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.
The woman who fought against Fate, the courageous widow who stood alone and faced the might of an empire which wanted to crush her and her children, a woman who commanded the gods themselves to do her bidding…so they speak of me. But am I all these? Am I any of these? How much of this is true, and how much false?
I, Pritha, the daughter of Devameedha Shoorasena of the Vrishnis, the woman known by the name of Kunti because she was adopted by King Kuntibhoja, have a unique position among the women of the Bharatas.
For all the might of the Bharatas, generations had passed since a princess had chosen a Bharata prince happily in a proper swayamvara and come to live in the Hastinapura palace with the tremulous excitement of a new bride. Emperor Shantanu had two wives – no one knows exactly who his first wife really was. They say she was the river goddess Ganga, that she had one day walked up from the river and years later, after the birth of her eighth child, walked back into the river. Strange is the story of the love and life of this woman and the emperor.
And then, in his old age, Grandmother Satyavati had come to live as his empress in Hastinapuira. But it was as the most hated woman in all of Hastinapura that she had stepped into the palace. She was of low birth and her arrival had a precondition – that her would-be firstborn son by the emperor shall inherit the throne of Hastinapura. And Hastinapura, which I have seen only divided into myriad groups of warring interests, rose up for once in unison, bound by a common hatred for her. That it was the emperor who wanted her and not otherwise did not bother the men who hated her. That poor woman of lowly birth had not come to the Bharatas as a happy bride.
Nor had the two princesses of Kashi, mothers of my husband Pandu and his brother. They were seized, along with their sister Amba, from their swayamvara hall, by prince Bheeshma while the whole assembly stood terror-struck before his might. And it was not to be his wives that he had captured them but to be the wives of his half-brother, still a boy, and incapable of winning a wife for himself. No kshatriya princess loves to marry a man who cannot win a wife for himself – that the two princesses later came to adore the young prince they married is another matter.
How Gandhari came to Hastinapura is well-known. Had she not come, it would have been death and destruction to her father and her people. The adored daughter of an indulgent father, a young woman who loved to spend all her time in music and dance that were unique to her people, does not marry a blind man happily – and Dhritarashtra had even been denied the right to the throne.
It was as though the Bharatas had a perverse fascination for the idea of getting unwilling mothers for their future princes. For, when Madri was brought here later, it was not again according to her wishes.
So I was the first princess in a long time to happily choose a Bharata prince for her man and come to Hastinapura with joy in her heart, dreams in her eyes, and her prince’s hand in her hand.
But the joy was short lived. I soon discovered that Uncle Bheeshma was not too happy to have me for a bride for his younger nephew. For, not long after I arrived in Hastinapura I had a sapatni. Uncle Bheeshma had got another wife for Pandu the reason for which, to this day, eludes me. Sometimes I believe it is just that Prince Bheeshma believed it was for him to choose a bride for his nephew and ward and the prince had no right to acquire one for himself by himself. For certainly it was not a common custom among the Bharatas to wed more than one wife – in the previous twenty-odd generations there had been only two or three kings who had married more than once princess. Besides, the family of the Bharatas had just recovered with the greatest difficulty and with recourse to an antiquated custom from the disastrous results of a young prince marrying more than one princess at a time – prince Vichitraveerya had to pay the price of that error with his life and that had threatened to end the Bharata dynasty. There was no reason for Uncle Bheeshma to be eager to get a second bride for Pandu.
So that was it – uncle Bheeshma did not like the idea of Pandu getting a wife for himself; he believed it was for him to get a bride for young Pandu. He wanted me, the self-chosen wife of Pandu, to be denigrated to where he thought I belonged – a woman of secondary importance to Pandu and to the Palace.
But just as I was lucky in Pandu, I was lucky in Madri. Instead of becoming a competitor for Pandu’s love, a rival, she became a younger sister to me. She was my opposite in most respects. I was worldly-wise, matured, perhaps a bit too matured for my age, with hardly any sentimentality about me. I had the spirit of a much older woman in me: the violent events into the middle of which I was born – Mathura was in great turmoil in those days – and the tragic happening that shook my life even before I was fully out of girlhood – perhaps because of these. Whereas Madri had an ephemeral, ethereal quality about her. She was not concerned with anything in the world, no violent passions stormed about in her heart, calculations and machinations for position and possessions were entirely foreign to her nature. The only time I ever saw her in a state of passionate assertion about anything was in the last moments of her life – after she had decided to enter the funeral pyre of Pandu. No one could dissuade her from that.
How have the Bharatas treated me, come to them to be their king’s queen and the mother of their future king?
When I came to Hastinapura it was as the queen of the reigning king Pandu but when I came back from Shatashringa after the death of my king, I had suddenly become an ordinary woman whom no one wanted to see.
Questions were raised as to the parentage of the five children I had brought with me. By the men who had usurped my husband’s throne in his absence I was told that there was no Bharata blood in my children or in Madri’s children and as such they could not be treated as Bharata princes. Of course it was no surprise that they did so – prince Dhritarashtra’s greed for power was notoriously well-known and he had powerful coterie of people who supported him as it often happens when an unrightfull man claims to be the rightful heir to a throne. When I said that in that case neither my deceased husband nor Prince Dhritarashtra had any Bharata blood in them, I was abused in the meanest possible language – I, their queen, the queen of their dead king, was abused like a woman of the street. And all I was demanding was my children’s right to their father’s throne and all I said about Pandu and Dhritarashtra was the bare truth – they were sons born to the princesses of Kashi and their father was the sage Vyasa who was certainly not a Bharata. Where was Bharata blood in the veins of Pandu and Prince Dhritarashtra then? Surprisingly, even the man who was reputedly justice embodied turned against my children. He who had vowed to stand by the throne of Hastinapura until his last breath deserted its rightful heirs and stood watching as it passed into unlawful hands. Uncle Bheeshma protected Prince Dhritarashtra and his children.
Silence is abetment where speech is called for. Inaction is abetment where action is called for.
As to my children, they were not even given the most fundamental right of ordinary citizens: the right to exist, the right to live. My Bheema was poisoned and the hands that did this murderous deed went scot-free. Later our home was set fire to and a hundred other felonies befell us and the offenders were never castigated.
A woman of iron will, they call me. I tell you, you would be that, too, if you had five darling children to look after, children born to be rulers of men and states and yet condemned by fate to beg for alms to fill their stomach, children whose very life was in danger every moment as their existence was a threat to those who were clinging desperately to a usurped throne against popular wish and will.
A woman who took her fate in her hands, they call me. I wish I hadn’t, I wish no one would, if by that all you get is what I got – endless years of grief and agony as fate in a fury tossed my children from one wicked situation to another, forcing me and them to hide from all civilization for our physical survival and to wander through forests infested with deadly animals and inhabited by deadlier brutes and savages, looking for subsistence in fruits and roots and the animals of the wild.
A woman who commands the gods themselves with the power of her mantras, they call me. And yet those mantras did not come to my aid when I wanted to save my king from his curse. The poor, poor man longed for a touch, a mere touch of mine, all those grief-filled years in Shatashringa and I, his wedded wife, could not appease that simplest of desires of an accursed man. Pritha, the woman who commanded the gods, had to stand a forced witness to the cruel agony of her husband when he longed for what was every man’s by birth by the very laws of nature, longed for what is not denied even to base animals, and had to see him finally perishing a victim to his longing. The power of my mantras did not fetch the gods to my aid when my children were denied their right to the throne, when they were banished to Varanavata, when their house was set fire to, when they, after their escape, were forced to wander like fugitives from law amid lurking dangers. Nor did it come to her aid when she wanted to protect her firstborn from battle with his own brothers and faced death through it. That is Pritha’s power over the gods for you.
Oh, yes, it came to her aid on other occasions. When she was but an ignorant girl and wanted to try out the power of a mantra given her by a rishi, it came to her in the form of a pregnancy to make her an unwed mother of a child whose father she couldn’t produce before the world. She was forced to do that most accursed act of her life – float down a river her firstborn, so that King Kuntibhoja, who had adopted her as a child, who loved her more dearly than he loved his own soul, would not have to hang his head in shame.
It did not come to her aid when her firstborn son, who was to the world Karna, the son of Radha – he was an equal to the noblest of princes in birth and superior to every one of them in nobility and velour – was treated like a common cur, for his crime of wanting to match his skill in weapons with his brothers and cousins. Lowborn, they called him. Son of a driver, fit only to drive their vehicles, they ridiculed. They – statesmen and teachers who had grown old with age, who should have recognized worth wherever they found it.
It did not come to her aid when that son of hers was forced to bend in the only direction from where support came, to Duryodhana and to evil, and finally met his sad end fighting on the side of evil.
But it came to her aid when her husband asked her to offer herself to other men so that she may bear him progeny which would open the gates of heaven for him. Remove all the euphemisms, and this is what Pritha’s power over the gods gave her: children out of wedlock.
True, I sound bitter. Hasn’t there been anything in Pritha’s life to be happy about? Yes, there has been, without doubt. The love of a man who knew how to love with his heart, even if he could not with his body. And six children – my four and Madri’s two – the like of whom the world will have to wait for a long time to see again. The love of someone who entered my life as my rival and became my greatest companion, my great solace, my sister – Madri. And the love of a nephew whom the world worships as the very lord of the universe.
But suffering leaves its mark on the soul, I suppose, in spite of everything. And endless suffering certainly does – suffering that seemed to have no end as it lasted through decades and decades. And to think that it was all because of the greed of one man for power and the inaction of another who refused to stand in the way of that greed, though he was duty bound to. That hurts.