A chance meeting with two wandering rishis gave me the first news we had of our mother.
I was supervising the clearing of a large tract of forest on the outskirts of Hastinapura. Sahadeva wanted to create an enormous central cattle shed well away from the town and concentrate all our herds there – easier to protect and to focus on the breeding, he said.
I led a small band of our troops and a large group of wood workers in the task. The troops stayed alert against the chance that we might encounter militant tribals sheltering in the woods; the workers cut down the trees they needed for constructing the cattle sheds and adjoining buildings, had them towed by elephants, and burnt the rest.
The rishis wandered up while I was working with two elephants to haul away an enormous tree we had just felled. Our uncle, aunt and mother were doing well, they said. A large number of rishis, elderly Brahmins and sages had made their home in the vicinity; great-grandfather Krishna Dwaipayana had also joined them.
Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and our mother spent their mornings in prayer and penance and their afternoons and evenings in intense discussions on karma and dharma, on why we do the things we do and whether it is all part of pre-destiny or did we have any choice in the matter…
Yudhishtira sighed when, later that evening, I recounted my conversation with the rishis. “It’s been so long — maybe we should go, see how they are doing, inquire into their well-being,” he suggested.
“And we could try once more to persuade mother to come back with us,” Sahadevan suggested.
Yudhishtira shook his head. “She won’t ever come back, child,” he said. “But… you know, that day when she first told me she was going into the forest, we had a long talk. I was angry — I said things I shouldn’t have… harsh things, the kind of things no son should tell a mother. I need to see her again, to apologize, to tell her I understand things better now…”
We set out early next morning, Yudhishtira, Sahadeva and I. Arjuna opted to stay behind — someone had to, he argued; what if there was some sudden emergency and no one here to deal with it?
He had over time reconciled to the war, to those we had killed and those we had lost, and had plunged into the task f recruiting and training fresh soldiers for our army. But his anger towards our mother still smoldered deep within him, like live coals under ash, and there seemed no point trying to persuade him to join us.
Nakula was away at the time, touring the kingdoms south of the Vindhyas. He had been gone for some months now. Every once in a while, groups of artisans would come to Hastinapura with messages from him – stone workers, wood workers, master jewelers who could work in gold and precious stones, master carvers, painters, experts in the design and construction of weapons…
One day, a group of dancers came to our court. They were adepts at a form of dance that, they said, had been first created by the founder of our race, Bharata. Yudhishtira was so entranced by their performance he showered gifts on them; Draupadi installed them in one of them outbuildings within the palace compound and persuaded them to teach the younger maids and the daughters of the townsfolk.
It was late in the afternoon when, following the directions the rishis had given me, we arrived at the ashram. Uncle Dhritarashtra made no attempt to hide his happiness as we paid due obeisance; tears streamed from those sightless eyes as he blessed each one of us. “My child, I am grateful you came to see me,” he told me as he laid his hand on my head in a gesture that was both benediction and caress.
Mother said nothing. She sat beside aunt Gandhari, watching and listening with a smile on her face as uncle Dhritarashtra asked about how the kingdom was faring, and gave Yudhishtira advice on various matters of statecraft.
It was quite a while before Yudhishtira finally managed to detach himself from Dhritarashtra and got a chance to ask after uncle Vidura. “He left the ashram several months ago,” our grandsire, who was seated next to mother, said. “He is in the forest not very far from here, immersed in intense penance.”
Yudhishtira decided to seek him out; I went with him while Sahadeva stayed behind to talk to mother. We walked a long way into the forest until finally we came upon a gigantic peepul tree.
We didn’t immediately recognize the man who lay stretched out on the ground under its shade. A wild, unkempt beard covered all of his face except his eyes; his ash-covered skin hung loose on a skeletal frame; his breathing came slow, labored.
Yudhishtira exclaimed in shock and rushed to prostrate himself. Uncle Vidura’s hand rose weakly in a vague gesture of benediction, then fell back at his side. His lips moved; Yudhishtira bent close to listen.
“Child, I think his time has come,” Yudhishtira said. “Quick, fetch some water.”
I raced through the forest, heedless of the brambles that scoured my skin, until I burst into a clearing beside a small lake. Fashioning a little cup out of a lotus leaf, I carried the water back to where I had left my brother, and found him sitting beside the still form of uncle Vidura, staring off into the distance.
He seemed not to be aware that I had returned. I touched him lightly on the shoulder. He looked up at me. “He is gone, child,” he said.
Taking the water from my hands, he wet uncle Vidura’s lips and then his own, sighed and, seemingly in a trance, walked away in the direction of the ashram. I followed.
It was only when the ashram came in sight that he stopped and turned to me. “I had meant to tell you this before, but somehow the time never seemed right,” he said. “Vidura was my father – my real father.”
I stared at my brother in stunned silence. He shook his head, and smiled wryly. “No, child,” he said, “there is nothing in this for you to get upset or angry about, or to blame our mother for. Our father was impotent, you know that – and the practice of niyoga, of our women accepting other men in order to produce children, is common among us kshtriyas.
“I had known for a long time that King Pandu was not our father but it is only that evening, when mother told me she was leaving us, that I learnt who my real father was.”
He walked towards the ashram. I watched him go, then turned and wandered aimlessly into the forest till I came to a little stream.
I drank deep, splashed cold water on my face and body, and stretched out on the grass by the stream. I lay there for a long time, eyes closed, listening to the gentle murmur of the water and the soft rustle of the wind in the trees, trying and failing to work up the will to get up, to go find my brothers.
Thoughts whirled through my mind like dead leaves in the evening breeze. Yudhishtira… Bhima… Arjuna… Nakula… Sahadeva… sons of Pandu, the balladeers called us, the Pandavas, children of a crowned king and rightful heirs to his kingdom… uncle Vidura is dead, my brother, his son, has a funeral to arrange, he will need my help, I should go… but is he my ‘uncle’?… what is Vidura to me, what is the word I must use to refer to the father of my brother?
I did not know how long I lay there.
The light touch of a hand brushing away my tears startled me. I sat up abruptly, and found mother beside me in the gathering dark.
“Go home, my child,” she said gently. “Your brothers have left. There is nothing here to sadden you, no reason for tears — go in peace.”
“Peace?!” I jumped to my feet and stood looking down at her. “Mother – please… I have made enough mistakes, committed enough crimes… At least now, tell me who we are, tell me who I really am…”
Mother sighed. She was silent for a long, long time. Her voice, when she finally spoke, startled me: it was not the harsh, emotionless tones I was so used to but the soft, gentle tones – or so it seemed to me – of a young girl…
“Your brother Karna – he really was the son of a charioteer, a suta,” she said.
It was too dark to see, and maybe it just my fancy, but I thought she was smiling. “He was the son of Kuntibhoja’s charioteer… young… handsome… glowing like the sun…
“It was a hard life, those years I spent as Durvasa’s servant, his slave… there was no one I could talk to, no one to share my pain – except him. He noticed. He was the only one who noticed my suffering. He tried, in many little ways, to help ease my burden; he spoke to me, he listened and when I couldn’t bear it any more, when grief overwhelmed me, he held me and let me cry…”
Mother seemed lost in the labyrinth of memories.
“When Kuntibhoja told me I was to marry Pandu of Hastinapura, I was overjoyed – finally, my years of slavery were coming to an end. I was to marry a king – not just any king, but the most famous king of the time. When he came to see me, to take me to Hastinapura – he was so tall, so strong, handsome like a god…
Mother’s voice became thin, reedy, drenched in tears. “He loved me, at first; we spoke of the child that would be born to us, the son who would inherit the kingdom… and then, over time he began coming to me less and less. It was all my fault, he told me, though I knew different – I had already had a child and, in my shame, abandoned him in the river…
“And then one day my maid came to me, weeping, to tell me my husband had gone to Madra to marry… She was so beautiful, your cheriyamma, Madri… I watched while they greeted her at the palace gates with the traditional aarti – I should have been the one doing that, but — I was in their eyes a barren woman, inauspicious…”
The silence stretched interminably, until I felt I would burst. “Mother…?”
“It took a while for the king to realize the problem was with him, that he was impotent. No one could know, he said when he came to tell us he had decided to go into the forest. We must get children, he told us, while we were away from the kingdom — the succession needed to be secured.
“It is the fate of the Kuru women, my son – to the men of Hastinapura we are nothing but a vessel for bearing heirs. Look at you with Hidimbi, with Balandhara…. Look at Arjuna, that dearest child of mine who today cannot bring himself to look me in the face — how many women has he married and bedded and left behind full with child, without a thought, without a backward glance?”
“My eldest child would be born to rule — and a king has above all to be wise, compassionate, just, schooled in the ways of dharma. In your father’s brother I found just such a man – the incarnation of all that was good and just. I took him to my bed and Yudhishtira was born – the son, I told Pandu, of Yama, the god of Dharma and of Death…”
“And I, mother? Who was my father?”
Slowly, painfully, she rose to her feet, walked away from me and stood on the banks of the stream, looking out into the darkness. When she spoke again, it was a whisper in the wind.
“A king needs someone at his side he can trust with his life, someone strong beyond belief, unshakeable in his loyalty… someone, I used to think as I bathed in the Ganga each morning, like Vayu, the god who wanders the earth with the seven winds on a leash.
“I prayed. For many many days and nights, I prayed with all my heart.”
Afraid to break the spell with some sudden movement, afraid to miss a word, I inched closer to where she stood.
“The king was besotted with your cheriyamma, with Madri who I called my younger sister. There was nothing for me in that lodge once my work for the day was done. I took to spending all my time in the forest looking for flowers, herbs – anything, any excuse that kept me away from them. One day I wandered deep into the forest, too lost in thought to notice the skies darkening, to see the approach of the storm till it burst around me in all its fury.
“He burst from the trees like a whirlwind… this tribal, tall and dark and powerful beyond belief… he came upon me as I cowered beneath a tree, sheltering from the storm, and without a word he grabbed me and he threw me down on the ground and he took me and when he was done with me, he left me there in the mud, his smell on me and his seed in me…”
Obeying some impulse I did not understand, I fell at mother’s feet and lay there for an eternity, chest heaving with a sadness without end.
At some point in the night, I sat up and looked around.
She was gone.