The coronation was a very subdued affair – it would, Yudhishtira warned us, be in bad taste to organize lavish celebrations at a time when the people were in considerable distress.
Our brother only insisted that there could be no skimping in making the prescribed offerings: gold for the commander of our armies; for the chief priest, a black cow with a streak of white on its back; a pregnant cow for Draupadi, the queen; a horse for the suta who was named chief balladeer; bulls for the palace gardener and his assistants; two bulls for the king’s personal charioteer; an ivory board and coins for the resident chaturanga player; a curved silver knife and red head-dress for the chief huntsman; a yellow and red turban and a bag of silver coins for the chief messenger…
It was an endless list. “I didn’t know half of these,” Sahadeva whispered to me at one point as Yudhishtira reeled off names and appropriate gifts. “The things kshatriyas have to learn about! Did you know that if our brother had an abandoned wife, he would have had to send her a sickly black cow as gift?!”
Once the prescribed gifts had been handed out, Yudhishtira had to do a tour of the city and meet with his subjects. Uncle Vidura, who was in charge of everything to do with the coronation, and the chief priest led the procession. We brothers walked behind them, with the responsibility of listening to any citizen with a grievance, cataloging the problems that were brought to our notice and at the appropriate time, bringing it to the king’s attention.
Behind us walked the guests of honor. Only Krishna and Satyaki had accepted our invitation to attend. Senesan, to whom we had sent a formal message, was among those who stayed away — instead, a minister from the Kasi court arrived with gifts for Yudhishtira, Balandhara and me.
Yudhishtira, with Draupadi beside him, came last, stopping often to talk to the people who had lined the streets.
When we finally returned to the palace, it was the turn of us brothers to be recognized and honored. Yudhishtira presented each of us with the ornaments and armor of a kshatriya, all made specifically for the occasion and blessed formally by the chief priest.
And then he ascended the throne, for the very first time.
In the order established by tradition, we had to go up on the dais and anoint him. First the priests and invited Brahmins, then the guests of honor, then mother, then the other members of the family in order of seniority starting with uncle Dhritarashtra, uncle Vidura, valiyamma Gandhari and so on, then the commander of the army and various other senior members of the king’s entourage.
In my turn, I dipped the conch into the large golden bowl filled with water from the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati mixed with the urine of a pregnant cow, and poured it over his head.
The next stage was when Yudhishtira took me by the hand and led me to the small seat set to his right, at a slightly lower level on the dais. I was formally installed as the Yuvaraja – a much shorter ceremony, with only the chief priest and Yudhishtira anointing me. There was no room there for Balandhara, who stood with the rest of our women, watching.
It was time for the king’s first formal proclamations. Traditionally, this took the form of relief for the more deserving of prisoners, whose sentences would be commuted – but Hastinapura’s prisons had been emptied by Duryodhana, who had armed them and sent them to die on the battle field.
Life settled into a routine, and memories of war grew ever more distant. Yudhishtira summoned us one morning to discuss the depleted state of our treasury. Nakula and Sahadeva had completed their inventory, and as we waited for the king to join us, they told us it wasn’t a pretty picture.
“The problem goes around in a circle,” Nakula said. “Our industries are at a standstill because the able-bodied young men are all dead. Therefore, we have no money coming into the treasury — and without money, we cannot revive these industries and start new ones… it is difficult to know where to start looking for a solution.”
“Maybe in the kingdoms of our allies,” Sahadeva pointed out. “We need to bring in young people from Panchala, from Kasi, Matsya… the promise of a bright future under our brother is the best incentive we have to offer.”
When Yudhishtira finally came to the hall, it was in a state of perturbation. “Uncle Dhritarashtra wants to offer prayers and give away alms in memory of the dead – you have to make the necessary arrangements immediately, and there can be no stint,” he told Sahadeva.
“Gold and cows for a thousand Brahmins… alms and food to all who come and ask for it… the expense of conducting theyaga… where are we supposed to find the funds for all this? Hastinapura is bankrupt, doesn’t our uncle know this?” Sahadeva was agitated.
“I don’t know. It is up to you and Nakula to figure out a way, somehow — we cannot refuse our uncle’s request,” our brother the king ordered. “Besides, uncle wants to retire to the forest after the ceremony – he says he cannot find peace here. And,” he added, with a darkling glance in my direction, “it seems some people have been taunting him ever since the war ended, and making his life miserable.”
Trust the old man to take one incident and convert it into a big drama, I thought to myself.
I had wandered into the large assembly hall one afternoon, the one where the dice game had been staged, and found uncle Dhritarashtra and valiyamma Gandhari seated there, all alone.
“Who is that?”
“It is I – Bhima,” I said, and went up to touch their feet.
“Sit down, child, sit with us for a while,” valiyamma said. “Nowadays, no one comes to see us, we spend our days all alone.”
I sat at their feet. Dhritarashtra’s hand reached out, rested lightly on my shoulder. “Killing and dying are an inevitable part of war, my son,” he said, his grip suddenly tightening. “But was it necessary to drink the blood of my son?”
“When I smashed his chest, Dushasana’s blood gushed up and wetted my lips,” I said, off-handedly. “It didn’t taste good, so I didn’t drink any of it.” Detaching his grip on my shoulder, I walked away.
It is not that I minded their presence – it was a large palace, one of several in the courtyard, and there was room enough for all. But I could never rid myself of the thought that more than anyone else, it was this old man who was responsible for the war – for all his pretense, he had time and again acceded to and even egged on Duryodhana as he schemed to bring about our downfall.
Even at the very end, when we asked for five villages as our share of the inheritance, he could have exercised his authority to grant our request, and thus avoided the war.
To see him now wandering the halls, sighing heavily whenever he heard footsteps approach, and playing the victim to the hilt, made my blood boil – though in deference to Yudhishtira’s sensibilities, I tended to avoid the old man as much as possible.
I shrugged. “Let them perform the yaga and retire to the forest if that is what they want to do,” I said. “As long as they are in our midst, we will never be able to put the events of the past entirely behind us.”
The yaga was grand. Sahadeva and Nakula accomplished miracles, and provided for an event far more elaborate than our brother’s coronation.
When the last Brahmin had been fed, and the last alms-seeker duly satisfied, the old couple prepared to remove to the forest, and that was when we heard that uncle Vidura had decided to accompany them.
I wasn’t particularly surprised – for years now, his life had been that of a grihastha in name alone. Once he had played his part in overseeing Yudhishtira’s coronation, there really was nothing for him to do in Hastinapura, no formal role to play.
The palace servants and the more elderly Brahmins gathered in the courtyard to give the old couple a send off. Servitors bustled around, getting the chariots ready and packing onto a half dozen bullock carts everything they would need to live in some degree of comfort in the forest.
Yudhishtira rushed up just then, in a state of considerable distress. “Mother has decided to accompany them to the forest,” he announced. “I’ve just spent the last hour trying to get her to change her mind, but she is adamant.”
“Oh, let her go,” Arjuna said, his voice harsh. Ever since that day on the banks of the Ganga, he had deliberately avoided mother and, on the rare occasions when she came up in course of our conversations, responded with a bitterness he took no pains to conceal. “She loves drama, and takes a special delight in surprising us.”
Nakula and Sahadeva seemed more disturbed by the news. “What nonsense!”, Sahadeva said. “After all these years, these trials, why does she want to go into the forest when she should be living here in comfort, as the Queen Mother?!”
They went off to try and persuade her and soon returned, shaking their heads. “Go, child,” Yudhishtira told me. “Maybe she will listen to you.”
I found mother in her chambers, giving some last minute instructions to her maid.
“Now what?” I asked her. “What is it you lack here? When we were confused, weary from all those years in the forest, when we wished to avoid war, you were the one who stiffened our resolve.
“If life in the forest was all that you desired, why then did you push us to fight for the kingdom? Why did we shed all this blood, create this kingdom of widows?”
“Because I am a mother, my child, and as a mother the one thing I desired more than any other was to see my children settled in their inheritance, to see their fame spread far and wide. You are kshatriyas, the sons of a king – to fight for your right was your dharma then, and to rule the kingdom you have won is your dharma now. My life is over – I have done all I can for my children; my own dharma now is to do all I can for your uncle and aunt in their last days.
“There is no need for my children to feel sad – rule in peace, with Draupadi and my other daughters beside you.”
I knew mother well enough to realize there was no point in arguing with her. I turned, and walked back to the courtyard.
Leading him by the hand, uncle Vidura helped Dhritarashtra climb into the first chariot. Valiyamma emerged from the palace, her hand on mother’s shoulder. They walked towards the chariot, passing us without even a glance.
Once she had helped valiyamma into the chariot, mother turned to where we stood and beckoned to Draupadi. They talked for a long time; I saw my mother fold Draupadi in a hug – a gesture as surprising as anything she had ever done.
Draupadi walked back towards us, tears streaming down her face. The whips cracked, the chariots moved out of the courtyard and drove slowly through the street.
We stood there for a very long time, watching this last link with the past fade into the distance and feeling within us the enormous weight of an uncertain future.