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.
Our family has given many princesses to the Bharatas. King Bharata, that illustrious son of Shakuntala and Dushyanta the story of whose love has become one of the greatest romances of this land, the one that gave this dynasty its present name and who in ancient days conquered all of Aryavarta and gave it the name Bharata, himself had married a Kashi princess, the beautiful Sunanda.
But history does not record how the princesses who came to the antahpura of the Bharatas were treated. Their stories are lost among the glorious acts of the kings who fought in many lands and won all the wars. Amidst all that victory and glory who will bother about a few queens in the inner apartments of the palace?
But one thing strikes. The Bharatas seem to be overly fond of bringing women into their palaces against their wishes. I am told that Queen Satyavati was not very happy to come here as the empress of Shantanu, our father in-law. I mean mine and my sister Ambalika’s.
Gandhari and Madri, two of our daughters in-law, certainly did not come here according to their wishes. A distraught Gandhari gave in when she found the alternative was death and destruction to her father and all that belonged to him. When Madri’s brother Shalya refused to oblige Bheeshma, he was offered profuse wealth in exchange; and of course, coercion through the not very subtly veiled threat of Prince Bheeshma was there to force Shalya’s hands.
We were brought to Hastinapura by Prince Bheeshma – the same Bheeshma who had brought Mother Satyavati as a wife for his father, the same Bheeshma who would get Gandhari for Dhritarashtra, the same Bheeshma who would bring Madri for Pandu. He can take credit for bringing women for three generations of the Bharatas – for his father, for his half-brother, and for his nephews. So what, if he did not get a wife for himself?
I loved the prince I married very much, I loved him to distraction, and perhaps I loved him to his death – and so did my sister. Young Vichitraveerya – he was younger than both me and Ambalika; he married very young because his elder brother Prince Chitrangada had died before attaining the age of marriage and Vichitra himself was sick – perhaps Prince Bheeshma suspected that something might happen to him before he provided an heir to the throne of the Bharatas. Eventually that is what happened, anyway.
Young Vichitra knew what love and care was for the first time in his life after we came to the palace. A woman recognizes easily a man hungry for love and we found effortlessly such a one in him. The poor prince had grown up an unwanted child, a neglected child. His father was deep in grief and guilt over his second marriage, which took away the right to the throne from Prince Bheeshma, his very life-breath. His mother, incessantly humiliated by the nobility in the court, for ever neglected by the emperor, effusively respected by Prince Bheeshma – given the empty, formal respect due to a woman who was his mother only because she had married his father – had grown silent and withdrawn. She spent all her time in her chamber, which she had rendered dark by means of curtains. She hadn’t wanted to be a queen or an empress, nor had she wanted to be a queen mother. An emperor’s longing for her had brought her to the palace and once in the palace she had ceased to get even his formal love. Love had dried up in her heart, as a river dries up reaching a desert. The noblemen and ladies who crowded the palace shunned the prince of mixed blood. And, anyway, it was his elder brother who was going to succeed the emperor to the throne.
Now, his young heart thirsty for love filled for the first time, Vichitra learned not only to take love but also to give it. I have known very few people who could love the way he did; there was such depth in his love, such intensity, such transparent passion, and such total generosity. Probably he was so filled with gratefulness at someone coming to love him – and two beautiful, desirable, young princesses at that – that his entire being melted and overflowed. But his emaciated being that had existed on a scanty diet all these years could not withstand this torrential, deluge-like onslaught of passionate love. As for us, we were too young to understand the need to restrain. In his very overflowing of passion, our prince lost his life.
We had seven years of Vichitra’s love, seven years during which he left us not for a moment, day or night, not even for the affairs of the state. And yet neither Ambalika nor I conceived once. The palace whispered that it was because we sisters were both barren – but Vichitra assured us: our love was enough for him. More than enough. He felt fulfilled by that.
Uncle Bheeshma arranged dasis for him – the palace was full of slave girls. Several of them were of kshatriya birth. But Vichitra refused to touch them. No, he couldn’t be unfaithful to his Ambika and Ambalika, he said.
Then we heard other whispers – they said there was some curse on the Bharatas. Which is why neither of us was conceiving. They said the vow of celibacy that Uncle Bheeshma had taken was that curse finding its fulfillment. Just as our inability to conceive was. The line of the Bharatas would come to an end with Uncle Bheeshma and Vichitraveerya.
And then suddenly one day Vichitra died, and when that happened, life came to an end for us. Ambalika and I became breathing carcasses. Nothing mattered to us after that. To think that we had lost so completely in a young boy whom we had married so reluctantly, married because we had no alternative but to, snatched away and brought to Hastinapura as we were by the terrible prince Bheeshma from our Swayamvara hall.
Can dead bodied be hurt again – not easily, but yes, because we were to know an experience worse than the very death of Prince Vichitraveerya: an ancient custom the monstrosity of which grows in size the more you ponder over it.
Mother Satyavati was unwilling to accept defeat. She did not want it said that because of her the great line of the Bharatas came to an end.
Mother Satyavati came to my chamber one day. She was agitated beyond words and I knew whatever she had to tell me was extremely unpleasant both to her and to me. She told me we owed it to the people of the Bharata lands, to the throne of Hastinapura, to ancestors of the Bharatas, to posterity, and to Prince Vichitra himself that I produced an offspring. But how? Through the custom of niyoga. A brother produces offspring in the wife of his dead brother.
My entire being revolted against the very idea and yet I submitted – not for the lands of the Bharatas, not for the sake of the throne of Hastinapura, not for the sake of the Bharata ancestors, not for the sake of posterity – for I cared a hoot for these – but for the sake of my dead prince. I did not want it said that the Bharata line came to an end with Prince Vichitraveerya.
And yet I was shocked beyond belief when I saw the sage entering my room. Who did I expect? Prince Devavrata Bheeshma, who never broke his vows even if the very heavens threatened all of earth with hellfire? But if he had taken the vow to remain a celibate all his life he had also taken a vow to stand by the throne of Hastinapura till his last breath. The two vows were in conflict now. And Mother Satyavati had asked me to expect my brother in-law in my chamber that night.
Yes, perhaps him.
Or maybe, one of the other Bharata princes – Prince Bahleeka, Emperor Shantanu’s brother had sons not too old and they lived in the royal palaces.
What was it that shocked me so when I saw sage Vyasa entering my chamber that night? The fact that it was he who had entered my chamber? Or was it his appearance? I would perhaps never know. I was in no state to analyze my thoughts and feelings then nor am I in a state to objectively look at them now. Perhaps both, I suppose.
Anyway, if it is any consolation, I was later to learn that the sage was not so horrible and revolting in his normal state and was a very lovable person in his own way, though by no means a handsome man. His appearance at that time was because he was engaged in some form of terrible austerity.
As those wiry, dark arms smeared with ashes and I know not what else took me in them, I closed my eyes in unspeakable horror.
I was doing my duty to my prince and I had tried to do it as cheerfully as was possible, but I am born a princess, grew up among the finest things in the world, and my dreams were centered on a handsome prince all the years I had dreamed of being a mother. The sage and the idea of what he was doing with me, to me, were beyond my limits of endurance. In any case, it was not I who closed my eyes – they closed themselves. It was not a voluntary, thought-out decision, but something that happened to me.
My son Dhritarashtra was born blind.
A blind prince has no rights of succession. Dhritarashtra could not succeed to the throne of the Bharatas. They needed another prince.
Now it was Ambalika’s turn to submit herself. Again, she too turned pale at the sight of the sage and this despite knowing who she was to expect. But I have only pity or her.
Her child, to whom the name Pandu, the pale one, stuck, was born sickly pale.
No woman should have submitted even once to what I had had to go through. That is the most degrading thing in life I can think of. It is animals you to take to each other for breeding, not human beings. For men and women, it should be a coming together and merger of the spirit, mind and body – in that order. A fusion brought about by love. With men and women creation of new life should not be an animal function. If performed as an animal act, subjection to it once will destroy in one stroke all that is noble in a woman.
Yet I was asked to undergo that process a second time, so that the Bharatas could have a healthy prince without defects as the heir to their throne.
It was my maid that I sent to the sage this time. Even a mere human body such as I had by then been reduced to, not a human being but a human body, revolts from certain acts.
I was not altogether disappointed when I was seized by force by Prince Devavrata from my swayamvara hall. For, to be a Bharata queen is the greatest dream of all Aryan Princesses. The outside world had no idea what women who became Bharata brides had to endure. I was shocked to learn that we were not to be his wives, but of his half-brother. And yet that half-brother loved me beyond words and made me feel fulfilled. But life had ceased to have any meaning to me the day my prince died. And I ceased to live after I had given the Bharatas a prince, whom they named Dhritarashtra. Yet I acted once more – to perform that one act, the first act of revolt in my whole life: sending my maid in my place to the sage.
Perhaps I was a weakling; both of us, Ambalika and I, were weaklings. For I know one woman who had the courage to go through that experience more than once, and at the behest of her own husband.
I am talking of Pritha, Pandu’s wife.