightest chance to make peace, he should tell Duryodhana we would even be prepared to accept five homes somewhere – one for each of us, so we could live our lives in peace.”
He sighed – a sudden, heart-wrenching sound that bubbled up from some subterranean well of frustration, of sorrow.
“Duryodhana refused, as I feared he would – but even so I would have somehow persuaded you, our brothers, even Draupadi, to let it go. We could have lived somewhere – in Panchala, or Dwaraka, anywhere…
“But that woman! She must have known I didn’t want war – that is why she met Krishna and sent those messages to Draupadi, to Arjuna and to you, fanning the flames of your anger, making sure you wouldn’t listen to me, making sure there would be war!
“And all that time, she knew it would be our own brother we would fight against… our brother we would be forced to kill… and she never said a word…
“Mother!” He spat the word out, like a curse – and abruptly, walked out of the room, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
PostScript: Thanks all for the wishes. I don’t feel remotely close to 100 percent yet, so will be off work/blog for today as well [mercifully, it is not any virus with a funny name, but just a regular fever that seems to come and go in spurts]. Will check back later to respond to comments etc on this episode, and resume regular service tomorrow. Be well all