Saturday, October 10, 2009
Draupadi: The Day of the Jackals 3
Continued from …2
Krishnaa could not believe this was happening. She the sacrifice-born princess, the pet of King Drupada, the adored sister of Shikhandin and Dhrishtadyumna, the darling of the entire Panchala, the wife of the five Pandava brothers, the queen of Indraprastha, has been brought into an assembly of kings and nobles dragged by her hair. She who had faced a similar assembly of men only once before in her life during her swayamvara, was now in the middle of these nobles, while in her monthly period, clad in one cloth. And Dushshasana was pulling even that cloth away from her!
Was it really happening? Or was this all a mere hallucination? Was this a nightmare from which she will soon wake up to find that nothing has changed, everything was as before, that she was still the queen of Indraprastha, that her husbands were still masters of a rich and powerful kingdom, that the dice game had never happened?
But she knew the answer. Dushshasana’s powerful hands were pulling her cloth away from her. Duryodhana and Karna were laughing in uncontrollable mirth.
“Slave, slave!” Words that horrified her. “Whore, whore!” Words that were like whiplashes on bare flesh.
She held the cloth tightly to herself.
Her eyes were roving mad in despair. Filled with mortal dread she looked frantically all around. This was worse than death. Yes, she would have preferred to die, rather than being denuded in this assembly, being subjected to what they were doing to her.
But, no. She was not going to give up. She was not going to lose to brute force, to insolent might. She was a kshatrani. Born to fight. Born to win. She doesn’t give up life’s battles.
And there was unfinished work left. Dushshasana will have to pay – pay with his life for what he was doing to her. Duryodhana will have to pay. Karna will have to pay.
Bhishma will have to pay and Drona will have to pay. Pay with their lives. And the blind Dhritarashtra will have to pay – with the loss of the lives of all he loved. “Has the wager been won?” he had asked again and again, every time something new was wagered. He too will have to pay.
“Slave, whore,” shouted Dushshasana as he tried to free her cloth from her hands that were clasping it to herself.
She held on with all her might. Looking once again into the eyes of the men in the assembly. Her husbands. Bhishma. Drona. Others.
Her eyes met no other eyes. Except the eyes of Dushshasana, Duryodhana and Karna. Lust filled eyes. Perverted eyes. Mad eyes. Mocking eyes. Eyes that had gone insane with depravity. Eyes that exulted in their sheer power over her.
And she knew no help was coming.
The world had begun to reel. Everything was moving in a haze, in an incredibly fast haze. The whole world was going round and round. And she was finding it more and more difficult to stand on her feet.
She held the cloth all the more tightly to herself. Her whole past was unrolling before her as in a fast drama, as before the eyes of a dying man. She saw her father, her brothers…
And then from among the faces one face became clear. Another dark face like hers. A handsome face. An irresistibly beautiful face. A face full of power. A face untouched by wickedness, untouched by corruption, untouched by weaknesses. A face that made promises. Untold promises. Promises that were whispered direct to your heart.
Promises that were made directly to your soul.
Those inviting, irresistible eyes. Eyes from which the smile never seemed to leave. Eyes that held you by their magnetic power. Eyes that could be flowers in one moment and diamonds in the other. Eyes that hid immense power. Eyes that could command the very elements of the earth.
The eyes of a yogeshwara.
A man who shared her name. And a million other things with her.
And she surrendered to that man. Surrendered to his strength. Surrendered to his power. Surrendered to his promises.
And immediately felt herself letting go. Felt herself relaxing. Felt a sense of relaxation flooding her. Felt herself surrendering to that relaxation.
Felt power surging through her. Power she knew was enough to make any enemy bend his knees. Power she knew was enough to make any enemy powerless.
It was a different kind of power. Not the kind of power that Dushshasana was exerting over her. Not even the kind of power that Bhima possessed. But a different kind of power. A very different kind of power. A totally different kind of power.
A power that won victories without fighting a battle.
She felt an ecstasy filling her. A rapture surging through her. Felt as though she was being born afresh. Coming into being, coming into existence, for the first time.
Suddenly the word alive had a different meaning. Suddenly she knew what it was to live.
Perhaps she had felt this before. A long time ago. She could not remember when but she was sure she had felt this before. Known this feeling before. This sense of being alive. Just alive. Being one with life. One with the world. One with existence.
The oceans were not different from her. The sky and the sun and the moon and the stars were not different from her. The mountains were not different from her. And the trees and shrubs and the grass were not different from her. The animals and the fishes and the trillion creatures were not different from her. They all shared a common existence with her.
She was their existence.
The sleepy infant suckling serenely at its mother’s breast as the young mother rested in a contented ecstasy – it was she.
The little village girl feeling the thrill of the first drop of rain on her as she slowly whirls around in the rain – it was she.
The tender young woman wearing that thin white cloth and bathing under the waterfall – it was she.
She was the beautiful princess who parted the curtains of her palanquin to give a smile to the little fawn who came gambolling and stood watching some distance.
She was the tall young man with a wiry body sleeping contentedly in his boat as it floated serenely down the Ganga.
She was the rapturous young woman in her young lover’s strong arms swooning in the power of their passion.
She was the small child standing on her father’s feet and laughing in wild pleasure as he tossed her up and down.
She was the sole pink bud on the bank of the mountain lake standing in still ecstasy as the butterfly hovered over it. She was the green parrot with the red beak perched on that dry tree while rain clouds moved serenely in the distance. She was the heady fragrance of burning camphor that filled the tiny shrine on the mountain slope, the intoxicating scent of lemon blossoms in the little garden in the heart of the valley. She was the haunting music of the flute that filled the valley.
And then she suddenly realized it – that smiling dark face, those irresistible eyes, they were hers.
It was she who had been carried in a basket across the Yamuna that storm-torn night! It was she who had stolen fresh butter from Yashoda’s pots in Vraja! It was she who had killed Putana, who had subdued Kaliya, who had played on her flute on the banks of the Yamuna maddening all of Vraja, who had danced with the cowherd girls in Vrindavana all night long. It was she who had killed Kansa, Shishupala.
She felt the power of the Sudarshana in her hand.
She had the power to annihilate. And she had the power to create. Unmesha-nimishotpanna-vipanna-bhuvanavali. As she opened her eyes, universes came into being, and as she closed them they dissolved back into her.
And then the tumult reached her. Excited, ecstatic voices were shouting all around her. There seemed to be a million voices. All filled with thrill, with wonder, with disbelief.
What were they shouting?
And then she heard it.
“A miracle! Look, a miracle! A miracle has happened!”
She slowly opened her eyes.
She had no idea when she had closed them.
She was still in the hall, she found.
Instantly she clutched her cloth to herself.
When had she let go of it?
But Dushshasana was no more pulling it away!
Where is he?
She looked around.
Lying all around her was a huge, huge pile of clothes. Clothes in myriad hews. Fine clothes. Beautiful clothes. Endless clothes. All around her. And she was standing in the middle of it all. Still clad in her single piece of cloth.
And at her feet sat Dushshasana. Tired, sweating, his eyes wild with another kindness of madness. The madness of incomprehension. And the fury of helplessness.
Govinda had come to her! Her Govinda! Her Krishna!
Closing her eyes, she once again lost herself in the ecstasy of it.
And then, opening her eyes, she stepped out of the pile of clothes.
“Get up, Dusshasana! Take the slave Krishnaa to the inner apartments!” It was Karna’s voice.
She couldn’t believe it! They were not finished with her yet!
“Wait,” Krishnaa said as Dushshasana began to pull her towards the door of the hall.
“There is a duty I have to perform to this august assembly, to the elders here. I could not do it when I came here first. I know the fault was not entirely mine. For I was in no condition to do it then.”
Dushshasana let go of Krishnaa. Clad in her soiled cloth, Draupadi stood erect and proud before the assembly of kings and elders. Her eyes were serene. Clad in that one piece of soiled cloth, she still looked an embodiment of poise and dignity, of feminine beauty and grace.
“Elders of the assembly,” she addressed them. “I grew up not seen even by the sun and the wind. Only once have I come before an assembly like this. On the occasion of my swayamvara. For that reason, forgive me my omission. I now bow before you deeply. Please accept my regards.”
There was silence in the hall.
“Having done that, I now ask you once again. Am I a slave or not? You must answer me this question.”
Seeing that no one was responding to her question, Bhishma stood up. In voice that was steady and clear, he spoke, praising Draupadi’s conduct. This is how a princess should be, he said. A princess even in the midst of the worst crisis in her life. Never losing her dignity, never losing her poise, her grace, even in the middle of unspeakably humiliating circumstances. “Daughter,” he said, “You make your father proud. You make your mother proud. You make me proud – for you belong to my family.”
Draupadi acknowledged him.
“As for your question,” he continued, “there is only one person here fully qualified to answer it. Yudhisthira. Let him answer it.”
As Bhishma sat down, the assembly waited for Yudhisthira to speak. Yudhishthira sat with his head hanging low, without a word.
An infuriated Bhima shouted: “Get me some fire, Sahadeva. I shall burn these accursed hands of Yudhishthira.”
Karna’s triunmphant laughter answered Bhima’s call.
Bhima had never in his life raised his voice against Yudhishthira, never spoken a word against him.
And when no response came from Yudhishthira, Duryodhana spoke.
“The princess of Panchala shall be freed if the four brothers say that Yudhisthira is not their master…or let Yudhisthira himself say he is not your lord, and I shall free you this very instant.”
The entire assembly applauded Duryodhana.
And yet Yudhisthira spoke not a word.
Instead it was the anger-filled, fury-filled, helplessness-filled words of Bhima that the assembly heard. “Yudhisthira is our lord and master,” said Bhima. “Had it not been so, remember, not one of the Dhartarashtras would have been alive today. You owe your life, every breath of it, to the fact that Yudhisthira is our lord.”
Bhimasena is not known for his ability to control himself. Not usually.
And then Karna spoke again. He spoke words filled with arrogance, with contempt, words that ill-fitted that august assembly.
Or maybe, perfectly befitting that assembly that had silently, without a word of protest, witnessed the attempt of a man to denude a helpless woman in their midst.
“Krishnaa Draupadi, the sons of Dhritarashtra are your masters now – no more the Pandavas. Go you to their inner apartments. Go you to the quarters of the slaves. And I also ask you to choose one of the Kauravas as your husbands. A slave belongs to the household to which she is bound. Her masters are the masters of that house. The vows of marriage are not for a slave. She chooses a man to father children in her as and when the need arises. Choose you a new husband now. I recommend all the Kauravas to you. All of them are physically strong, well built, and masters of themselves. What more does a slave woman need? Go ahead and choose any one of them to mate with and beget children.”
Duryodhana laughed uproariously at these words. Laughing still, he once again asked Yudhisthira to decide once for all whether Draupadi was won by him or not. And then, still laughing, he parted his clothes before the disbelieving eyes of the whole assembly and revealed his left thigh. His eyes holding Krishnaa’s eyes steadily, he struck at it loudly, repeatedly.
Struck thus, Duryodhana’s thigh, stout and strong, full of powerful muscles, looking like a pillar cast from iron, produced sounds like that of the thunder when rain cloud met rain cloud.
With utter disregard for all morality, for all values, Duryodhana had done the unthinkable in that assembly of elders. Showing his left thigh, the place for a wife or a mistress or a whore, a woman of pleasure, offering it publicly to a woman. With utter disregard to all laws of courtesy, to all decency.
To his own sister-in-law. To Krishnaa.
Bhima jumped up from his seat at this. His eyes emitted fire. His whole body trembled at this insult to Draupadi, insult to all of them. “For this act of yours, Duryodhana, for this ugly, horrid act of yours, I shall break that thigh of yours in battle. Hear me, all you who are assembled here, here me gods in heaven, hear me my ancestors – if I do not do that, let the worlds that are mine after death, be denied to me for ever.”
Dushshasana caught Krishnaa by her hair once again. And suddenly she turned to him in fury. She wanted to strike him, strike him down like lightning strikes down a mighty tree. In front of all the assembly. And she knew for certain she could do that. She knew she had the power to do that in herself. She felt power coursing through her.
But instead she pulled her hair free from his hand. Holding it up in her hands, Krishnaa spoke: “This hair of mine touched by this wretch shall from now remain open until the day it is smeared with living blood from the heart of this beast. This I vow by everything that I hold sacred.”
Her vow was followed by Bhima’s booming voice. “And I vow that I shall pluck off that evil arm that dragged Krishnaa by her hair. And I vow that I shall tear open the wicked heart of this monster and drink his living blood. If I do not, may the worlds of my ancestors be forever denied to me.”
And Krishnaa saw it clearly then. Dead bodies lay strewn in their thousands in a vast field. And in the middle of it all was the living, pulsating body of Dushshasana, lying on its back. And Bhima kept his foot over his body, plucked off his right arm and flung it away, roaring like a lion. Then he plunged his sword into that evil heart. Tearing open that chest, Bhima gathered blood from that wicked heart and raising his palms up, drank that blood. And then, not content, she saw him chop off the head of the monster in a single stroke and raise the severed head in the air. As blood flowed into his mouth, Vrikodara’s roar of pleasure and triumph terrified the thousands of onlookers, making them flee in terror.
And then the vision changed. The battlefield was the same, the multitudes of dead bodies were the same and Dushshasana’s body was there. But it was not Bhima who had his leg over its chest – it was she. She was standing with her left leg on Dusshasana’s chest. Her head was held high, in triumph and in her hand was a mighty trident. Fire emanated from her eyes – from all three of them. Her nostrils flared in exhilaration as she breathed in deeply the smell of blood. Blood was flowing like rivulets in the field.
The sound of beejamantras filled the air…. shreem…hreem… kreem… aim… kleem…
The mantras came to her from the ten directions, chanted by a million voices, in which past, present and future mingled, the voices of gods mingled with the voices of men and women. The seven matrikas and the sixty-four yoginis sang her praises.
Her hair danced in the fierce wind, like dark flames, like a thousand black cobras. She felt someone behind her. Two hands were gathering her hair together and smearing blood on it. Hot blood. Sweet smelling blood. Intoxicating blood. Dushshasana’s blood.
The hands began braiding her hair with infinite love, with infinite tenderness.
Were those Bhima’s hands? They had to be.
But suddenly she was sure they were not.
She had known those hands more intimately than she has known Bhima’s hands, than any other hands.
And then she knew. Those were hands she had known through a thousand births.
The hands of someone who had been her companion through ages.
She couldn’t mistake the hands of her Govinda.
Vidura’s voice brought her back to the reality of the Dice Hall. In another vain attempt, he got up once more and declared that he considered Draupadi not won.
No one deemed it necessary to respond to Vidura’s words.
And then Arjuna spoke. He was talking to the assembly for the first time on that evil day.
His words were brief and simple. He turned the question over to the Kauravas. “Let the Kauravas decide this matter,” he submitted to the assembly.
Krishnaa was shocked beyond words. Arjuna! Her Arjuna! He had deserted her! It is as though he wanted to get it all over with, one way or another. As though Krishnaa did not matter to him. As though Krishnaa’s fate did not interest him any more! Let the Kauravas decide this matter!
Ugly words had been spoken in that assembly on that day. Krishnaa had been called a slave. Krishnaa had been called a whore. Krishnaa had been asked to go to the slave quarters to serve her new masters as a menial. Krishnaa had been asked to choose a man to mate with to beget children.
Evil words. Horrible words. Ugly, loathsome words.
But it is doubtful if any of those words had hurt her as deeply as these words of Arjuna.
Ugly deeds had been done in that assembly on that day. Like a common street gambler, a king had gambled away everything that was his in that assembly. In an act that even a street gambler does not do, that king, famed for his virtues, had wagered his brothers one after the other and lost them. And then, after wagering and losing himself, he had proceeded to wager his own wife! An act the vilest of men would be more reluctant to do than Yudhisthira had been to do. She too had been lost and declared, like the others, a slave to the Kauravas. She had been dragged out of her inner apartments where she was spending the days of her monthly period, and caught by her hair, had been dragged into the august assembly of the Kauravas, clad in a single cloth as the custom for a woman in her monthly season decreed. And, while the whole assembly watched, while her elders watched, while her husbands watched, an attempt was made to deprive her of her cloth and make her stand naked in the middle of that assembly. And then a man, again the middle of that assembly, in the presence of all of those people, in the brazen arrogance of his just won absolute power, contemptuous of all norms of decent behaviour, had removed his cloth to reveal his naked left thigh and invited her, his sister-in-law, to it – shaming her for ever.
Shocking deeds. Horrible deeds. Unheard of deeds in any civilized society.
But it is doubtful if any of these deeds had affected the princess of Panchala as deeply as this desertion by her favorite husband, the man who was among the five the closest to her heart, the man who had won her, won her body, her heart and her soul, in that swayamvara hall, the youth who had mesmerized her by his presence, by his competence, by his self-assurance, by his fearlessness, the man who was more truly her husband than any other.
Arjuna had deserted her.
A dark gloom rose up from the inner depths of Krishnaa. From that part of her being closest to the springs of life. From depths even she did not know existed. Deep, abysmal gloom rose up from those depths and spread to envelop her entire being. Clouding her senses, her mind, her heart, her entire being. Suffocating her senses, her mind, her heart, her entire being. Making her unable to breathe. Making her shiver in despair. In deep, indescribable pain. In pain so deep, no sound could express it. Pain so deep that silence, choking, smothering, enervating silence, silence that crushed her like a million tons of metal, alone could express it. Pain threatened to extinguish her.
Krishnaa surrendered to that silence.
And as she did so, the first howl of a distant jackal was heard in the Dice Hall. A howl of agony. A howl that tore at your heart with its immeasurable sadness. A howl that augured inauspiciousness. A howl that announced doom.
And then another, and another, and another. Soon a multitude of jackals were howling together, rending the skies with their agony. An endless multitude. Thousands upon thousands of jackals.
Which were joined by a hundred thousand donkeys braying together. In agony. In fathomless sadness.
And then a million wolves joined them. A million dogs. A million hyenas. A million owls. A million crows. A million vultures.
Filling the skies. Rending the skies.
And they heard a dissonance of eerie, bloodcurdling sounds joining these. Evil, horrible, monstrous sounds from another world, portending unspeakable evil. Cries of ghosts, cries of ghouls. Cries of restless souls wandering without a refuge for eternity in timeless dimensions. Cries of evil spirits. Cries of the souls of unborn babies choked to death in their mothers’ wombs. Cries of the souls of women who died without a sip of water in the middle of endless travails, trying to give birth to the babies in their wombs.
Cries from the depths of hell. Cries of the tortured souls from the many hells men feared to call by their names.
A million bats, dark, huge, eerie, risen from the depths of hell, covered the skies.
A thick horrid, obnoxious smell spread in the atmosphere of Hastinapura. A fetid stench as foul as people had never smelt.
The smell of death. The smell of rotting flesh.
The entire Hastinapura had come out of their homes.
They had never been witness to more inauspiciousness, to more horrible auguries. Hastinapura has suddenly turned hot. Hot like the womb of one of the horrible hells.
The cries of men and women, of children, multitudes and multitudes of them, joined the tumult.
There was deathly stillness In the Dice Hall.
And in the middle of that stillness, Dhritarashtra, tottering in his blindness, stood up, seeking the support of Sanjaya. His powerful body was bathed in perspiration.
“Daughter Krishnaa,” he stuttered, “forgive the Kauravas. Forgive my sons. They are evil. They were born evil and to an evil end they will come. I just wanted to see how far my sons would go in evil. And I see there is no end to their wickedness. Let not the Kurus come to an end through your wrath. Please forgive us for the humiliation you have been put through. You have made me proud by your conduct. I am pleased with you. Please ask for a boon – I want to give you a boon.”
It was a long time before Krishnaa could speak. When she spoke, she said these few words, “if you want to give me a boon, free King Yudhisthira from slavery. I do not want the king’s son to be laughed at by his friends, calling him a slave.”
“Let it be so. But I am not satisfied. Ask for another boon, Krishnaa.”
“I ask that my four other husbands be freed, with their weapons and their chariots.”
“So be it, Krishnaa. I free them all. And I free all their wealth. They can go back to Indraprastha with all that belonged to them. But ask for yet another boon. My heart is still not satisfied.”
“No, king, not another one, thank you. A kshatrani is entitled to ask for two boons. And I have asked for them. In any case, with my husbands freed, with their weapons and chariots, I do not need any other boon.”
Krishnaa bowed to the elders and walked towards her husbands.
The assembly exploded in a deafening explosion of approval.
Outside, the tumult had ended.
Peace had come back to Hastinapura.
The sky had turned diaphanous.
For the time being, at least.