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Seeing Again: An Excerpt from The Curse of Gandhari

The following extract from The Curse of Gandhari by Aditi Banerjee was published first by IndiaFacts.

Gandhari screwed her eyes shut behind her blindfold.  She shrunk her eyes into their sockets, withdrawing as far into herself as she could.  If she could, she would have squeezed her ears shut.  She shrank into herself, cowering at the edge of her seat, holding herself away from Kunti, from the shame of knowing what her sons were doing to her daughter-in-law. She heard the rent of fabric tearing as Duhshasana began pulling off Draupadi’s garment.  The gasps of disbelief from the assembly.  The silence as no one did anything to stop it.

She heard Karna’s low chuckle as Duhshasana pulled and pulled.  Was she naked now?  Were her breasts bared?  Her bleeding, most private of parts?  Her rear end?  The body all these men had at one time desired.  Was it now open to their ogling eyes? It was only because Gandhari hearing had grown super refined ever since she blindfolded herself that she heard it, that she heard the whispered name float from Draupadi’s lips: “Krishna.”

No one else heard it.  In so many of the recountings of that day for the thousands of years that would follow, many would say she had never called his name, that he had never come.But Gandhari heard it and then she saw it.

The name itself sent chills down her spine.  It horrified her more than all the other horrors that had already transpired that day put together.  She still recalled the day she had first heard the name of Krishna, from Satyavati’s lips.  Krishna.  The name terrified her now as it had then.  She almost stood up and stumbled her way out of the assembly hall, away from that name that she feared above all else, that name that she feared would be the death of her and her family.  But an irresistible force held her down in her chair, not letting her rise.  And though her eyes were screwed shut, suddenly they flew open.

It had been twenty years since she had seen color, since her eyes had beholden anything.  Even in her sleep, she had been careful to not dream, other than those lurid nightmares she had not been able to escape during her pregnancy.  Even in her imagination, she did not let herself see.  She never let herself imagine what her sons looked like, what she herself must have looked like after all these years.  Now it was as if her eyelids had been peeled back, her eyes pried open.  She expected to see horror, but she saw beauty.

She saw Krishna. Beyond the periphery of her eye, the hand of Duhshasana was tugging at Draupadi’s single rough-spun cotton cloth, pulling it away from her body, but before her body could be revealed, another garment took its place.  The more he pulled, the more cloth gathered at Draupadi’s feet, cushioning them like a soft carpet, while her modesty remained intact.  Garment after garment slipped around that slender frame, hugging her body softly, in comfort and commiseration, and then slipped away to the ground as Duhshasana inexorably kept pulling.

There was a roar of astonishment in the assembly as they witnessed the miracle of Draupadi, the extraordinary sight of her being dressed in one garment after another.  But no one else saw what Gandhari did.  Not even Draupadi, who swayed like a sinuous flame, arms flung upwards, exultant and defiant, her eyes closed as her face was upturned towards the ceiling, towards the heavens, pleading for succor, even as she twirled and fine satin and cotton clothes spun themselves around her.  Her hair was like a long, blue-black whip, whirling around and around, a weapon warding off the prying hands of her sons.

But no one else saw Krishna.They all saw the miracle, but they said Draupadi was saved by Dharma.  And indeed that also was true, for what else but the force of Dharma could have drawn Krishna, the highest of the gods, to her side, to her rescue, as he had not come for Gandhari?

It was only Gandhari who saw Krishna.  She had heard he had been a cowherd once, a simple farmer boy, with a peacock feather tucked in his hair.  She had heard that he was called an imposter, that he was taunted for not being a real prince, that his pedigree as a king, let alone as a god, had been challenged and questioned again and again, that Shishupala had insulted him one hundred times in a row, and this smiling, patient god, this Krishna neatly sliced his head off only after the hundredth time.  Seeing him now, she wondered how anyone could doubt his divinity.

Each line of his sky-colored body, draped in pale yellow silk, was graceful and elegant.  The slant of the upper cloth as it fluttered atop his sloping shoulders, his chest bearing the Kaustubha gem, the blue-black locks of hair that fell over his forehead rakishly, the golden diadem crown atop his curly hair, that still bore a peacock feather as tribute to his boyhood, the cross of his right leg across his left, the arch of his right heel, reddish against his blue skin, how delicately and like a dancer it poised on the ground, leaning against the calf of his other leg.  He swayed gently as he stood there.

Gandhari forgot everything as she drank in the sight of him like a woman mad with thirst.  What tenderness was in his face, what love!  His eyes were long ellipsoids the shape of lotus petals, lashes shadowing his dimpled cheeks flirtatiously, his shark-shaped earrings catching and reflecting the bright sunlight that still filtered in through the palace windows.  He did not carry now the flute of his boyhood, but his very breath was music.  To not have seen the world for decades and to awaken to the sight of him — she would have gladly blinded herself for hundreds of years to catch one moment of this sight.

He was swaying gently to a melody only he heard.  Gandhari forgot everything — she forgot the assembly hall, the disrobing of Draupadi, the misconduct of her sons — everything that was not Krishna and his beauteous face and form swimming in front of her eyes that had been opened as if for the first time.  She could not remember the last time she had smiled — she had not even smiled at her babies.  She had raised them sternly.  She caressed them but without giggles, without the laughter and cooing that would have perhaps come naturally had she been able to see them crawl, see their fat cheeks, their once adorable, once innocent eyes.  She almost smiled now.

She had thought she was beyond seduction.  Since the time of her marriage, she had not even thought of another man beside her husband.  But this was a god, this was the best of all the gods.  She had once prayed to Shiva for a husband like him.  She had once fasted for a year for that boon.  She would have fasted for a thousand years — forget blindfolding herself, she would have gouged her own eyes out — to have won this Krishna for herself, to have been his bride.  He who had come to the rescue of Draupadi, who could have taken her away from this miserable palace, this life that had become so rotten and hopeless.

A golden discus with a sharp serrated edge rotated on the index finger of his right hand, the finger held up vertically to serve as the axis around which the discus spun.  It was the Sudarshana chakra, the most powerful weapon in the universe.  It could have cut through the core of the earth in moments, could have burned all the worlds into ash in the space of a second.  Yet now it spun out soft cloths to drape Draupadi.  With a gentle smile, Krishna sent yards of fabric out to cover and protect Draupadi, in soothing pink, yellow, orange tones, offering solace to her in every which way.  The chakra spun them out like a loom and at the flick of Krishna’s finger, the cloth flung itself to Draupadi, draping itself around her protectively.

It was a spellbinding sight, the love and tenderness in his gaze, the intense meditative fervor of Draupadi’s face as she spun around and around, as Duhshasana tugged the fabric from one end and Krishna covered her from the other.  It was the sound of Duryodhana’s groan that broke the spell.  He grunted as he grew frustrated at the failure of Draupadi’s disrobing.  Gandhari knew it was her eldest son.  He made that same sound of impatience and hunger when he wanted seconds at dinner, demanding another serving of meat from her plates, growling until she served him.  It was the same hunger, the same lust.

Krishna’s eyes narrowed, reddened in anger and displeasure.Now Gandhari heard the chortles of Karna and Duryodhana, goading Duhshasana onward, even as it was obvious it would not work, that their ploy had been thwarted. The chakra began spinning faster and faster, whirring with a high-pitched noise.  Krishna smiled.  His smiles were legendary, so charming, so enticing, they drew cows and deer to his side, drew the flowers from the trees, made the waves of the river reverse course to come near him, turned women and men, boys and girls, the elderly, the sick, the royal, the poor, all to mush.  But this was not that kind of a smile.  This was a blood-curdling smile, a smile that promised war, total destruction, total annihilation.

Gandhari gasped, convinced that Krishna was going to decapitate her sons.  Krishna’s gaze slid to her and he raised an eyebrow at her challengingly, inquisitively.  Gandhari remembered how he had severed Shishupala’s head after one hundred insults.  How could he be expected to bear this dishonoring of Draupadi, one of his most favorite people, one of his closest friends?  Everyone knew of the special friendship between the two, how when once Krishna had hurt his finger, Draupadi had rushed to him, wrapping the wound with her own sari, how touched he had been, how he had vowed to one day return the favor.  And now he was.

Gandhari moved as if to lunge towards her sons, to fling herself in front of them protectively, to save them from Krishna.  At that moment, all she could think of was saving her sons from his divine weapon, from his divine intervention, to protect them from his punishment.  Krishna shook his head at her sadly.

It was then that Gandhari realized that it had not been her sons that were being tested at that moment; it was her.  She had moved to save her sons when she had not moved to protect Dharma.  She had forsaken Dharma for her flesh and blood.  She had moved to oppose Krishna instead of supporting him.  She had chosen the vile deeds of her sons over the innocence of her daughter-in-law.  She had failed.

She remembered now how her father had fretted and been so anxious after that wild ascetic had come to their court in Gandhara, how worried he had been that she would be an enemy to the gods, that there was something wrong within her.  She remembered how Dvaipayanaya had hesitated before giving her the blessing for one hundred sons.  Had he known then that this would happen?  Had he known that she would not be able to raise them well?  That she would raise them with some evil, some evil that perhaps had been inside her all along?  Had he tried to protect her from herself?

Had she failed as a mother?  She remembered now all the rules of etiquette that she had taught her sons, all the formalities, all the honorifics by which they were to address women, their elders, their teachers.  But had she not taught them respect?  Had she not taught them to care for others, to feel compassion?  Had she forgotten to endow them with that which she had been deprived of for so long?

She had failed as a mother, a woman, a queen, who still had some authority in this court, moral if not legal.  She moved her eyes desperately, looking for her sons, at least once, to see them for herself, to see once their eyes, their expressions, what their faces alone could tell her of their character.  But everything else was darkness.  Only Krishna was visible.

When her eyes found Krishna’s face again, the love and longing was lost.  He was her enemy now.  He was the one who would to destroy her family.  They were now on opposite sides.  An anguish and misery like nothing she had ever known set inside her.  That which had been hardened in her once now turned brittle, into something that would shatter into dust.  For a moment, there had been possibility.  For a moment, there had been hope.

The whirring of the chakra became so loud, it melded into the sound of a conch being blown, the conches of a war that was now inevitable, heralding a battle that would inexorably draw in all the kingdoms and families of Bharat, pitting them against each other, splitting families and pitting brother against brother, teacher against student, a war that would tear apart the only world they had ever known.  The sound of the conches melded with the crying out of the people assembled in the hall, awestruck and horrified by the miracle and the debacle of what they had witnessed.  And that sound melded with the low keening cry that came out of Gandhari’s mouth, a cry of protest, too little, too late.

And then did Duhshasana finally give up, letting go of Draupadi’s cloth and falling back to the floor in exhaustion with heaps and mounds of fabric surrounding him.  Then did Draupadi stop spinning, her feet carpeted by the piles of silk and cotton, coming to rest at last.  Then did the chakra finally stop spinning and all sound fade into silence.  And then all went black for Gandhari, once again.  Once again, she was without sight.

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