The moon gleamed peacefully. It was the night of the full-moon, the pournami. Hastinapura was bathed in silver beams. Pandu looked wistful. Ile had wanted to spend the evening with Kunti. It was so long since he had had any time at all. Matters of policy, matters of war matters of civic importance. Sometimes, no, always, Pandu wished he had not been born into a royal family. He would not have. Had it not been for his grandmother Satyavati insisting that Vyasa come and ‘see’ her two daughters-in-law. The kingdom comes first, always the kingdom.
A stern cough brought him to the present. Bhishma was talking. Bhishma always talked. He decided. Grandsire. Pitamah. That was a nice name. Pandit had not thought of it; it had been Pushpalekha, that wandering minstrel, who had used it when telling the history of the town. Pitamah, Grandsire. And he was talking.
`And so, we need an heir.’
Pandu started. He could not honestly say he was surprised. Three years of marriage to Kunti and no children. Unmanly, that’s what his subjects called him, he knew And here was Pitamah telling him he needed heirs. Irritated, Pandit wanted to ask him if he could pull heirs out of trees, But Pitamah never had had any sense of humour.
Pandu kept quiet.
`What do you mean by keeping so quiet? We need an heir. And for that, you need to take a second wife.’
Pandu stared. Second wife? He didn’t want a second wife. He and Kunti were happy together.
`You are a king, Pandu.’ The angry reply. ‘Your personal happiness does not matter. The kingdom needs an heir. You must many again.’
Marry again? What if the people were right? What if he really was not a man? And what of Kunti? She need not be told. She may create problems. You know how possessive she is.’
Kunti? Possessive? Only because she wanted Pandu to spend some evenings with her? Does she not have the right to? Kunti create problems? She would not know how. And anyway, who’d marry him? After all those slurs on his manhood?
The princess of Madra. Her name is Madri. I have already fixed it up with the king, her brother. They are a small country, but strategically placed. . .’ Warfare. Heirfare? Pandu’s lingusitic skills were improving. He wished he had the courage to tell Bhismna all the things he had thought in italics. But when had he ever spoken? And who had ever listened to anybody else when Bhishma spoke?
The moon gleamed peacefully. It was the night of the fiill-moon, the pournami. In the small, strategically placed land of Madra, a woman stood staring at the silver beams. Madri felt her world crumbling around her. She barely saw her brother’s retreating back. Marry Pandu. So easy. Marry Pandu. She didn’t want to marry Pandu. She wanted to marry Aditya, her Aditya. He was a prince too, so why could she not marry him? But no. Her brother had even refused to listen to anything further: Marry Pandu.
She looked wildly around her. What to do? Whom to talk to? For she needed to talk. No mother, no sister, no grandmother. A soft song floated down the garden. Madri was suddenly surprised she had not thought of this all along. Pushpalekha. That minstrel, singer. Her friend. She had come back to her hovel after all her wanderings. She would know what to do. She was a magician.
Madri did not need to think twice. She ran towards the song, towards the small hovel in which Pushpalekha lived. Her anklets jingled as her feet flew over the grass and the flowers, as she ran without even waiting to admire the reflection of the full moon in the pond amidst the lotuses, as she panted across the mango grove that led to the magical-looking clearing and the small but inside.
The moon gleamed peacefully. It was the night of the fullmoon, the pournami. Inside a small hut, Pushpalekha stood looking into a basin of water. Figures moved in it. Madri was staring wildly, Pandu was looking bemused, Bhishma stern. Pushpalekha knew this would happen. The history she knew was not written with blood, it was written with the broken dreams of princesses and queens. And very rarely of kings. Look at Pandu.
Anklets sounded outside and the door flew open. Madri ran inside. Pushpalekha looked up from her basin of magical water.
`My brother has arranged my marriage to Pandu.’
Pushpalekha knew. There was little she did not.
`I don’t want to marry Pandu. I love Aditya. I want to marry him.’
This too Pushpalekha knew. She also knew that there was little Madri could do. Aditya’s kingdom was not a big one, not a powerful one. Alliance with them was not going to help Madra. Hastinapura was different, a big kingdom. And an ally of a country with Bhishma in it that would be enough to ward off enemies.
`But it’s my life. My whole life. Not some wretched kingdom at stake,’ O, Madri, Madri. She never understood.
`You are the kingdom, Madri. If you marry Pandu, all of Madra marries Hastinapura. We are all safe. You are our peace treaty.’
`I am not. I am a woman. I want to live like I want to. I want to marry the man I love. I will run away, I will go to Aditya and we will get married.’
Madri was naïve. What had life taught her after all?
`Madri, Aditya knows your brother has fixed your wedding.’
`So, Aditya will never marry a woman promised to another man. No man will.’
`If marry Pandu, I will be marrying a man married to another woman. I hate being second.’
`This is statecraft, Madri, your hatred does not matter.’
The wind was slowly getting louder. Stronger.
`But Aditya will marry me. He loves me.’
`Oh, Madri, Madri, Madri. Do you not remember what I once showed you in my magic basin? Did I not show you Amba, Ambika and Ainbalika? Do you not remember how Bhishma brought these three princesses to marry his half brothers? Hastinapura had needed an heir then.’
The breeze outside was howling. It was not a soft music any more. It was beginning to become colder, much colder. Madri’s hair was flying behind her, the flames in Pushpalekha’s but were threatening to blow themselves out. The two seconds of silence were deafening. Madri was remembering.
`Yes. I remember. Amba wanted to marry the king of Salya.’
`She told Bhisma that and he sent her back to him. Do you remember what he said?’
`He would not marry a woman taken in fair combat. She belonged to another man.’ `Do you know, my Princess, that Amba came back, but Bhishma’s brothetq too did not want a woman who loved another man. She asked Bhishma to marry her.’
And he had taken a vow of celibacy.
Bhishma, Bhishma, Always Bhishma.
`She burnt herself.’
`How many of us will burn ourselves to give heirs to Hastinapura? They have always needed heirs and their men have never been able to give them any.’ The flames in Pushpalekha’s hut flickered more threateningly. The two women looked at the moon outside. It was half hidden by the clouds that were fast spreading across the sky.
Madri’s eyes were no longer wild. The moon was no longer peaceful. Pushpalekha looked away from Madri, into the basin of magical water. There were no images there, the water was too turbulent for that. Small strong waves lashed against the sides of the basin.
Madri’s voice was calm. Too calm. `So, they want heirs. It is a woman’s duty to give heirs, is it not? To bear children, is it not? Of her husband, is it not?’
Nothing could startle Pushpalekha. But she did not expect it to come this way. She looked up. The basin was shaking with the force of the waves in it, The wind almost shrieked outside. The flames flickered and went out, all together except for one mild lamp.
Madri’s voice, when it came, was soft. `Well then, Pushpalekha. I curse. I curse my marriage. I curse the entire Kuru clan. May my marriage to Pandu never bear fruit . . .’
No, my Princess, don’t. Don’t . .
`I curse that Pandu remain childless, that Hastinapura have no male heirs. May the country that Bhishma loves so much he torn apart, may it burn with anger and jealousy and hatred. May it burn in the ire of all the women who have burnt their desires for it. I curse my marriage and I curse Pandu.’
The wind howled. The clouds hid the moon. There were no flowers of the kind Pushpalekha had seen when Bhishma had taken his vow. Only torrential rain that suddenly lashed to quench the earth parched for the past two years in drought. Far away, farmers, overjoyed that their labours would bear fruit at last, laughed and shouted. In Pushpalekha’s hovel, a stunning silence fell.
`O Princess, princess, what have you done?’
`Made my brother’s peace treaty impotent.’
The moon gleamed peacefully, It was the night of the full-moon, the pournami. In a small hut in the forest adjoining Hastinapura, Kunti and Madri sat talking. Kunti was ill, a raging fever had made her pale and weak. Madri brought her water warmed and boiled with tulsi and other herbs.
`You don’t like the forest, do you, Madri?’
`No. I hate it. I hate the mosquitoes, the sounds of animals. I get scared of them. And I hate getting scared. And l hate doing all this cooking and washing on my own.’
`Why do you like comfort so much? It’s not . . .’
`Womanly? Why not? I was born in a palace. I had people doing all my work. I don’t mind giving up things, but if I do, I want it to be of my own accord, not to please someone else.’
`Pandu is not ‘someone else.’ He is your husband.’
Never in my mind. To the world, perhaps, To me, he is just a peace treaty gone impotent.
Kunti looked at the angry young face in front of her. She wished she could get angry. But she had lost that capacity — years ago . . . maybe it was her duty to teach Madri that loss too. How else could Madri keep her honour as a woman and queen?
`Pandu had to come here. And it is our duty as his wife to accompany him. After all, Sita. . .’
Madri laughed derisively. ‘Did Pandu tell you that? How easily we quote myths when they suit us. Didn’t Pandu ever think that Rama had sworn never to take another wife?’
`You don’t like being second, do you?’
Kunti stared. Nobody had ever asked her Anything. And she had lost the ability to answer.
‘Hastinapura needed an heir. And I could not provide one.’ Kunti felt like a parrot. That was what she had been told the day Pandu and Madri had been brought to her as husband and wife. No questions with Bhishma who had accompanied them. He had feared that she would create problems. How does one create problems?
`And now, Hastinapura will never get an heir. All because dear darling Pandu shot a deer that was making love to its wife.’
`Pandu is a king. He has to enjoy hunting and killing. . .’
`And not worrying about others. Who gave him power over animals and plants? If he has power over them it is to protect them, not kill them. He is not the only one in the world with sexual desires.’ Madri remembered all those nights.
Kunti did not answer. She did not know how to.
‘And thanks to that female deer’s curse, Pandu can never touch any woman in desire, or he dies.’
Kunti looked up. Madri’s voice seemed . . .delighted. That was the only word. When Madri spoke next, the delight was carefully veiled.
`Do you mind that so much, Kunti?’
So, Madri felt that way too. Kunti suddenly laughed. After years. And Madri joined in. It was some time before they stopped.
`Tell me Kunti, the mantra that sage gave you. The one you taught me. The one that brings children from whichever God you want. Did you never try it? Were you never curious?’
Kunti was surprised by the question. Nobody had ever asked her that. It was not she who was not curious. It was others.
`Yes, I was. Very curious. I used it. I called the Sun God.’
`He came. Oh, Madri, he was so splendid. So bright.’
`I got scared, I asked him to leave. But he would not. He could not. The mantra held him.’
`Did it work then?’
‘Of course it did.’
Madri looked at Kunti, surprised. ‘What happened to the child?’
`He was a splendid boy. Bright like his father. He was born with a shining armour and bright dangling earrings.’
`Where is he?’ It must have been difficult to hide a boy of this splendour. Kunti’s face changed. The beams of the moon outlined her face, made her look suddenly older.
‘I don’t know.’
`I don’t know.’ Suddenly Kunti sounded like she was pleading. Asking for forgiveness. ‘What would you have done? How could I be an unwed mother? What would people say .. I put the child in the basket and sent him off into the sea.’
Madri was quiet. But Kunti knew she understood the agony that had never abated.
`I vowed then that I would never use the mantra again. It had made me give up a child.’
`But you did. Hastinapura needed heirs.’
Kunti’s voice broke. ‘Yes, I had to break my promise,’
`Yes, it did not matter, did it? After all, you are not Bhishma. Your promises can be broken. They are not vows of celibacy. And Hastinapura needed heirs.’
A breeze began to blow through the open window. The shadows of the leaves of the palm trees were waving in the wind.
`Yes,’ Kunti said softly. ‘Hastinapura has got five heirs. Five sons. One from Yamadharma, one from Vayu, one from Indra, and twins from the Ashwini brothers.’
`And,’ added Madti, ‘none from Pandu.’
The moon gleamed peacefully. It was the night of the fullmoon, the pournami. In a small clearing in the forest, Madri stood over Pandu’s body, spread-eagled on the ground. Her voice was soft as she glanced down at the handsome face.
`So, you wanted to make love to me, Pandu, and the curse worked. Whose curse, though? Mine? The deer’s? Your children who are not your children will go back with Kunti to Hastinapura, to their hundred cousins. And I, I will burn on your funeral pyre.’ The moon gleamed brighter than it had for a long time, `The world will know me as your second wife, the one who burned. But Pushpalekha, the singer, the minstrel, she knows all the times I burnt before that. And she will tell my story.’
Madri bent down and touched Pandu’s hair. A soft smile played on her lips as a small cloud wafted in from the east and began to close in on the moon.
ALISTAIR PADMA. Lecturer in English at the Stella Maris College, Chennai. Interested in creative writing and translation.