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.

Excerpted with permission from Draupadi, Koral Dasgupta, Pan Macmillan.