Oof. I’d seen truncated versions of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, but never managed to catch the whole thing. Done. Here, watch – five hours and 24 minutes of compelling storytelling:
PS: Over and out for the day.
Oof. I’d seen truncated versions of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, but never managed to catch the whole thing. Done. Here, watch – five hours and 24 minutes of compelling storytelling:
PS: Over and out for the day.
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.
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.
“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 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.
I stood beside my brothers, in water that came up to our chest.
Ganga’s embrace was warm, soothing — and yet, as we watched the long line of people walking towards us, a chill worked its way up from the soles of my feet to freeze my heart and numb the mind.
The brides of our sons came first, heads down, walking in single file towards the river bank – absurdly young girls in the white robes that signaled the widow, their hair hanging loose and unbound, with no sign of ornamentation. Behind them walked valiyamma Gandhari, her hand on my mother’s arm.
Subhadra and Balandhara walked behind them, supporting Uttara on either side. Tears flowed down Uttara’s face, unchecked and unheeded. Someone had told us she was pregnant.
Draupadi came last. Though she had no husband to mourn, she too was dressed in sober white in memory of the five sons she had lost in one night of madness.
They came on, this long line of white-robed women, mute testament to a war we had won — and lost.
We stepped out of the river, walked up to where the priest waited for us and stood with our heads bowed and hands folded in prayer, mentally preparing to pay our final dues to those the war had taken from us.
Mother left Gandhari’s side and walked up to us. “When you honor the dead, don’t forget the name of a hero who died fighting on the Kaurava side…”
Arjuna looked at her, bewildered. Yudhishtira must have had some inkling of what was coming – eyes fixed on hers, he waited in silence for her to utter the name.
“Your elder brother, the one you know as Radheya…”
“Karna?!” The word exploded from Arjuna, half question, half exclamation.
“I shot an arrow into his heart as he begged for life… I took deliberate aim while he lay there bleeding, and shot an arrow into his throat… I killed my brother!” Arjuna crumpled to the ground, overwhelmed.
“Karna.” Mother’s face was impassive, her tone even. “The child I bore when yet a maiden, the child I abandoned to hide my own shame…
“I ask this of you in the name of one who never got his due in life – please, my children, one handful of water, one final prayer in Karna’s name…”
Turning, she walked back to her place beside Gandhari.
For long moments Yudhishtira stood there silent, unmoving, as if he had turned to stone. And then he looked up, and I saw the tears in his eyes. He clapped for an attendant; several rushed forward.
Find Karna’s widow and his children, he commanded; bring them here so they may stand with our women when we pay him our respects.
The priest recited the mantras for the dead and named each person we had lost; in turn, we took a handful of water and offered it up to Ganga.
As Yudhishtira paid his respects, I thought back to all those encounters, all those years. To the time outside the elephant paddock when he had stood there watching while Duryodhana and Dushasana attacked me…. to his voice, which I heard clearer than all the rest, calling for rope so they could bind my hands and feet and throw me in the river…
I was the one who had insulted him that day, during the trial of strength. In my mind I heard the echoes of my own mocking laughter. “What is this suta putra doing with a bow and arrow? Give him a whip — that is all he is fit for, all that he deserves,” I had taunted then…
Karna, the brother I had never known.
I tilted my palms, and let the water trickle out.
So many years ago, one of Ganga’s little daughters had accepted a bundle entrusted to it by a shamed maiden. Ganga had taken the bundle in her arms, cradled it, rocked it, and brought it safe to shore.
Today, with the same impassive calm, she accepted my tribute to that child she had nurtured so long ago.
We were now the masters of Hastinapura and yet, as I walked along the corridors of the palace, I felt like a stranger, an interloper.
All those years in the jungle, all through the war that followed, I had dreamt of this homecoming; I had consoled myself with visions of the celebrations we would have when we finally won back our inheritance.
Now we were back, and there was no celebration. The streets of Hastinapura were deserted; behind shut doors the womenfolk mourned their dead.
At the entrance to what used to be Duryodhana’s palace I saw an enormous iron doll, its body dented in several places. Its face, with a hideous smile plastered on it, was a cruel mockery of mine. This, I thought, must be the statue Visokan had told me about – an iron contraption created by an engineer, with hands that moved when levers were pulled.
Duryodhana had constructed it to look like me and each morning, he had ‘practiced’ by smashing at it with his mace.
I walked into the main palace, now dark and dismal. In the great hall, Dhritarashtra sat alone and unmoving, waiting for I don’t know what. As I penetrated deeper into the castle a single, heart-rending sob from an inner room stopped me in my tracks. Hastily, I retraced my steps and walked out of the palace, seeking the solitude of my own quarters.
On the way I passed Arjuna, walking with no aim, no direction. He couldn’t sleep, he said — his nights were haunted by visions of Karna’s eyes, fixed on him in entreaty.
“Did you know?” To avoid replying, I wrapped my arms around him in a hug. How could I tell him I had known for some time, that I could have stopped him from killing a brother with just a word?
He walked away, cursing our mother. I will never be able to forget, he said – and I will never forgive her.
I thought of Karna. Of how he had lived his life with kshatriya blood in him, yet constantly reviled as a suta putra. He was a king, yet one who owed his kingdom not to the might of his arms but to the charity of his friend; he wore a crown, yet lived his life a vassal, never accepted as an equal in the company of his fellow kings.
No, I wouldn’t be able to forget either.
But then I thought of my mother, of the life she had lived. Brought up a princess, she had one day, without warning, without even a chance to say goodbye to her own mother, been handed over to a childless cousin of her father’s — who in turn had given her to a rishi for his personal maid, so the rishi would be pleased and bless him with a son.
I had spent enough time with the rishis of the forest to know what that meant – she would have cooked for him, cleaned for him, bathed him, waited on him hand and foot and even, if he so desired, given herself to him because how could she refuse?
Marriage to a king must have seemed to her the escape she had prayed for so desperately during those lonely years of her lost childhood – and yet she found she had to share her impotent husband with another, a younger, more beautiful wife who clearly dominated the king’s affections. And then she had lost him; her sons, princes born to rule, had been forced to wander the forests like outcasts while she survived on the goodwill of her youngest brother in law…
No, I couldn’t bring myself to curse her either.
“I haven’t seen you since we returned to Hastinapura.”
Yudhishtira was waiting for me in my chambers. I touched his feet, and sat down opposite him.
“I thought this was surely the one place I would find some sura…”
I had never known him to drink in our presence. I summoned a maid. She came, and poured. We drank. Yudhishtira looked after her as she walked away – she, too, bore the signs of recent widowhood.
“So this is what we fought for, this is what we won – a nation of widows!” My brother sighed.
“I spent a lifetime trying to avoid war… I did things my wife, my brothers, hated me for. I, who love each of you like my sons – I pledged you on a turn of the dice…”
“Kshatriya dharma… you couldn’t refuse a challenge.”
In some strange way, we seemed to have switched places — here was my brother, voicing the thoughts I had bitten down on all these years, and here was me making his excuses for him. “It is done,” I told him. “It’s over. What is the point in thinking of all that now?”
My brother drank some more. “Oh, I could have gotten out of the game if I wanted to,” he said. “I could not refuse Duryodhana’s challenge, but it was not our cousin who played against me — and there is no dharma that says I have to accept a challenge by proxy.”
“Why, then? We could have walked away; we could have gone back to Indraprastha, built it into the greatest kingdom of our time… we could have been so happy, with our children around us …”
“Our children. All dead. One day I will die — and there will be no one to do my last rites.” Yudhistira jumped up from his seat and paced the floor, his agitation manifest.
I had never seen him like this, so totally devoid of the calm self-control that characterized him at all times, a self control that had at times maddened me almost beyond endurance.
“Do you think, my son, that they would have let us rule Indraprastha in peace?”
He picked up the skin of sura, found it empty, and clapped his hands.
“As long as our cousins ruled Hastinapura, they would have found one pretext or other for war. When they invited me for that game I thought, this is our best chance – if we can win the kingdom without bloodshed, in a game of dice, our cousins won’t be able to hurt us any more, their power will be neutralized…
“But I lost!”
We sat in silence, in the gathering dark, each lost in our own thoughts.
“I never told you this at the time, because I thought you would never agree – I knew none of you would agree,” Yudhishtira said. “Remember when I sent Krishna as my final emissary, with the message that we would accept five villages as our share? Later, in private, I told him if he saw the slightest chance to make peace, he should tell Duryodhana we would even be prepared to accept five homes somewhere – one for each of us, so we could live our lives in peace.”
He sighed – a sudden, heart-wrenching sound that bubbled up from some subterranean well of frustration, of sorrow.
“Duryodhana refused, as I feared he would – but even so I would have somehow persuaded you, our brothers, even Draupadi, to let it go. We could have lived somewhere – in Panchala, or Dwaraka, anywhere…
“But that woman! She must have known I didn’t want war – that is why she met Krishna and sent those messages to Draupadi, to Arjuna and to you, fanning the flames of your anger, making sure you wouldn’t listen to me, making sure there would be war!
“And all that time, she knew it would be our own brother we would fight against… our brother we would be forced to kill… and she never said a word…
“Mother!” He spat the word out, like a curse – and abruptly, walked out of the room, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
PostScript: Thanks all for the wishes. I don’t feel remotely close to 100 percent yet, so will be off work/blog for today as well [mercifully, it is not any virus with a funny name, but just a regular fever that seems to come and go in spurts]. Will check back later to respond to comments etc on this episode, and resume regular service tomorrow. Be well all