No laughing matter
The story so far:
Draupadi starts her final journey with her five husbands, the mythical journey to the heavens. On the way, fatigue overtakes her. She is left to die while her husbands proceed. It is revealed that the last of the 5 brothers, Sahadeva, tells her a secret before he leaves her as well. Draupadi waits, her eyes on the road, reminiscing about her life. It starts with a lonely existence in the gardens of Panchala, where she grows up motherless, with a father and brother who don’t care much for her. The only light in her life is her adoration for Kanha, her childhood friend. It is revealed that Drupada, her father, wants her to marry Arjuna, one of the 5 brothers called the Pandavas, so that he can take revenge on his arch enemy. Thanks to Kanha’s stories and her own dreams, Draupadi falls in love with Arjuna whom she has never met.
In a turn of events, Arjuna wins Draupadi’s hand in a tournament, defeating many other princes including the charismatic Duryodhana and the enigmatic Karna. Draupadi, glad to escape the oppression of her father’s household, eagerly accompanies Arjuna and Bhima. Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, upon hearing the news, insists that all the five brothers should marry Draupadi, because she wants nothing to come in between her sons. Kanha is seen tacitly accepting this scheme. The only person who opposes is Sahadeva. Draupadi is both appalled by the other brothers’ acceptance of this scheme and Arjuna’s indifference to her plight, but given no option, she agrees to what they decree for her.
She is taken back to Hastinapur, the palace of intrigue, to meet the extended family of her husbands. She spends the first year with the first brother, Yudhistra, and also has a child.
While she is with Bhima for the second year, she gets to understand the nature of the political intrigue prevalent in the kingdom, the enmity between the brothers. She wants to avoid the pain of the impending war their enmity is sure to bring, and she very naively pleads with Bhima to maintain peace. However, Bhima advocates aggression, and mentions a fantastic yagna they’ve planned, a show of display and wealth to their cousins. Arjuna is away all this while, while Draupadi’s fascination with Arjuna fades slowly.
Kanha stayed only for three days, but Draupadi made sure the time they spent together was worth the while. The little nephew and his uncle bonded over those three days, while Kanha looked on amusingly at the various preparations all over the palace made to impress the guests.
The guests were not only the kings and ministers of the little principalities, who would be awed by any show of wealth and pomp. The main aim of the affair was to impress the Kauravas, especially Duryodhana. To that end, the palace was decked in silks and furnished with the best furniture available. Pools of water studded the middle of various rooms. The ceiling sometimes gave way to a view of the sky, and little ripples of sunlight danced on the floor. Huge polished mirrors hung in the interior chambers, and the fragrance in the rooms never seemed to die.
“Let them see what we have been up to!” stated Yudhistra. “Let them know what we are dealing with!”
Kunti silently engineered most of the schemes. Draupadi never found her idle for a minute – she spoke to the architect who was remodeling their baths and the landscape designer making the gardens. She commissioned for swings in the gardens elaborately carved out of the trees and pleasure arbors and fountains by the dozen. The donations piling up from the surrounding counties all went into the upkeep of the palace. More manual work meant more employment for the people in their little kingdom; there was something for everybody.
Draupadi, who had asked to help with the accounts, was amazed by the numbers on the books. She had never known how money was made or what one could do with it, because someone had been there to worry about her finances so far. Now, furnishing a huge palace and ordering menus for a gathering over a thousand people taught her things she would have never known otherwise.
The guests started pouring in. The men kept to themselves, but Draupadi, for the first time in her life, played hostess to the women in the palace under the strict guidance of her mother-in-law. Kunti had charted out who would room where, and Draupadi made sure they were comfortable. In particular, Kunti was insistent that Duryodhana’s mother, Gandhari, have no cause for complaint at all.
“Treat her as you would treat me,” Kunti ordered quietly with a glint in her eye.
Draupadi knew what that meant.
The day after Gandhari had arrived, Draupadi received a message in the middle of the day that two more queens had come in from Hastinapur. Draupadi went out to meet them.She had never met the petite Bhanumati or Karna’s wife, Vrushali, earlier. She was apprehensive, because of the enmity and tension in the family. Not to mention that Duryodhana and Kana had coveted her hand and lost.
The women stood with three or four attendents each, and Draupadi approached the women uncertainly. “I’m Draupadi, pleased to meet you,” she said. “Mother is in court with the men, but I can show you where to go.”
The two women smiled and followed Draupadi through the winding hallways to the inner rooms. Draupadi smiled again, formally, and showed them their rooms, next to each other. “Please make yourselves comfortable. I am in the next room, please ask me or the attendant if you want something.,” she said.
The two women looked at each other and looked back at Draupadi.
“Is that it?” asked Draupadi, a little nervous. Why were these women looking at her like that? Didn’t they like her?
Bhanumati cleared her throat. “Draupadi, we have never spent much time with you and as a result we don’t know you at all. Would it be OK with you if we came to your room this afternoon and maybe played some music or a game of dice?”
Draupadi stared back.
“What, is that okay?”
“Why, of course!” she laughed in relief. “I thought you did not like me at all!”
“But we don’t even know you!” said Vrushali, whose frank demeanor Draupadi loved.”Wait right there, we
will be right over.”
Draupadi went back to her room, and excitedly laid out the foods and drinks and games. She would not admit it to herself, but life in the palace was lonely. There was one of the five brothers to talk to or play with when he had the time, but at other times, it was only her attendants or Kunti-ma that she could talk to. After the broad trees and jungles of her childhood, and it’s loneliness, Draupadi secretly craved for companionship.
That afternoon, Draupadi found out what it was to have friends.Through the long, sweltering afternoon, the three young girls took turns playing with Draupadi’s baby and played,talked and laughed. They compared notes about their lives, their families, and mimicked the older men and women in the family. They spoke about their husband, or in Draupadi’s case, in the plural. The girls were very curious about what the Pandavas were really like, as was Draupadi about the Kauravas.
“You know, the more we talk the more I understand that their hatred for each other is all because they have never really sat together and talked and played like we did,” observed Bhanumati.
Draupadi had to agree. The picture Bhima and Yud had painted of Duryodhana, as a cruel, heartless monster, was completely negated by Bhanumati. She spoke about a focussed, determined individual, determined to have his own way in things, but undyingly protective of whoever he thought was included in his ‘fold’. As far as he was concerned, there was no greater living being than his wife Bhanumati, and satisfied her every whim and desire.
As they chatted on, the sun started to set, and Vrushali gathered up her skirts. “I must go now,” she said. “Could I please get some milk and saffron? My husband usually prays at sunset and comes to my apartment to make an offering to the gods. He might come soon. I must go.”
Draupadi and Bhanumati laughed, and after much teasing, let her go. Draupadi lent her a beautiful hair ornament, and sent out an attendant to get the milk. Bhanumati and Draupadi went out to the gardens at the back and watched the sun set. Far away, they could hear the twangs of bows and arrows which meant only one thing – Arjuna was back to his ritual practice.
Draupadi usually woke early. She had a garden in her backyard that she maintained religiously herself, and she personally watered it the first thing in the morning. Her anklets rustled on the stone floor and her skirts swished when she heard a tiny cough behind her.
“Pardon me, but I seem to have lost my way going out,” said the cultured man’s voice. “My wife brought me in last night. Could you please show me out?”
Draupadi made out his features, the fair skin, the high cheekbones, the broad forehead, the sharp nose. She silently beckoned him to follow her and held her lamp high as she walked through the corridors, and finally emerged out of a wooden gate opening to her garden outside. The sky was a shade of violet with reds thrown in. The first rays of the sun threw her green leaved plants into relief. Draupadi turned and looked at Karna’s shining face.
“Thank you, ma’m,” said Karna. If it had been another day and age, he would have bowed.
“You’re welcome. I hope you learn the ways of our palace soon. I understand it can be hard for you,” said Draupadi.
“Ma’m, are you insinuating that my lowly beginnings would find it difficult to adjust to the ways of your enormously lavish palace?”
“Not at all, although I cannot help it if you take offense, sir. I don’t think I know who you are, as we have not been formally introduced. I would have nothing to gain by causing offense to a stranger.”
“We have met, madam.”
“Have we? I don’t recall it.”
“I regret it. It was about two years ago, when we were showing off our prowess with the bow to win your hand. You did not allow me to compete, stating the conditions of my birth as a defect.”
“Oh, that was you? Aren’t you Duryodhana’s friend?”
“Karna, at your service. Although I like to introduce myself, madam, as the best archer in the world. ”
“I am Draupadi, wife of Arjuna.”
“Ah, the Arjuna who still squints while he shoots. I noticed it yesterday when I observed him practice.”
“I am afraid I am not very familiar with techniques of archery, sir. All I know is the number of battles he has won with his bow and the terror the twang of his bow strikes in the heart of his enemies. His techniques work. He is good, no, the best.”
“Well, madam, if you care about his life, you would advise him to stop that nasty habit. It is all fine when he shoots squirrels, but he is compromising on peripheral vision when he is in battle. And I, unlike him, have not just been a general in battle, but a foot soldier, armed with only a bow, arrow and my wits.”
“Very generous of you, sir.”
“Quite, madam. I am famed for it.”
“Not so famed for your modesty, I gather.”
“No, madam. Modesty is for the incompetent and the fool. The sun is powerful, does he ever stop advertising his power? ”
His eyes rose in adoration as he looked at the sun. “Goodbye madam. I must pray now,” he said. Draupadi looked at him go. Turning to her plants, she noticed an upper storey window curtain close hurriedly. But she had seen the face first. It was Arjuna’s, and it was livid.
The conversation confused her. She had not been her usual self, disarming, charming, forthright. The formality, the subtle sneering, it was not herself at all. Through the day, the conversation popped in and out of her head till she decided to find something else to do. Bhanumati was up for a game of dice, so they played till Draupadi’s child started to cry, and Draupadi went to tend to him.
When she returned, Draupadi was surprised to find Bhanumati playing with Karna.
“Well, you do seem to find your way into the rooms quite easily,” remarked Draupadi, sitting next to Bhanumati.
“We should use your architect’s plan for our battle strategies, madam,” replied Karna.
“Well, well, enough of your empty words, beat me at the game, and then we will talk of battle,” challenged Bhanumati.
“This boy, he always challenges me to a game and loses every time,” whispered Bhanumati to Draupadi.
“He’s bad at this, but never owns up. Someday he’s going to sign over his entire kingdom to me!”
Draupadi laughed. “Your husband might just give it back to him…again.” Karna noticed, and flushed.
Footfalls were heard in the corridor as Bhanu rolled her dies.
“Six! Yes!” she pumped her fist and finished the game. “So I win this time too.” She rose to go.
“Wait!” exclaimed Karna. “You promised me two games! What’s the deal with going off right away?”
“Who wants to play with you, loser?” she said, pulling away. The footfalls got louder. Her yellow garment tore loose and the little rubies on the tips scattered all over the place.
Duryodhana walked in.
The rubies cluttered all around, the dice, the corner of the yellow garment in Karna’s hand, and Bhanumati herself. Duryodhana smiled at her. “Fun! Did you make him lose again?”
Bhanumati retrieved her garment, while Karna started to apologize for having torn her clothes. “It was an accident…” he started to say.
“Nonsense! They are just rubies. I am sure the good queen of the Pandavas must have lying some around after decorating her walls. Here, I’ll string them back on your cloth.”
Draupadi watched in bewilderment. She had seen Yudhistra’s face when she lived with Bhima. She had watched Arjuna’s face go crazy with jealousy when he had caught her talking to Karna only that very morning.
And then there was Duryodhana.
Duryodhana got up to leave, face still aglow after meeting his friend and his wife. Bhanumati picked up a few scattered rubies and jingled them. “Do you even know to stitch? Bring a thread and needle, I will show you…” she teased.
Duryodhana looked back at her and laughed, and not watching where he was going, walked straight into the fountain in the middle of the room.
Draupadi and Bhanumati burst out laughing.Karna looked at Draupadi, a cynical leer on his face.