(Another writing collaboration. This time, a scene from the Mahabharata, when Arjuna arrives with his new wife, Subhadra, on Draupadi's threshold.)
Dusk had started its greedy journey of claiming real estate across the lands. Like a witch’s sinewy hands shadows grew, consuming a chunk of grass here, some trees there. Soon the land would be flooded with darkness. A darkness that perhaps no new sun would be able to erase again completely. The skies bore a hint of melancholy as she waited, patiently, for their arrival. But within her, behind the veils of reasons, a storm awaited.
The air was thick with incense. An everyday ritual in the palace, whenever the sun took a graceful exit. But that particular day she felt as if the smoke would snake across the gleaming floors, crawl up around her like an innocent creeper and choke the remaining life out of her. Such had been the impact of the news she had received. She could no longer see the poetry of the colours that had always been her one resort of solace. No more would the fragrance of flowers bring her peace. Not that day would the arrival of her heart’s beloved master and emperor, Arjuna, make her rush to the threshold to greet him into her arms. Everything was whirlpooling into a blank. A void. And she had started to ask questions that she feared she already knew the answers to.
He mused at the lightness and heaviness of the air. The breeze brushed past his arm as playfully as ever, fragrant like the new bride by his side, yet it was laced with a gloom, a cold, that he knew the palatial air would be like. He absently placed his arms around that warm nubile body as they walked, his steps light with anticipation, and heavy with guilt. Subhadra, that beautiful creature made of misty mornings, seemed to be floating alongside him. So different she was from Draupadi - that woman of flaming beauty. Yet how similar they were in their love for him. He sighed, his broad shoulders drooping under the weight of what was to be. “I should learn to live with paradoxes now,” he thought to himself. Even as a gale began to rise from the pit of his stomach, he wondered what was going through Subhadra’s mind, and let the chariot soar.
She repeated her name in her own head, over and over. Subhadra, Subhadra. Auspicious. Blessed. Her whole life had brought her to this one juncture where she was on the brink of questioning why she was here. What was she learning? She felt Arjuna’s body radiating guilt and a measure of worry as they swooped towards Indraprastha in the air-borne chariot. She was reminded of a child that had to go home after a day of rule-breaking to a waiting mother, ready to be chastised. It almost made her smile. Auspicious? Who could ever tell what Krishna had planned for her, for Arjuna, for Draupadi? But she had learnt one thing from all her time with this flute-player that everybody seemed to adore; everything you perceive is the tip of the iceberg. As they stepped out of the chariot and walked up the palace stairway, she remembered that it was she who had ridden the chariot. She had made Arjuna elope with her, albeit on Krishna’s instructions. She knew she could shield Arjuna. She also knew she would never have to do that until Krishna called for it.
The chambermaid came in and announced that the valiant Pandava had arrived with his new bride. Without batting an eyelid, Draupadi nodded her head in acknowledgement. It was so mechanical and instant that it was almost as if she had heard the maid’s voice inside her head. “Here he comes now” she told herself and began walking towards the main door. “How do I make him see what burns inside me?” she wondered, as her legs, unwillingly, dragged her towards him. “What misses the great Gandiva-bearing Pandava’s eyes? Nothing.” she reminded herself and approached the giant gold embroidered doors that somehow seemed taller than usual. Heavier and more merciless than what she had of them in memory. Every inch of her body was aflame with feelings that had been so alien to her. But she was no stranger to fire. It was her home, after all. So she awaited the pristine moment that would convert this raging wildfire inside her into a placid lamp.
The first thing she spotted was just Arjuna. For a fleeting moment all the rage within her disappeared. Could it be true? Was it really just him who stood there outside the door? Had he abandoned the idea of crushing her tender heart and decided to smother it with more love instead? A droplet of happiness pushed itself out of her eyes as these thoughts made home within her. But as she blinked in anticipation, the mist grew thin. And her smile, shaped like the beautiful Gandiva, was cruelly broken. Standing next to her Arjuna was the new girl. Krishna’s sister and the new stakeholder of her beloved’s heart. Subhadra. The tears in her eyes froze from the heat that now surged through her, turning them from transparent pearls to translucent sparks. Red with reason. Red like the tongue of a flame.
Arjuna froze too. Draupadi’s eyes locked into his, a million images flashed through his head. He remembered the Swayamwara, and Draupadi’s eyes when she first saw him there - she had smiled a bashful yet knowing smile. She knew that no one but him could win the contest. It was designed for the archer supreme. He remembered her victorious eyes again, when he stood before her, neck bent to wear the varmala, past all his contenders. Her eyes full of dreams when they walked together towards the Pandavas’ kutir in the forest. Her confused eyes when Kunti and Yudhishtir discussed dividing her into five parts. Her hurt, angry eyes, when they made the biggest decision of her life. Nobody had asked her then. Nobody had asked her now. She had acquiesced then to not giving all of herself to Arjuna. But would she agree now to not having Arjuna all to herself? Would she agree to a painful splitting again? He couldn’t tell.
All Arjuna saw were proud, angry tears, that streaked Draupadi’s fiery beauty. The tears singed him. How would he ever explain why Subhadra was here at her door, claiming to be another wife to him? How would he explain that his love for Draupadi hadn’t died, but a new love for Subhadra had been born? He summoned his voice with great difficulty. Words came forth from his throat like arrows, hurting his mouth, his head, his entire being. “I come to ask of you again today, to share what you hold dear. Would you, my love, give up a little of me?” His sigh melted into Subhadra’s - two united breaths. The first words had been uttered. Whether it would annihilate them or embrace them, at least the floodgates had been opened.
The wind from Arjuna’s and Subhadra’s sighs amplified the already roaring firestorm inside Draupadi. She collected herself, inhaled deep, and looking at Subhadra’s downcast eyes, said in a clear distinct voice “Greetings, O great son of Pandu. Would you be so kind as to also tell me why this is being asked of me?”
Subhadra put a restraining arm on Arjuna. She had sensed his lips part, ready with a reply but she had also seen Draupadi’s eyes boring into hers. She knew it was a question thrown at her. She could see that Draupadi, this glorious, powerful creature literally born of fire, had faced betrayal before from Arjuna. She hardly expected an answer from him. But a woman, a woman just like her in so many ways, how could she do this to her? There were a thousand questions in Draupadi’s fiery glare but Subhadra was protected. She looked into those red eyes, gently tilted her head and noticed something. She was home. There was Krishna everywhere. There were his symbols strewn across Indraprastha and in this moment, when those should be least of her concerns, Subhadra’s heart leapt in joy.
Peacocks strolled languorously in the sweeping gardens surrounding Indraprastha. She heard the gentle note of a flute playing somewhere far away. Draupadi was exactly how Krishna had described. In that one moment, she knew she was meeting a part of her own soul; a lover of Krishna, no different from who she was. Arjuna’s first queen, no different from who she was. “You don’t have to,” she whispered, glancing at Draupadi’s red-lined feet. “Krishna sends me.” A tear drop rolled down her eye as she uttered her only truth.
For a brief moment Draupadi’s fury seemed to find a sense of calm. Such a magical concoction lay in Krishna’s mere mention. In Subhadra’s words she could almost hear Krishna’s melodious voice. She relented, briefly. And in that brief instance she realised how tender Subhadra really was. Krishna’s name in the conversation had started to kill the fires. But it wasn’t comforting. The sting of desperation resumed with renewed energies when her gaze shifted to Arjuna, standing like a rock, next to the new girl.
“Did Krishna just send this new gift to Indraprastha? Or did he also send some arrow-tipped words with the great Arjuna? Why do I not see that quiver strapped to his person? What words will you choose, O famous Pandu putra, to explain this truth to me?” Draupadi said, without mincing her words, aiming them straight at Arjuna’s bosom.
“How do I say this, Panchali?” Arjuna began. “ How do I begin to mirror what churns beneath my skin? How do I explain the motivations of Keshava, which my actions have fructified?”
“He, who is sarathi to me, sakha to you, and bhrata to Subhadra has brought us together, like three flowers bound with one string. While it was Madhava who prompted me, Subhadra who whisked me away, it was I who has chosen to love and be loved back. Yet, dear Draupadi, I love you no less. While it was in the soil of your heart that my love first took root, I cannot now thrive without the water of Subhadra’s affections. And the sunlight of Dwarkadhish’s blessing is indispensible for all of us. You have been, and remain, my first love. In the name of that love, I implore you, in the name of our rashtra, I implore you to accept Subhadra. Accept her because it is Krishna’s will, accept her because it is my doing, accept her because it will make our state stronger. Accept her as you will partake in all of my karmas as my ardhangini. Accept her as your sister. All Subhadra seeks is a little place by your side, our side,” he said, turning towards his new bride.
Draupadi looked away. Krishna, it occurred to her, had indeed sent well-sharpened arrows with Arjuna. Each one of them made their mark on her hurting heart. With each new pierce the grief and rage in the pit of her stomach only worsened. Her mind was filled with memories.
“Acceptance...,”she said slowly. “You have chosen your words wisely, O valiant one. Many moons ago, was it not this same request for acceptance that gave me more than the man I had chosen at my Swayamwara? Was it not the same venom of acceptance I had been made to forcefully consume in the name of dharma, in the name of rashtra, in the name of the betterment of all humanity? What guile had been used against me back then to accept five husbands instead of one? How strategically was I implored, time and again, to consume within me the flames of someone else’s decisions? A land that was supposed to be your empire, a haven that would flourish with your monarchy, a golden oasis of nectar that would extinguish the flames of my barren life, had to accept the hands of four more men to rule it. Yes, I accepted. I accepted relinquishing you for four years at end. I accepted standing equally with your shadow wherever you went. I accepted the tiny piece of attention I got from your war riddled lifetime. I accepted them all Partha. But the only gushing waterfall in the dense rainforest of my little heart. That one small stone of pleasure on which I sit today along with you in my arms....”
She turned now to face Subhadra.
“...is being taken away from me. That singular tree I sit under. Krishna’s truth, I must admit...” Draupadi continued as the ghosts from her days bygone began choking her voice. “...is not cutting down that tree Gandeevi. It is killing that tree’s only existent, life-giving, pleasant shadow. And what is a tree without a shadow? That, I cannot accept, O Dhananjaya...” she said looking expectantly into her beloved’s quizzical eyes.
“Do not accept it, then. You are well within your rights to send me back. You are my king’s first queen. He first found love in your eyes, in your embrace. The love of an equal, the love of a woman, he found it first in your words and your silences. And I? I am but a pawn in this story of life. While I have loved your Arjuna more than I have ever loved any man, I harbour no illusions about what position I hold in his life, and in your life with him. I know why Krishna chose to name me Subhadra. I know I am being used. But that also tells me that I am useful. I do not know what Madhava plans. I am blessed with only human eyes and a human intellect and it is not for me to show you what lies beyond the horizon. I can only tell you that I place my unflinching faith in Govinda, in his plans, no matter how dark the clouds loom over the horizon.
“So send me back. But know this, Panchali, that the responsibility of refuting Krishna’s word rests heavy on your already-laden shoulders. Know this, O Krishnaa, that you make Krishna who he is. To refute his word is to go against your own grain. Remember. And I shall go in peace.”
Arjuna looked distraught. Tearing in the middle, fraught with pain. He looked at Subhadra, in awe of her stand. Yes, she was a woman who could steer destinies as well as she could steer chariots. She was, after all, Parthasarathi’s sister. Then he looked at Draupadi, a woman cast in embers, flaming with a passion of love and defiance, teetering on the edge of a decision.
Draupadi smiled. Not at what had been said by the new love in Arjuna’s life but at the familiarity of the situation. She recalled the words of her father, the great king Drupada, back when she was just a child. On an evening not too unlike the one that day, the aged king had made little Draupadi sit on his lap and told her the magical story of her birth. He had spoken of sacred fires, as tall as mount Meru itself, that had roared relentlessly for several days as many renowned sages had prayed to the heavens to grant the king a gift. “The gift,” Drupada had whispered in the little girl’s anxious ears “was wrapped in gold, yellow and red. It was made of fire. It was as if Lord Agni himself had walked into my humble home holding this beautiful little bundle of unbridled bliss. A little girl born of fire. A little soul that had the command of turning empires to dust with its fury and also the gentleness of giving warmth to shivering mortals.” The girl, amused at this comparison to fire, had laughed out loud. “Yes..” the king had added. “In time, you will see my little fire flower, that there will gather skies above your head that will need you to choose. What kind of fire will you unleash? Will you burn down castles of ambitions? Or will you set afire a million hopes?”
A tear rolled down Draupadi’s cheek. Much like the one Subhadra had let out a few moments ago while releasing her truth. This was Draupadi’s truth now. Her lifetime of truths wrapped in various boxes of acceptance from different corners of the universe. Her dark exterior had, much like the shadows cast by the Parijata tree, absorbed all the heat the world gifted her with. She recalled Arjuna’s look of surprise and admiration back at the Swayamwara at having spotted her singular beauty. But she wondered if he knew how many rabid energies had penetrated her to make her glow from the inside. Today, under the skies as dark as her, Draupadi was being asked the same question her father had asked her. What will she be? The generous flame that consumes everything it is presented with? Or the uncontrollable hurricane of anger that spares no one, vaporizes anything that comes its way?.
“Krishnaa exists because of Krishna...” she finally managed to mouth. “Had it not been for the immortal hands of Keshava, the many mortals who have ruled Draupadi’s heart would have extinguished her long ago.”
She looked at Subhadra. It was true what she had heard of her. Just like her brother, she had been born with the gift of words. But how different she was from him too. Unlike him, who chose his words to show the way ahead, her words seemed aimed to herald the truth of today. This moment. This heartbeat.
Subhadra stepped carefully over the threshold and approached Draupadi. Draupadi stood, barely balancing herself on her two feet, almost in a daze. Subhadra covered the last few steps towards Draupadi in a run and clasped her arms around her. “I know. I stoke no fire. I am not water. I will never put you out. I am Krishna too. And I will hold this earth beneath your feet. Forever and beyond,” she whispered. Words that passed only between her and Panchali. Draupadi felt frail in that one moment, like embers about to die out and Subhadra knew it was her job to fan them to keep them going. There was a long journey ahead. This life had hardly begun.
Draupadi’s fury came out as tears. Much like the waterfall in her mind’s forest, this was generous too. Much like the shadow of her singular tree, this was greedy too. Greedy not just for claiming Arjuna’s sole rights to her heart, but greedy for this new vision of Krishna to, hopefully, make the forest fire in her become a lamp that would brighten the dark days strewn like fallen flowers ahead. She held on to Subhadra.
Subhadra held one hand out behind her. They would never be complete without Arjuna. Arjuna held it fast.
In that one moment a confluence was created. The life forces of three strong streams merging into one. The barriers breaking between the elements of fire, water and earth and forming one divine. Arjuna saw Draupadi melt, forging a bond between her and Subhadra, forming one Prakriti with two faces, to accompany him, the Purusha, into the future. “Paradoxes,” he mused, “exist only as long as we fail to perceive the larger, divine picture.”
By accepting duality, we understand the presence of the One. It is this One that may sometimes play life’s sweet music on the banks of the Yamuna, and sometimes send life’s toughest choices in the way He sent a Draupadi, a Subhadra, an Arjuna, a Draupadi and a Subhadra, an Arjuna.