“So that’s the sum of it then,” says Vichitra. “You get Vrikodar for one year and they get the lifetime services of an invincible warrior.”
Hidimbi is silent, remembering the recent conversation with Kunti and Yudhisthir. Bheem was present too, but he had played no part in it. All three had maintained a guarded stance. It had reminded her of the high, sharp-pointed barrier she had been told to put up around their hut. The task of building it had been easy, but it had seemed unfriendly to her.
“Of course, you agreed immediately,” prompts Vichitra, throwing her a reproving look.
Even when they speak nicely, as they always do, they make me feel left out. My presence is an intrusion they put up with because they have no choice. Why? What have I missed out in my effort to make them comfortable? I get the feeling that I must learn to shrink and be less noticeable when I stand before them.
Hidimbi shakes her head. “Not immediately. I asked whether the second condition would apply to a baby girl too?”
Vichitra chuckles. “And?”
“They did not bother to reply and spoke instead of the wedding ceremony.”
“A ceremony for an arrangement meant for one year? Why go through the trouble?”
“Mata Kunti was adamant about it.”
“That is the respectful way to address her I was told.” Hidimbi rolls her eyes. “She said that it was in my interest as it would make an honourable woman of me. Whatever that is.”
“What did you say?”
“That it still wasn’t necessary – because we honour every woman equally and no less than every man. I asked her if it was different among the Aryas.”
“Really?” Vichitra’s lips curve in a mischievous smile. Hidimbi shoots her a puzzled look. “Was it such a strange question? Vrikodar gave a snort of amusement when he heard it, but he quickly looked away. His elder brother looked surprised and slightly disapproving, as if I’d said something odd. As for Mata Kunti, she just pretended she hadn’t heard me. She pursed her lips. It makes her look strange – like she has no mouth. For some reason, she does it quite often when I am around.”
“Did anyone care to answer your question?”
“Her elder son did, though he sounded a bit flustered, waffling about the Aryas honouring married women, wives and mothers, above others. They wanted to honour me, he said, in their own way. As the new queen of the rakshasas, it was only right that I should be given due respect. The son born of the union would be the next king of the rakshasas.”
“And their ally…How convenient!” murmurs Vichitra. A look of scorn narrows her eyes. “Not good enough to be recognised openly as a grandson, but at their beck and call when they need a strong man to fight their wars. Is this what you want, Hidimbi? More importantly, is it what you want for your son? Are you prepared to give his power to another tribe?”
“I…I didn’t think of it that way…I haven’t thought that far. I don’t want to think about it. I just want to be with Vrikodar. For a night, a month of nights, six months, a year, I don’t care! I’m not thinking of how much time we will have, only of ways to make it beautiful. Our time together is so little, anyway, I want our hours to be a celebration of all the happiness being with him gives me. There are so many places I want to show him. For them, the forest is filled with terrors. I want him to see it as a haven. If he realises that the forest is the safest place for them, that he can be happy here, he may want to make the year-long marriage into a longer one.”
“That wasn’t my question.”
“I would be happy to give birth to his son – or daughter. I would want the child to know its father and not just know about him. When they said that they would not remain here beyond a year, I offered to leave too and go wherever they wanted with them. I want to see the world, I said. For some reason, none of them thought it was a good idea. The elder son Yudhisthir said something about their nomadic life being inconvenient and their need for anonymity. I tried to say that I can assume different forms at will, but I could see that their minds could not comprehend that. So, I gave them a demonstration of shape-shifting.”
“Uhn…hunh. It wasn’t a full moon, my powers were not at their peak. It was a small act, really.”
“The blue butterfly? Or were you the singing bird? The stinging bee?”
“A golden deer.”
Vichitra’s jaw falls open. “Don’t tell me! The last time a rakshasa turned into a golden deer, he ended up with an arrow through his heart.”
“It’s an act I have always wanted to try out, but before the right audience. I thought that as they were Aryas, it would impress them…but they looked quite shaken.”
“And why not? It led to a terrible war the last time.”
“Well, this time it won’t. They made it clear that Vrikodar could have nothing to do with me once he left the forest. Then why will they want anything to do with my son?”
“Is that what Vrikodar too wants – to have nothing to do with his son?”
“He didn’t say a word to make me believe differently.”
“Does it seem fair?”
Hidimbi chews a corner of her lower lip. “Strangely, it does. I have thought about it…it is fair. Marriage is not a pre-condition to pairing off. It happens by mutual consent, is not exclusive and need not even be permanent. But Mata Kunti said that in their world, such a relationship is not permitted. Marriage is a duty, she said.” Adopting Kunti’s calm but austere manner, she mimics her dry, flat tone perfectly. “Giving birth to a son is your duty too. It is nothing more, or less, than what is expected from all married women in our society.”
“Motherhood,” says Vichitra, with an ironic twist to her mouth. “How they exalt it! You do understand what this means, don’t you? Mata Kunti cannot be disobeyed. For the one year that you are married to Vrikodar, he – and his mother – will have exclusive rights over you…That is why they are insisting on a marriage.”
Excerpted with permission from The Forgotten Wife: The Story of Hidimbi and Bheem, Madhavi Mahadevan, Speaking Tiger Books.