Five Angry Women is an attempt to look at certain events in the Mahabharata from the standpoint of some of its central female characters, all brides of the Bharatas – Gandhari, Satyavati, Ambika, Kunti and Draupadi. These women are all angry – angry with their men, angry at what they have been subjected to by them, and their anger bursts out in torrents in these monologues.
A lotus is beautiful, you consider it divine, you call it the miracle of nature, you see the glory of the Creator in it—such beauty and it has bloomed in mire, in dirt! But no woman wears the lotus on her head—that honor goes to the flowers that bloom in the well-tended gardens. A lotus is wonderful, but just wonderful enough to offer at the feet of kings, of the gods, of great men, but not wonderful enough to wear on one’s head. Fit for the feet, not for the head.
The footwear on your feet are soft, are beautiful, are convenient. They protect your feet from heat, from the pebbles on the path, from the thorns in the jungles, from dirt. But they are made of leather, the skin of animals and they forever remain accursed by their birth. You can wear them everywhere but before a place of worship you have to remove them; they are inauspicious, tainted. Why, you do not take them even inside your homes. Their limit is your doorsteps.
My father knew this as well as anyone else, if not more. For he was himself a king of sorts, a chieftain, but of the lowborn. Dasharaja was the chief of the fisher folk. He knew that just as he would not be allowed to sit in the assembly of other chiefs of noble birth, his daughter shall never be welcome as their bride.
And yet a king, an emperor, fell in love with me – perhaps through the power of the blessing of the rishi whom I bore a child – and when that happened my father insisted that I shall be given him only on condition that the eldest son born to me by the emperor shall be his heir. The emperor was taken aback, naturally. And he wouldn’t submit himself to this atrocity, for he loved his son, already a fine young man, prince Devavrata, more than anything else in the world. So the emperor went bake to Hastinapura without me.
My father insisted on this condition because his knowledge of the ways of palaces told him that only as the mother of the future king would I be able to gain some respect in Hastinapura. Without that I would have been reduced, he feared, to the level of a palace sweeper once the emperor’s fancy for me came to an end or he himself left this world. Emperors must after all die as everyone else and Emperor Shantanu was already quite old.
But the emperor’s desire for me was so great that he lost all interest in life and the affairs of the state. From palace whisperings the young son learned what ailed his father and came for me. He vowed with the gods as his witnesses that he shall never claim the right to the throne and shall remain a celibate all his life.
I was welcomed into the palace of Hastinapura as the most hated woman. Even the king’s longing for me turned into loathing the moment he learned that it was the terrible vows of his son that had fetched me for him. It was as though a drum of water had suddenly been emptied over the fire in his heart.
I never wanted to be a queen or an empress—I would have been quite happy as the wedded wife of one of the fishermen along the bank of Yamuna. I would have risen with the risen sun to see him off to his day’s work with his nets and stood waiting for his return, praying to Mother Yamuna for his safety. I would have been perfectly contented to bear his children to accompany him in his work as they grew up and later to support him when he was too old to go fishing. Or I would have been happy living alone in the hope that one day my son, the son of the rishi, would come back after finishing his studies under his father and then I would see men falling at his feet in reverence. Even I would go and touch his feet for he would be a rishi himself—I had imagined it all again and again in my idle hours sitting on rock-protected strips of marble on the banks of Mother Yamuna. How happy I would be as he stopped me from bending and instead himself fell at my feet, his mother’s feet! A rishi touching my feet, a rishi who is the very flesh of my flesh, the life of my life!
I was quite content.
The emperor never forgave me my father’s sin—for what was caution to my father was sin to him. Years passed without the emperor, now my wedded husband, ever entering my chamber. What was so tempting before was sheer venom now, a venom so powerful that his very contact with it would blow off all that he held dear in life.
And then it was after the Rajaguru and his nobles reminded him of his duty to the empire, the duty to give it an heir, that he finally yielded and came to me.
It was a man coming to a woman to fulfill his duty! Two bodies joined momentarily to use, yes, to use, one of their abilities. A male and a female body meeting to bring new life into this world.
I am an empress and crude words do not befit my speech but if I could put it bluntly this is what I would say: we mated that night. Yes, mated, like animals.
Human bodies are capable of bringing new life into this world but the act of producing new life has to be one of infinite love and tenderness, a result of life’s longing for life. If it is not, the result shall be disastrous. Life produced because it is your duty to produce it cannot be noble life, cannot be healthy, would not lead to fulfillment.
Nor were the two products of my womb – one was too impetuous and it cost my little child his life itself before he came to know what life was, what youth was. And the other, a mental wreck, too died not long after paying the price of his parent’s sins with his own life. He was created holding all passions back, in a disinterested, mechanical act. And his heart was like a desert land that thirsted for the rains of love. Came the two princesses of Kashi, Ambika and Ambalika, my Vichitraveerya jumped into the bottomless ocean of passionate love and sensuality. The whirlpools caught him and ere long he had also left this world. The Emperor had died years ago.
The Bharatas’ dream of a glorious, everlasting dynasty flickered in the storms of these tragic events; the empire seemed to flounder before their very eyes. Accusing fingers of every subject of Hastinapura rose and pointed at me – they demanded an heir to the throne. But for me, the noble Devavrata would have become their king and they would have been happy under him. I, the low-born fisher maid, had mixed my blood with the noble Bharata blood and produced weaklings who could not even survive long enough to produce further offspring to themselves.
I approached Devavrata. Even my father begged him. But he was not willing to swerve from his vows which had by now become absurd. Bheeshma was proud of his vows and he would not break his vows even to save one of the two vows he had taken. He wasn’t going to be helpful in producing an offspring who would sit on the throne of Hastinapura, nor would he sit there himself. He cared not if his refusal meant the end of the Bharata dynasty.
Then I remembered my son, by now a great rishi before whose feet crowned heads bowed, a man less of this world than of another. My Krishna, whom his father called Dwaipayana because he was conceived on an island, was now the great sage Vyasa to the people.
He came and I asked him the meanest thing I could ask of a rishi: the services of his body for a few moments it would take to sow seeds in the field of Vichitraveerya. I wanted him to go to Ambika. After all, Vichitra was his half-brother and Ambika was Vichitra’s widow. He knew of the custom of Niyoga. I reminded him of his duty to his mother and explained to him his mother’s helplessness. He yielded.
He asked for time to finish his austerities first but it was time that I did not have. He yielded again.
Accepted custom or no custom, sacred practice or no practice, to ask a young woman to offer herself to a man other than her husband – not in marriage, not to live with him as he wife and beloved, but for a few moments for a physical act, to offer her body to another man so that he may deposit his seeds in it to germinate and grow – that is the most loathsome act I have had to do in my whole life. And I did it. I was duty-bound – again duty-bound – to do it. The Rajaguru, the nobles, the common men and women in the streets and fields across the vast lands of the Bharatas, all demanded it of me, and I did it.
Asking Ambika humiliated me more intensely than asking my son Krishna. Maybe, because the physical act remains with the woman for nine long months but with a man it is a fact of a few moments. As for mental tortures, who among the living can escape guilt and self-loathing for the acts we commit in life.
Later I had to repeat it all with Ambalika. And once more I was forced to do it – that was the third time.
I offered the Bharatas Dhritarashtra and Pandu, and fate brought Vidura into this world as the son of a maid. But all three were begotten by my son and hence belonged to the Bharatas.
I had done my duty.