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'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, Bheeshma 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 Bheeshma sat down, the assembly waited for Yudhisthira to speak. Yudhishthira sat with his head hanging low, without a word.
An infuriated Bheema shouted: 'Get me some fire, Sahadeva. I shall burn these accursed hands of Yudhishthira.'
Karna's triunmphant laughter answered Bheema's call.
Bheema 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 Bheema that the assembly heard. 'Yudhisthira is our lord and master,' said Bheema. '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.'
Bheemasena 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.
Bheema 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 Bheema'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 Bheema 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, Bheema 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 Bheema 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 Bheema'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 Bheema'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 periods, 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.