Draupadi by Koral Dasgupta

Excerpted with permission from Draupadi (Pan Macmillan India, 2022)

Dressed in a royal attire, bedecked with jewellery and a thick lace of jasmines entwined around my hair, I stepped inside the thick woods of the Dvaita forest soon after our wedding. Having narrowly escaped a murderous attack orchestrated by their Kaurav cousins at Hastinapur, the Pandav were camping here after spending a long period at the Kamyak forest. The kingdom of Indraprastha had not been founded yet. With the tip of my fingers, I tickled the bulging veins on the wrist of Arjun, the third Pandav and now my husband. A mischievous smile spread on his lips.

Mother Kunti stood at a distance watching the setting sun, facing away from us. When the brothers called, she didn’t turn around. Only saying, ‘Whatever is brought must be shared between the five brothers equally.’
Shocked, the brothers looked at each other uncomfortably and dispersed. I stood there numb. Weren’t they taking a silly misunderstanding too seriously?
Not much time was wasted in interpreting the mother’s words as a command for me to marry all five brothers. The wedding garland hanging from my neck suddenly felt heavy, a sharp twinge radiated from the back of my neck. I split the thread holding together the flowers and let it drop to the forest floor. The elderly lady pretended to hear only the chirrup of the homecoming birds. She made no attempts to correct herself.


‘How could you?’ I lashed out the moment we had some privacy.
Trees of the Dvaita forest hurled dry leaves at me, reprimanding the resentment of a new bride. I pushed them away with a leg. Those days I was lost in love, yearning to be held in his majestic arms. But the finest archer of the land turned quite sluggish when it came to articulation. His silence, though, wasn’t something I would settle for.
‘How can I be split between the brothers? I am not a slice of mango to pleasure starved tongues.’ I was angry, hurt and unsettled, looking for the rudest of words to torment my beloved. Arjun caressed my shoulder as if I was a child whining over her lost toy. He stretched himself on the grass of the forest, tempting me with the spread of his toned body, looking skywards with a naughty glint in his eyes. My hands were itching to feel the warmth of his rising and falling chest. But they sat obediently on my lap, the bangles tinkling as I fidgeted now and then. Arjun smiled, forming a light dimple on his left chin.
‘You are tough, Panchali,’ he attempted a vague compliment.
Toughness, of all things! What else was I expecting from a warrior? He leaned towards me, eyes drunk with desire even as he remained aloof, unwilling to relinquish his stubborn restraint.
‘The challenge at your swayamvar wasn’t for one ordinary human to crack. It summoned the forces of five worlds,’ he whispered in my ear. There was a mysterious smile pasted on his lips; he was looking at the trees standing afar. I turned Arjun’s face towards me and held it firmly between my palms. His cheeks, covered with a soft growth on the sides, writhed under my impolite touch. He looked like a child waiting to be loved. I was offended.
‘What does that mean?’ I demanded. He took my right hand in his and placed it on his bare chest. My dark fingers on his fair skin made for a ravishing contrast. There was something unusual about his touch – supporting yet unbending. I
tried to pull away. The fingers refused to move as if they were no longer mine.
‘Your swayamvar had a revolving fish hung from a pole. All contenders were to attempt piercing its eye with an arrow after studying only its reflection in the water below,’ Arjun reminded. 

‘Such a terrific condition called for five occult forces. Dharamraj Yudhishthir followed the protocol of submitting to the princess first. Bhim, the son of Vayu, studied the temperament of the wind, which controlled the motion of the hanging object. Nakul charmed all with his looks and Sahadev shared his knowledge of physics. In this entire design, I was only the actor–executor tasked to hit the target.’
He looked at my shocked face with kindness.
We both lay quietly on the grass. My eyes were focused on nothing, while my brain was muddled with a billion thoughts resisting the words I had just heard. I didn’t want the argument to end. I wanted a fight. Arjun kept seducing from a distance, arousing in my body the desires I didn’t know existed. I still refused to budge.
‘I will not love five men,’ I was adamant.
‘Then don’t. Just love me.’ He shocked again with a simple solution to the blasphemous problem. I wanted to get up and leave, annoyed by his riddles and his restraint, both. Forlorn eyes trapped me within obstinate boundaries, melting
my resolve. I inched closer instead. His voice sent a ripple through my veins.
‘We – the five brothers – are a network of nerves around the same skeleton. You will soon discover this and more.’

Leaves embossed with colourful designs on their blades came flying towards us. Arjun gathered a few and weaved them between my braid. ‘It is complicated,’ I heard him say. ‘But convince yourself, Panchali. When you are with Yudhishthir or any of my brothers, you aren’t away from Arjun.’
I didn’t believe him; he could see it in my eyes.
‘How?’ I asked scornfully.
He touched my shoulder with his palm, strangely unroughened by fanatic archery. It smelled of lavender. He noticed I was distracted.
‘It is an enormous indrajal known by none in the family or the country. The truth of yore, constructed carefully by the cult of Devraj Indra and never to be documented in history. You are in possession of the whole – what the rest of the
world can only receive in parts.’

Before I could figure out whether this was yet another illusion created by the son of Indra, I was taken in by the lavender’s lure and our mouths touched, bringing the evening’s dialogue to a close.


That day and today – so much had changed! We matured in love but failed to protect our innocence. Yet, a few things remained unaltered.
One was Arjun’s focus on the present. He gave himself to it completely, as if nothing else existed. Inimitable commitment; one person at a time. A world of aspirants would be kept in waiting – from kings knocking for help, Brahmins orphaned by destroyed ashrams, to audacious fathers with youthful daughters waiting to be married off. Even the wildlife from dense forests and below the sea came seeking mitigation to their problems. 
Outside our suite at Indraprastha, our children would raise the roof on their heads. Everything they needed would require the latch to our chamber to be unlocked. Their attendants cajoled them towards other unemployed toys with little success. They clonked on the closed door and ran away. Half-sitting on the bed with a hand covering his eyes, Arjun asked if the treasury could afford an extension to his armoury.
Soon after we shifted to Indraprastha, Mother Kunti had instructed, ‘Hand over the keys of the treasury to her.’
Why, many wondered, but no one dared to ask.
The treasury was overflowing. Arjun’s extended armoury would cause no dent. I still scowled. ‘The armoury is already colossal.’
Removing the hand from over his eyes, he glared as if his darling wife’s extravagance had been heartlessly challenged by some immoral monster. I tried not to laugh.
‘There is a crowd calling out to you. Why aren’t you responding?’ I nudged.
‘I can’t hear them.’ He sat up suddenly and pulled me into the bed, stroking my chin like a smitten lover. I blushed. He would attend to all later, I was sure, because none of the seekers ever came back to repeat their plea.
‘Then what do you hear? Only the twang of the bow?’ All morning he had spent burnishing his weapons with oil and sawdust till I barged in and pulled him out for lunch. He was resting his head on my lap now for a brief siesta, expecting
my fingers to run through his dense hair. My fingers were far more friendly to him than I was.
‘Have you ever heard an arrow cutting through the air? With the elegance of a flying eagle, louder than the parakeet?’ he asked dreamily, caressing the back of my hand. ‘It’s rare, sharp and musical.’
Musical ... arrow. I rolled my eyes. His thumb moved over my lips. ‘Your voice is like that, all engulfing for the targeted audience.’
I withdrew abruptly, making his head fall on the bed from my lap. Arjun’s compliments were always obnoxious. More enraging was his chuckle.
‘What?’ I charged at him.
‘Nothing. The arrow has struck its target. My arrows always do.’ He covered his eyes again, irritating me more.
‘A messenger from Dwarka has been waiting since morning. Met him?’ I said casually as if this was about the taste of lunch.
‘What?’ he sprang up, ‘Why—’ and he stopped. A cold stare followed with him swearing my prank would receive a befitting retaliation. I laughed, pushing him off.
No outsider was allowed to enter our premises. Krishna was the only presence who never left. Arjun, the Pandav administrator, reported not to his eldest brother Yudhishthir, but to Krishna, his cousin from Dwarka!
Koral Dasgupta is author of the acclaimed  Sati Series (Pan Macmillan), and the founder of a literary movement - Tell Me Your Story -www.tellmeyourstory.in, that hosts short stories and poems written by people across age, professions and geographies. She is an academic, storyteller, consultant and creative thinker who dons many hats with equal ease.

Koral has published an eclectic range of books from academic nonfiction to relationship dramas. Having published widely with Westland Books, Niyogi Publishers, Rupa and Pan Macmillan, her books are discussed in the context of gender studies, art, myth and eco-critical literature. Other than India, Koral's books are shelved in the libraries of Harvard University, Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago, University of Wales, Duke University, University of North Carolina, TAMU, and others. Her fourth book has been optioned for screen adaptation. Find more at her website www.koraldasgupta.com.