For all those who asked — the full Bhim and nothing but the Bhim. All 72 chapters and 124,000 words of it.
[Many thanks to regular reader and friend Karunakaran for the effort in compiling this.]
24 hours after having the final Bhim episode up, I’m still in hangover mode. Usually, Tuesday morning on the drive to work is when I used to start thinking of what I want to do with the next episode, where I want it to go. This morning’s drive was done in a mental vacuum, and right now it feels good — though there is no telling how long that will last and just when restlessness will kick in again. 🙂
I’ve been toying with vague thoughts of the what-next; a suggestion I found in the comments section about rounding the reinterpretation effort by doing Draupadi and/or Karna resonates to a certain extent with ideas I’ve been toying with.
On date, I know this much: that somewhere doing the writing of Bhim I had this idea — or, at this point, the germ of one — of doing a work of fiction that very loosely has its base in the Mahabharata. The idea needs to marinate a lot more in the mind before I can even start working on it; in the meantime, the thought of working on one more PoV narration in blog format is appealing: it keeps me thinking of the epic and allows me to explore the idea a little bit more; and it gives me an excuse/opportunity to work on long-form writing skills, where I reckon I need more practice.
Hopefully, vague thoughts will crystallize into something concrete within a month. In the meantime, readers had a while back asked if, once this is done, I’d be open to doing readings [No!] and face to face interactions over beer.
Strikes me as a chance to meet new people and to hear at first hand from regular readers what worked and what didn’t — insights that hopefully will inform whatever I do next in this space.
So — if readers in Bombay are game, let’s meet. Through the comments field, you guys figure out the date [ideally Saturdays only, please] and venue, and let’s see if we can make this happen.
72 writing days spread across 10 months [with various absences thrown in], and a little over 135,000 words — and it’s finally done.
*pause to feel the whoosh of relief from this end*
When I started this, I had no clear idea what I had let myself in for; now that it is done, I have no clear idea what I can think of during the daily commutes to and from work, when till last week I had Bhima for mental company.
It’s been fun. More to the point, it’s been one long-drawn out learning experience, the fruits of which will hopefully inform all I do here on at work and on here.
There’s a pro forma statement people make at times like this: “It wouldn’t have been possible without you.”
I’ll say that now: It wouldn’t have been possible without you. Only, my statement is not pro forma, but meant in all earnestness.
The feedback and the discussions kept me thinking straight; at times, particularly on one occasion when personal problems piled one on top of the other and I took a two month break, I found it damnably difficult to pick up the thread again and at one point even thought, ah fuck this, I just don’t have it in me to continue.
I didn’t at the time reckon without the emails. A couple initially, then a flood as my hibernation extended, all saying they missed Bhima, all asking when it would resume. I particularly treasure this one, from the elderly mother of a regular reader. She wrote, and I quote: “My son introduced me to your wonderful retelling of an epic I have loved; each Monday I wait for him to come home from work with the printout of the latest episode, and each Monday I am disappointed. Please write again — your grandmother would have been so proud of you.”
So — I really couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you.
If you liked the series, think kind thoughts of this man — a marvelous writer who deserves to be known far more widely than in just one little sliver of a state. If you found errors and inconsistencies, put them to my account.
They stood on top of a cliff and looked down at an ocean turned dark and deadly dangerous.
Like a glutton who even after a full meal picks at his plate in the hope of finding some overlooked morsel, the ocean that had swallowed an entire kingdom, castle and all, continued to throw up waves that combed the land, seeking odds and ends to devour.
They saw a dead bull lying where the waves had thrown it against a tree, breaking its back instantly; over there an overturned chariot, its shaft stuck deep into the mud; elsewhere, oddly, an earthen pot in pristine condition, its perfection an incongruous element of normalcy against the surrounding chaos.
They observed another oddity: in the midst of the ocean’s turbulence one spot alone seemed calm, the waters still. That, they guessed, marked where the towering castle had once stood, with its vaulted Dome of Victory thrusting proud into the heavens.
In spite of his iron self-control, Yudhishtira shivered internally as he looked down at that once proud kingdom reduced to an overturned chariot, a pot, a few decaying bodies the ravenous ocean had overlooked.
He shook his head, fighting to clear the cloud of grief. What was it the patriarch, Krishna Dwaipayana, had said when they had formally handed the throne of Hastinapura to Parikshit, grandson of Arjuna and beloved of them all, and set out on the mahaprasthana, the final journey that would lead them to heaven or to hell as their deeds deserved?
“Never look back,” the patriarch had advised them. “Not physically, and not in the mind – from this moment on you have no past. There is only the step ahead that you must take, and the next one, and the next.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Yudhishtira caught sight of Arjuna perched on a rock, his head in his hands, his shoulders shaking with the strength of his grief – a grief time had not been able to mitigate.
He had been present when the destruction had begun and yet, or maybe because of it, Arjuna had not been able to reconcile with the fact that his dearest friend was no more, that the kingdom that had been a second home to him had vanished as if it had been a figment of his imagination, that the gardens in which he had first seen Subhadra and wooed her was now buried deep beneath the pitch black waters of the unforgiving ocean.
They had greeted him with cries of relief when, in response to the urgent summons, Arjuna had first rushed to Dwaraka. The mightiest archer of the time was here, they consoled each other; Krishna’s dearest friend had come to their aid, and nothing bad could happen to them now.
Around them were the sights and sounds of impending doom: the roar of an ocean whipping itself into a consuming fury; the howls of the jackals that stalked the streets of Dwaraka in broad daylight; the screeching of the kites and vultures that circled overhead in such numbers as to turn the sky dark – birds of prey that had gorged on the flesh of Dwaraka’s men and, hungry still, hovered in search of more fodder.
These sights and sounds paralyzed them with a fear beyond imagining – but still they took heart: Arjuna was here.
They rushed to him, the women of Dwaraka. The closest clutched at him; the others called out his name and reached their hands towards him, clamoring for his attention, pleading for his protection.
He knew many of them, women of Krishna’s personal household. He had on his numerous visits sported with them in Dwaraka’s gardens, even bedded some of the more attractive among them. Arjuna forced aside his own grief at the destruction of the Yadava and Vrishni clans and worked to calm their fears.
“We will go to Hastinapura,” he promised them. “No harm will come to you there.”
He organized them into a group and marched at their head down the broad streets of Dwaraka. There was no time to waste gathering provisions for the trek; there was no able-bodied male left to help him in that task. One young boy had survived the general carnage; Arjuna put him on a horse and sent him away to Hastinapura with a message for Bhima: “Come quick, brother — I need help!”
With the Gandiva in his hand, an arrow notched to bowstring and a full quiver at his back, Arjuna marched out of the towering main gate of the ‘Kingdom of Gates’, with its embellishments of brightly colored peacocks and dancing girls, and headed towards the forest.
He felt a lassitude in his limbs and a fog enveloping his mind, but put it down as a reaction to the strain of his desperate rush to Dwaraka. He marched on and behind him, now quiet from a mixture of relief and exhaustion, walked the women.
Without warning the Dasyus burst out of the trees, their roars met by shrieks of fear from the women. Arjuna calmly lifted the Gandiva – and experienced a moment of stark terror when the bow slid out of his suddenly nerveless hand and thudded to the ground at his feet.
He bent to pick it up and found that it was all he could to raise the bow: his strength seemed to have deserted him, and his skill. When he reached for a fresh arrow, he merely managed to knock the quiver off his back.
All these years, the Gandiva had been an extension of his hand, his will – now, it was all he could do to pick it up and when he finally managed, he looked at it as if he did not know what to do with this strange curved object in his hand.
Arjuna slumped to the ground in despair, his eyes unfocused and mind blank. Around him in a rising crescendo rose the screams of Krishna’s women as the Dasyus grabbed them, threw them over their shoulders and raced away in the direction of the forest.
He lay there through that darkest of nights, next to the bow and the arrows that he was no longer master of. He lay there in the grip of a terror unlike any he had ever known, trying without success to shut his ears to the horrific sounds coming from the forest – the triumphant roars of the Dasyus mixed with the despairing wails of women stripped successively of their modesty and their lives.
At some point in the night, another sound intruded on his consciousness: the growing roar of an ocean that had burst its natural boundaries and commenced its assault on Dwaraka, swallowing everything it found in its path and returning, with redoubled fury, for more.
He had never felt such grief, such an enveloping sense of despair, ever before – not even when on the morning after the war he had walked field of Kurukshetra, his eyes fixed on a ground where the blood of his children had mingled with that of his enemies. But then that day, he had a friend who walked beside him, reminding him that to fight was a kshatriya’s duty, that to kill and to die were inextricable parts of Life itself.
Today he no longer had that friend. No more could be rely on finding beside him a source of strength when he was weak; no longer could he take refuge in the encompassing wisdom that could make sense out of the seemingly senseless, and keep him grounded when the world as he knew it appeared to be shifting beneath his feet.
And so he cried through that long night: bitter tears for the friend he had lost, for the women who had trusted him and who had paid for their trust with their honor and their lives. And he cried for himself – the greatest warrior of his time, now reduced to the eunuch he had once pretended to be.
That was how Bhima had found him sometime the next afternoon: prone on the ground, the now useless bow and arrows inert beside him, his face ravaged with grief and his body devoid of strength to even stand up.
Bhima had lavished on Arjuna the attention a nurse bestows on a sick child; while his brother slept, he had wandered in the direction of Dwaraka and recoiled from the unbelievable destruction. The ocean in its mindless fury had destroyed the once proud kingdom brick by brick; it had swallowed large parts of Dwaraka and, even as he watched from his vantage point, was returning for more.
He recalled the one time he had visited Krishna’s kingdom. Duryodhana was already in residence, learning the arts of the mace from Balarama. Krishna had urged his brother to invite him too, and when the messenger had come to Hastinapura he had been overjoyed.
He had taken care to wake well before dawn each day. Meticulously he had set aside his ornaments, tied up his hair, stepped out of his robes and tied his loin cloth around his waist in that special fashion peculiar to wrestlers and adepts of hand to hand combat, and hurried to the arena.
Each day, he had hoped that his guru would impart the secrets that, Sukracharya had once told him, were known only to Balarama himself. He practiced religiously all that he was taught and yet, when time came for him to leave, he struggled not to show the disappointment he felt at having learnt very little that was new.
The only memory he retained from that time was of Dwaraka’s blinding wealth, its pomp and unrivalled splendor.
Bhima stood beside Yudhishtira, looking out over the waters that had swallowed Dwaraka whole, and thought: had Krishna known how it would all turn out? Had he, fed up of the growing corruption and decay of the kingdom he had carved out of nothingness, deliberately sent the Yadavas and the Vrishnis to their deaths?
From what they had been able to pierce together from the accounts of two or three survivors, Krishna had organized a massive ‘celebration’ on the shore of the ocean. He had provided limitless food and drink and when the revelry was at its rowdiest, had left them to it and walked away into the forest with his brother Balarama.
At some point in the celebration Satyaki, considerably the worse for drink, had chanced upon Kritavarma and charged him with cowardice, accusing him of his role in killing the sleeping Pandava children and others on the 18th night of Kurukshetra.
An enraged Kritavarma had in his turn taunted Satyaki, reminding him that he was on his knees before Burisravas and begging for his life when his friend Arjuna had cut off his enemy’s arm – and Satyaki had then, Kritavarma reminded him, jumped up and cut off the head of the helpless Burisravas.
The argument led to blows and then to a full-fledged battle with swords; in a trice, the Vrishnis had taken up for Satyaki and the Yadavas rushed to the defense of Kritavarma. None survived.
Even as they pieced the story together and tried to make sense of it all, a wandering rishi had come to court with news that Krishna and Balarama were dead. Krishna was meditating under a tree, the rishi told them, when a passing hunter mistook him for a deer and shot him dead; grief-stricken at the death of his brother and the destruction of his race, Balarama had slipped into a yogic trance and given up his life.
Enough, Bhima thought – we have lived through several lifetimes in this one, we have endured more grief than any one human could possibly bear.
He felt his brother’s calming touch on his shoulder. “No more tears, Bhima – we have put all that behind us. Remember what Krishna once told us? Nothing ever dies – we merely change one form for another, one life for another. The time has come to give up this body, this life where we have known very many griefs and very few joys. Come!”
Yudhishtira glanced out at the ocean for one last time and then, turning abruptly, began walking down the hill.
Bhima followed. Arjuna pushed himself up from the rock he had slumped on, and walked after his brothers. Nakula sighed and glanced at his twin; with one mind, the twins walked in the direction their elders had taken.
Draupadi stood under the shade of a tree, watching them go and summoning up the strength, the will, to walk in their wake. Her heart still grieved for the one who was gone – Krishna, who had been her strength when she most needed it, the unfailing source of comfort at the darkest of times, the one who more than any other, more even than her husbands, had kept her faith alive when all had seemed lost: kingdom, pride, dignity, honor, all.
He was gone. What was left?
She turned her back on the ocean, and walked down the hill, picking up the trail.
For days without end they walked on in single file, stopping when the need for rest overwhelmed them, eating the berries and fruits they foraged during their trek and marching ahead again, their minds absent of thought, their hearts devoid of feeling, their weary feet plodding one step at a time through increasingly difficult terrain — until, one dawn, they saw looming ahead of them the snow-crowned peaks of the Himalayas.
The sight of Mount Meru in the distance seemed to give Yudhishtira renewed energy; picking up his pace, he hurried in that direction without a backward glance at his brothers and wife struggling along in his wake. And when he got to the foot of Meru he began to climb, his eyes fixed on the peak.
Once, when escaping from Varanavata, he had struggled to climb a little hill and had to be carried on Bhima’s shoulders. But not this time – this time he would climb the mountain on his own and, at its peak, find in himself the will to slip into yoga nidra, to attain salvation.
Behind him, Bhima trudged on mindlessly, ignoring the rocks that cut into his feet and the thorny bushes that impeded his progress, scouring his palms when he pushed them aside.
He was tempted to turn back, to see how Draupadi was faring – always, through the long years they had spent in the forest, it had been his self-imposed duty to smooth her path. With an effort of will he kept his eyes focused on the path ahead and on the form of his elder brother climbing rapidly up the slope.
Throughout his life, he had followed in that brother’s footsteps. Even when his instincts suggested a different path, he had brushed such thoughts aside, sublimated his will to that of his brother. Now, in the final moments of his life, he could do no less – Yudhishitra led, so he needs must follow to whatever end awaited them on the mountain top.
And then he heard it – a faint cry, the sound of a body falling, the clatter of displaced rocks as they bounced away down the mountainside.
“Brother, wait!” Bhima shouted. “Draupadi has fallen.”
Yudhishtira neither turned around, nor paused in his steady climb. “I am not surprised. She long ago lost the strength of mind to climb away from this world and into salvation.”
Bhima froze in his tracks. “What?! She, this princess, followed us to our hovel, she married us, she partook of our troubles when she could have gone back, led a life of ease in the home of her father…”
“She followed us out of self interest, out of ambition – she wanted to keep our desire for revenge alive, she wanted us to fight and win a kingdom for her,” Yudhishtira’s voice came faintly to Bhim as he marched relentlessly on. “And above all, she was wife to all five of us, but it was only Arjuna she loved – even when she sat beside me on the throne, it was on him that her eyes were fixed. Those who fall, do so as a result of their own deeds – keep your eyes fixed to the front and walk on…”
Bhima heard footsteps approaching behind him.
Arjuna. Draupadi’s beloved.
Moments later, Arjuna drew abreast. “Draupadi has fallen,” Bhima said.
Arjuna walked on as if he had not heard, his eyes fixed on the path ahead.
He saw Nakula passing him to the left.
“Draupadi has fallen.”
“We cannot turn back, we cannot wait for anyone,” he muttered, and walked on.
Bhima stood where he was, watching the forms of his brother’s vanishing in the mists up ahead. Any moment now, he thought, Sahadeva would come up to him, carrying Draupadi in his arms. To this youngest of the brothers Draupadi had been wife and mother both; she had reserved for him a special place in her affections – surely, Bhima thought, Sahadeva would not leave her lying where she had fallen.
He heard Sahadeva’s footsteps approach. Bhima listened for the sounds that would tell him his brother was staggering under a burden, and readied to take Draupadi from him – but the footsteps were strong, steady; moments later, Sahadeva drew abreast, then walked on ahead without even a glance in his direction.
Bhima craned his neck back and looked up at the tip of the mountain. Somewhere up there, salvation waited; somewhere down below, the wife he had loved above all else in this world lay where she had fallen, abandoned by all.
He made his choice. Abruptly, he turned and hurried down the path as fast as his tired limbs would take him. Ahead of him, half hidden by a thorny bush, he saw the crumpled form of Draupadi. He ran.
Dropping to the ground beside her, he lifted Draupadi’s head onto his lap. She opened her eyes and looked up at him – and then she looked away, scanning the area for… what?
A last sight of the one she loved above all others? Or of the one who, as eldest, had most claim on her affections? A final glimpse of the handsome Nakula, of Sahadeva whom she had loved as mother and beloved both?
She looked back at him, and Bhima cringed at the disappointment in her eyes. “I am here,” he told her. “I’ll be here for as long as you need me.”
Leaving her lying there, he ran around gathering the little grass and moss he could find amidst the rocks, and spread it out in the shade of a tree. Carefully lifting Draupadi up in his arms, he carried her to the bed he had made and laid her down, her head cradled in his lap.
She looked up at him for a long moment. Her lips moved, forming words he could not hear. He bent closer. “My children,” she whispered, in a voice grown raspy with fatigue.
Her eyes closed. Bhima sat there, his back against a tree, his beloved’s head in his lap, and thought back to the 36 years she had ruled as queen. At first, they had hoped for more children; each of the brothers had in his turn as her husband longed to be the one who would father a heir to the throne.
After a while, Draupadi just gave up. “I think grief has turned me barren,” she had told him once, when he attempted to console her. “God gave me five wonderful sons and I failed them – why would he give me more?”
Gently, taking infinite pains not to disturb Draupadi who slept on in his lap, Bhima eased into a more comfortable position and closed his eyes.
A memory returned to haunt him: the memory of a man who, bleeding and broken, wandered the earth far below where they sat.
That night, Arjuna’s fury had been terrible to behold – he had rushed into the blazing lodge and rushed out again with his Gandiva and his quiver. Without even waiting for Krishna, he had jumped into his chariot, whipped the horses, and driven away at furious speed.
By the time the rest salvaged some weapons from the inferno that was the Pandava camp and caught up with him, Arjuna had cornered Ashwathama and engaged him in a battle that raged ferociously even as they watched.
Fighting with a brilliance none had never before seen in him, Arjuna had systematically, ruthlessly cut down each of Ashwathama’s weapons – and as the murderer of Draupadi’s children stood there helpless, had proceeded to inflict the most gruesome wounds on him in the most deliberate fashion imaginable.
It was Krishna who stopped him then – Krishna and the grandsire Dwaipayana, who had rushed to our camp when he caught sight of the fire from across the river and who had followed us to the spot in Nakula’s chariot.
They had stripped Ashwathama of his most prized possession, the blazing Syamanthaka jewel he wore on a gold band tight on his forehead. When Krishna ripped it away from him, the circlet had snapped and cut a deep furrow across his brow.
While Krishna pacified his friend, Dwaipayana spoke to Ashwathama. He was forbidden to ever enter the gates of any kingdom ruled by kshatriyas; he was doomed, Dwaipayana said, to wander the earth, forlorn and friendless, his life a constant reminder of his ultimate treachery.
“You brothers have each committed many sins during the course of this war,” Dwaipayana had told the brothers then. “Enough – do not add the killing of yet another Brahmin to those crimes. Let him go.”
And so, somewhere down below he wandered still, the man who in the dead of night had set fire to the Pandava camp and, with sword in hand, mercilessly cut down every one of Draupadi’s children.
My work is not done yet, Bhima decided; it will not be over as long as Ashwathama remains alive.
Draupadi stirred; her eyes fluttered opened and she looked up at him.
“You are still here!”
I will be, Bhima said – for as long as you need me, I will be here.
He saw tears moisten her eyes, then. She glanced for one last time at the path ahead, seeking the forms of those who had gone on ahead. And then she caught his eyes again and, her voice a weary whisper, she said: “Next time, be born the eldest!”
Bhima sat there through the night, not moving, not thinking. When the first rays of dawn lit up the sky above the distant peak, he gently lifted Draupadi’s head off his lap, and stood up.
He looked down at her still form for one last time; he glanced upward at the path his brothers had taken.
And then he turned and walked back down the mountain.
He still had work to do.
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.
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.