Bhimsen: The Epilogue

[Episode 71] [Archives]

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.

Enough!

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.

Bhimsen: Episode 69

[Episode 68] [Archives]

The throne Dhritarashtra had formally vacated loomed ahead of us as we sat discussing arrangements for our brother’s formal coronation.

Yudhishtira had summoned us to the main hall of Hastinapura. He walked in while we were reviewing the list of friendly kings to invite, and perched on a small stool beneath the dais. Typical of my punctilious brother, I thought – though he was acknowledged the new king of Hastinapura, he would not occupy the throne till he had been officially crowned.

I was wrong.

“I’ve thought long and hard these last few days, and I’ve taken a decision,” Yudhishtira said. “I called you here because I wanted my brothers to be the first to know.”

We looked at each other, mystified by the portentous note. Life had just begun to settle into a routine of sorts. The four of us had busied ourselves with an exhaustive inventory of the treasury, the stocks of cattle and the state of the various trading and artisan communities — a review we were far from completing.

Arjuna and I had taken on an added responsibility – that of figuring out how to quickly augment our dangerously depleted army. As things stood we could hardly raise a single division, and that left us extremely vulnerable to inimical kings or even to random raiding parties.

War -- Grant Morrison

War -- Grant Morrison

“Hastinapura is a nation without a heartbeat,” Yudhishtira said, breaking in on my thoughts. “Wherever I go – inside the palace, on the streets – all I see are widows, all I hear is the heart-rending sound of their sorrow. The feeling of guilt, the feeling that all of this is my fault, that none of this would have happened if I had not insisted on my right to the throne, has been growing on me these last few days.

“I have therefore decided to give up the throne and retire to the forest, where I will spend the rest of my life in penance and prayer.”

He held up a hand to silence our protests.

“No, don’t say anything – my mind is made up, there is nothing further to discuss. I have decided that our brother Bhima should be crowned king. It is fitting – it was he who led us all along, he who won the war for us, he who destroyed our enemies, and kshatriya dharma says the kingdom belongs to the victorious warrior.

“Hastinapura today is a dangerously weakened kingdom. With Bhima on the throne and with Arjuna supporting him, no one will dare take advantage of this weakness…”

I was compelled to interrupt. “I don’t agree. Kshatriyas do not fight for themselves but for their king – and right from our days as children in the forest, there has been no doubt in our minds that you are our king. We fought this war to uphold your right to the throne.”

Yudhishtira made as if to speak. I held up my hand. “No, let me finish. From the time we were children, we have been brought up to perform different functions. Arjuna and I were brought up to wage war; Nakula and Sahadeva are masters in the arts of administration; and you alone among us have been trained to rule. You speak of dharma – but how does dharma permit you to abandon this kingdom and its people at the time of greatest distress? I agree we are weak – but you have Arjuna and me to look after our security. We need you to heal the wounds of war, to bring prosperity back to this kingdom.”

“My child, did I not tell you at the outset that my mind was made up? You more than anyone else know I do not make up my mind lightly – I have thought of all of this, I have agonized over what my dharma demands of me. Know this — to be effective a king has to focus on one thing alone, and that is the welfare of his subjects. If he is tormented, distracted by doubt as I am now, he can never make a good king.”

He paced around the room, agitated, while we looked at each other in silence, unsure what we could do, what we could say.

Abruptly, he stopped before me. “I know this has been sudden, that you need time to think. I will leave you now so you can discuss this with our brothers. When your mind is made up, come to me. I have to speak to our uncle Vidura, make sure he understands my decision and gets everything ready for your coronation.”

Yudhishtira turned and strode out of the room. Arjuna was the first to break the silence.

“He is right, brother – we need a strong king now and there is none stronger, more feared than you. You have no reason to worry – not when you have Nakula and Sahadeva to help you in the task of running the kingdom, and me beside you to make sure Hastinapura is strong again …”

“In any case,” Sahadeva cut in, “our brother said his mind is made up, that his decision is final – so what is the point of discussion? He believes you are the best person to rule, and I agree — Hastinapura needs a king and if it is not Yudhishtira, then who better than you?”

I looked across at Nakula, who as usual sat silent, listening to everyone but not venturing any opinion of his own. “And you – what do you think?”

Nakula smiled. “Where is the need for me to say anything? Did you think I would have a different opinion from Arjuna and Sahadeva? Anyway, it is not as if such things haven’t happened before — didn’t uncle Dhritarashtra step down in favor of our father? And when our father thought he was unable to govern, didn’t he give the crown back to Dhritarashtra and retire to the forest?”

“Listen, brother,” Arjuna said, “there is nothing left to discuss. Our minds are made up. You need time to absorb this, so we’ll leave you alone now.”

He came up to me and bent low to touch my feet. Nakula and Sahadeva followed. I hugged all three – an embrace that contained a world of doubt, of questions, and a surge of gratitude for their unquestioning support.

I sat in the empty assembly hall, listening to the sounds of their departing footsteps and gazing at the raised platform in front of me. In the center stood the throne of Hastinapura, flanked by the two giant tusks bound in gold and crusted with precious stones. To its left was the smaller, but equally grand, throne for the queen.

My eyes fixed on the much smaller seat to the right of the throne – a seat set on a lower level of the dais, one without arms and the glittering paraphernalia of royalty.

That was my seat – the one I would, after the coronation, have occupied as Yudhishtira’s heir. Now Arjuna would sit there, to my right, and I…

I walked over to the dais and climbed up to the throne. I looked all around to make sure I was truly alone, and then I sat on the throne of my ancestors – gingerly at first, and then more firmly, with a growing feeling of belonging.

All those years ago, when as a child I had first come to Hastinapura, the first thing I had seen when I entered this hall was uncle Dhritarashtra seated on this throne – an imposing, awe-inspiring figure. From now on, it would be me they would see on the legendary throne of the Kurus. Would I look majestic, I wondered, would I evoke awe in our friends and fear in the emissaries of our enemies?

I looked to my left and, in my mind’s eye, saw Draupadi seated there, her eyes on me as I sat in state, dispensing justice.

My doubts vanished. My mind was made up. I would rule – and with my brothers beside me, I would be a good king, fair and just.

I jumped down from the dais and walked towards my own chambers, my mind in a whirl. I had to go to Yudhishtira and tell him my decision, ask his advice, learn from him all that I possibly could in the little time I had before he left for the forest.

Nakula and Sahadeva would look after the details of the coronation – but what then?

Our wealth of cattle had been depleted by the war – with our soldiers engaged and with no able-bodied men to look after them, large numbers of cattle had wandered off into the forest, and more had been taken away by the small raiding parties that infested the surrounding forests. I must remember to order Arjuna to lead an expedition into those forests, clear them of the raiders – to have them running amok, unchecked, was too big a security risk for us to take.

There was so much to do. Nakula and Sahadeva needed to take stock — we could then figure out ways to consolidate our cattle, get the breeding process started again and oh yes, horses, elephants, we needed to replenish our paddocks and I’d have to find a way to free up Sahadeva’s time so he could visit some of the neighboring kingdoms, find talented artisans to set up silk industries, metal and wood work, all the things we had done in Indraprastha to turn it into a bustling kingdom we would have to do all over again here, and that reminds me there is the question of Indraprastha and Panchala to be decided, what were we going to do with those kingdoms and I wonder if Arjuna had thought of Matsya now that Virat and his son were dead and Uttara was living under our protection, we had to urgently appoint regents who would rule the various kingdoms of our allies under our authority and oh yes I have to send a messenger to Krishna so when he comes for the coronation we can discuss this problem and decide on the right person and I needed to take my brother’s opinion as well before he went off into the forest and out of my reach oh and while on my brother I wonder if we should do the Ashwamedha, in one sense it would mean that everyone accepts our sovereignty and I could rule without the constant threat of war hanging over us but then again there was the risk that if we embarked on the Yaga it could give other kings an excuse to gang up against us at a time when we were not particularly strong, I must ask Yudhishtira what he thinks of this…

I walked on in a trance, my mind whirling with thoughts of all that I had to think of and do, and almost missed the light tinkle of anklets that told me I was no longer alone.

Draupadi -- Grant Morrison's visualization

Draupadi -- Grant Morrison's visualization

Draupadi walked out of the shadows and bent low to touch my feet. She must have heard, I thought – while she was always careful to greet Yudhishtira in this fashion, she had never done this for me or any of my other brothers until now.

“So have you decided on the date of the coronation?” she asked.

“Yudhishtira has made some decisions, but I am yet to make up my mind,” I said, hiding my elation under an off-handedness I was far from feeling.

“I heard,” she said. “That is why I came.”

To my surprise I saw a glint of tears in the eyes she raised briefly to meet mine before she looked down again.

“All those years I slaved in the forest, and that year in Matsya when I hid in the disguise of a maid, I always consoled myself with the thought that my time would come.” Her voice throbbed with the weight of unshed tears. “I would remember Krishna’s promise that he would one day see me seated on the throne of Hastinapura, and I’d dream of the day my husbands would win a kingdom for me and finally, I would be the queen I was born to be…”

She sighed, a wealth of weariness, of helplessness in the sound. “Maybe it is my destiny to live always in the forest, to live always as a slave…”

“Live in the forest?!” I exclaimed in surprise. “But why..?”

“What then? Would you have me live here instead as serving maid to your queen, to do for Balandhara what I did for Sudeshna?! Is that what you wish for me – me, Panchali, daughter of Drupada, sister to Dhristadyumna, wife to the Pandavas?”

“Balandhara…? But… it is you who will rule here beside me, on the throne of Hastinapura …”

“Fat fool, they call you – and fat fool you are!” The scorn in her voice scoured me like a whip. “I was married first to Yudhishtira – it is he who has the first claim on me and if he goes into the forest, then I must go too, even if I am too young for vanaprastha, even if my mind and heart are not ready yet, not prepared yet to turn my back on life…”

Abruptly she turned and vanished into the shadows, leaving behind a long, shuddering sob that bounced off the walls and echoed down the corridor.

Sick at heart, unsure of what I must do, I hurried to my chambers. I needed to be alone… I needed to think… Balandhara my queen… Draupadi in the forest, wearing the deerskin and bark robes of vanaprastha… how had I overlooked this?

The maids had not yet lit the lamps. In the gloom, I saw two figures waiting for me – uncle Vidura and behind him a woman, her robe pulled over her head to cover her face.

“So your brother wants to go to the forest to do penance?”

It was mother.

“I heard he has decided on vanaprastha – uncle Vidura did his best to persuade him against it, but he seems to have made up his mind.”

I stood there, silent, waiting. She had clearly come for a purpose – and she would get around to telling me about it in her own way.

“The people of Hastinapura have lost everything, my child – and now they are about to suffer their biggest loss.

“Do you remember the day I brought you children here, to the gates of Hastinapura, for the very first time? The people thronged the streets in their thousands then, flowers in their hands, waiting for their first glimpse of the prince who was born to rule them.

“And they have been waiting ever since for the day Yudhishtira will be crowned their king, the day the rule of dharma, of righteousness, will be established in Hastinapura. They have lost everything they had – and now they will lose the one hope that has sustained them all these years…”

I felt the sudden sharp sting of tears, and ground my nails into my palms – a physical pain to take away the sudden sharp agony in my heart as I realized what she had come here to say.

“What do you want me to do, mother?”

“Your brother must become king. You are untrained in the shastras, in dharma shastra and rajya shastra – you are not fit to rule. It is not just me, child – your uncle also thinks as I do. Go to your brother and tell him that – tell him that under no circumstances will you sit on the throne.”

I took a deep breath, fighting back the haze that clouded my mind. And then I laughed – loudly, uproariously. I sank down on a seat and laughed still, slapping my thighs and drumming my feet on the floor.

“Mother,” I gasped, “don’t you know my brother yet? Don’t you know it is just his sense of humor at work, this notion of me – what is it you always called me, fat fool? – as king of Hastinapura? Did you think he was serious?! Don’t worry – Yudhishtira will sit on the throne, you have my word.”

Vidura smiled in sudden relief. “God bless you, child,” he said as he turned and walked away.

Mother eyes were shadowed with doubt, but then she too touched my head in benediction and walked out after my uncle.

Alone in the dark, I thought of that brief moment in the great hall of Hastinapura when I had sat on the throne of Hastinapura — that one fleeing moment when I was king.

And I laughed, loud and long.

I was Bhima, the mightiest warrior of my time. I would not cry.