It was a clanging unlike anything she had ever heard. Unnatural, shrill and piercing, a continuous ding-ding-ding- ding like a temple bell gone mad. And it convulsed too, in tiny, quick waves on her hand until Draupadi dropped it with a shriek of her own.
The “phone” that Narad Muni had given them clattered on to the path they had been walking on. All four women stared as it writhed on the ground, loudly calling out to them at regular intervals. This was not what they had heard in Narad Muni’s presence. Kunti shrank back as it inched towards her and squeaked, “Is it in pain? Do something please, I can’t bear to see it suffer like this!”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It can’t be in pain.” Gandhari stared at it intently. “It’s not a living thing.”
“He said the temple bell will call if someone wants to speak to us. This is different,” said Amba, looking worried.
Draupadi’s brow creased. “If I know that wily old man – “
“Pick it up, for God’s sake,” a bush next to them muttered. “Shhhh, shut up!” “Arre, you shut up!”
The four women turned towards the bush, which had stopped talking and was now giggling. Draupadi could make out the outlines of a man and a woman locked in what could only be described as a compromising position.
Draupadi grinned to herself. Stinking toilets, horse manure, sack-like clothing, screeching phones and mortals copulating out in the open…this world was nothing if not interesting.
She bent down and gingerly picked up the phone. “As I was saying, if I know that wily old man, this is probably his twisted way” – she pressed the protrusion as she had seen Narad Muni do – “of amusing himself.”
The phone went silent.
“What took you so long to answer? So, do you like my new ringtone?” Narad Muni’s distorted voice tittered out of the device.
Draupadi glanced one last time at the bush and began to walk away from it. “Very funny. We were engaged in, er…studying mortal behaviour. Now, do you have something to say, old man, or were you just trying to trouble us?”
“Yes, one last thing. Don’t tell mortals who you really are. They don’t believe in things like heaven. They barely even believe in god any more…tragic, really. Anyway, just make up something to tell them. That’s all.” The phone went silent again.
The four women looked at each other as they walked. Kunti said, “So, what should we pretend to be? Visiting royalty from a foreign kingdom?”
“No, that would be too conspicuous,” replied Gandhari. “People would ask why the reigning monarch hasn’t invited us to his palace.”
“Besides, we’re not exactly dressed like royalty,” said Draupadi with some irony. “In fact, this, uh, bra makes me feel more like I’m dressed for war.” She wiggled uncomfortably.
Amba smiled. “We could just be common village women who trade in the market. Or gypsies! I’d rather be a gypsy. Then maybe we could” – she nodded over her shoulder at the bush with the cheekiest look on her face – “do that too.”
Draupadi burst out laughing, and even Kunti, who had been extremely forlorn until now, showed a hint of a smile. Gandhari pursed her lips and strode ahead of them, which made them laugh even harder. She glared at them over her shoulder.
Draupadi said between hiccups of mirth, “Come now, I never knew you were such a prude, Gandhari. Maybe I should have guessed it, being stuck with Dhritarashtra your whole life. With that nasal voice and the way he used to constantly wring his hands and open and close his lips like a fish” – she shuddered – “he would have turned any woman off the act.”
“I’ll thank you to not say such things about him. He was a good husband,” replied Gandhari half-heartedly, looking ahead. She didn’t fool anyone.
But Draupadi had already walked away and was striding towards two women, a middle-aged one with a younger woman. Obviously a mother with her daughter, the two were standing to one side of the clearing, trying to keep two very excited children in check. Draupadi strode up to them, smiling benevolently with just the tiniest hint of condescension.The women acknowledged her unsmilingly, distracted by the antics of their charges.
Unfazed, if a little surprised, Draupadi ventured some small talk. “It is a hot day, isn’t it?”
The middle-aged woman looked Draupadi up and down disapprovingly, pursed her lips and looked away.The younger woman made a half-hearted effort to be polite and nodded, while keeping her gaze fixed on a young girl of about two summers and an older boy of about five, who was climbing a metal railing next to them.
Draupadi, disconcerted by their rudeness, decided to try another approach. “What beautiful children you have. A little prince and princess,” she cooed. There was usually nothing mothers liked better than for others to validate their deluded opinions of their children.
The younger woman half-smiled in response and murmured, “Thank you.” Then, as the boy almost fell off the railing, she barked, “Abhimanyu, get off right now, before you break your head.”
Abhimanyu. So they remember us!
Draupadi smiled as she glanced back at the others to see if they had heard. They obviously had, for Kunti’s eyes had lit up despite her previous grief and Amba and Gandhari both had smiles on their faces as they walked towards them.
Draupadi turned back to the young mother. “What a lovely name your son has. Abhimanyu, a great warrior and prince. May he be as brave and noble as his namesake. And what is your daughter called?”
“Why do you want to know? Are you trying to sell something or ask for donation?” the older woman shot back harshly.
The younger woman looked sheepish, but made no effort to answer. Instead, she busied herself in trying to pull her son off the top of the railing.
Draupadi spoke to the older woman, trying her best to sound polite even though she felt like giving this rude, unkempt hag a piece of her mind, “No, I don’t want anything. I am just chatting. We are new to Indr…to New Delhi, and we are just looking around and learning as much as we can.”
“Well, go chat with someone else. We are busy.” The older woman turned her back on Draupadi pointedly.
The little boy, Abhimanyu, then came running up to them, made a face and said in a sing-song, mocking voice, “I am just chaaating. Go chaaat with someone else. You’re stupid!” He roared loudly and pounced closer to Draupadi. “I’m a tiger and I’m going to eat you!”
“Why, you nasty little pest!” Draupadi stepped forward and slapped the boy soundly on his cheek.
There was a collective gasp from all the surrounding women,and Abhimanyu’s mother and grandmother wore twin expressions of shock. Abhimanyu gave a loud wail, burst into tears and ran into his mother’s arms. His wails grew louder as he saw his grandmother and mother’s expressions turn from shock into anger, touched with a hint of fear.
The women began to shout at Draupadi while maintaining a safe distance.
“How dare you slap my son?!”
“Who do you think you are?! This is no way to behave!” Draupadi was done playing nice. She glared at them and spoke with contempt. “Your son is a rude little brat, and judging by the way you’ve behaved with me, I can see where he gets his manners.”
The women might have pursued the matter further, but Draupadi’s height and the intensity of her glare, not to mention the presence of her three companions, were enough to scare them off. The women retreated, clutching their brood and walking away hurriedly while glancing over their shoulders to make sure they weren’t being followed.
Amba shook her head and ventured, “Draupadi – “
“No, don’t say it. I know. I shouldn’t have slapped him. But” – Draupadi smiled wryly at Kunti – “his name was Abhimanyu after all…”
Abhimanyu, the son of her husband Arjuna and his younger wife Subhadra, had been a precocious child. And as much as Draupadi had loved his intelligence and inquisitive mind, she had resented the love that his parents had shared and sometimes unfairly taken it out on him.
None of her other husbands had dared to introduce her to their other wives or children. Arjuna himself had not dared to do so until he met Subhadra. Only then had he been willing to bear the force of Draupadi’s legendary temper; so that he could be with the woman he loved.
Draupadi smiled as she thought about all the pointless misery they had put each other through as mortals. Arjuna and she had shared extremely pleasurable, passionate sex, and for a while, she had even mistaken that for love. She had resented his brothers for taking her away from him, resented having to submit to their grunting, groping affections.They had none of the finesse or charm that he did.
When Subhadra came along, she had been viciously jealous. But when she had seen the love that Arjuna shared with Subhadra – a love that encompassed the mind, the heart, the soul and the body – Draupadi had realised that she had never felt that way about anyone. Not Arjuna, not her children; not anyone.
Maybe with Krishna; but then which woman wasn’t in love with Krishna? That didn’t count. No, she had loved learning and governance, adventure and animals, loved revenge, or at least the idea of it, for a while but she had never loved other people in that all-encompassing way.
Draupadi shook her head and banished her little reverie to find the other women looking at her tentatively. Ah yes, she had slapped the boy. Bad idea, but he deserved it. She gazed ahead into the clearing determinedly and said, “Moving on!”
Excerpted with permission from MS Draupadi Kuru: After the Pandavas, Trisha Das, HarperCollins India.
Indians should have a sense of humour about mythology
A note from the author
Mythology is not usually funny. People fight a lot. They kill each other a lot.
I always found the idea of women being impregnated by gods a little funny though. Every time I came across a mythological story about a beautiful maiden bathing in a forest river and being seduced and impregnated by a god, I tried to replay it in my head:
Beautiful maiden (naked, bathing in river): Oh no, you’ve seen me unclothed! Who are you?
Random, horny dude: Have no fear, fair maiden. I am Lord Indra, the god of the skies, and I have fallen in love with you.
Beautiful maiden: Are you sure you’re a god? I could’ve sworn I saw you the other day at the village market.
Random, horny dude: No, no. I’m definitely a god. Watch, as I make this gold coin disappear. Now, we will copulate.
Beautiful maiden: But we’re not married.
Random, horny dude: That’s ok. I’m a god, remember? This is a great honour for you.
Beautiful maiden: Well, in that case, I guess my father would be ok with it…
Does that sound sacrilegious? It probably is. The vast majority of Hindu Indians take their mythology very seriously.
Years ago, I came across a book titled ‘Gods Behaving Badly’ by author Marie Phillips and I loved how she took a serious subject like Greek mythology and turned it upside down on its head by featuring the gods in a human, contemporary setting. I loved how she made Aphrodite, the goddess of love, into a phone sex operator, I loved how she delved into her mythical characters and made them move and react to an unfamiliar world. And while I had issues with the plot of the book, I loved the idea and the fact that she had made it an accessible and fun read.
It immediately got me thinking if I could do something similar with Indian mythology – a vast smorgasbord of potential characters and plots. The problem was: while Greek gods are pretty much extinct and an easy target for humour, Hindu gods are still very much a daily part of the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
Which is why, when my book Ms Draupadi Kuru: After the Pandavas – a novel which features gods, goddesses, avatars and revered mythological characters from the Mahabharata in less than exalted situations - hits the stands, I’m hoping that Indians will have a sense of humour about it.
Why? Let’s face it, Hindu mythology is a bit outdated. It’s complicated too. If you can pronounce Dhristadyumna without stumbling, you’re probably over 30 and, if you can remember who he was, you’re probably over 40.
If you asked school kids who Bheem’s brothers were, they’ll probably tell you that Bheem never had any brothers but he did have best friends named Chutki, Raju, a monkey and a fat nemesis named Kalia. I once asked a 13-year old girl if she knew who Amba was and she asked, “Isn’t she that manga character?”
Epics are called epics not just because they’re really long. They’re called epics because they’re…well, epic. They’re also relevant and people think they matter. If nobody cares about our traditional epics anymore, they cease to be epics. Then they just go into the same forgotten-ancient-history pile that the Greek gods went into.
So, if we want to preserve our stories, we have to keep re-inventing them and keeping them relevant. We have to be able to let go a little and have some fun with them. Because it’s good to laugh at ourselves. Because humour is actually a good way to talk about serious things that matter. Because entertaining people is the best way to make them think.
So, when you read the chapter in my book where Draupadi chugs a double shot of single malt whiskey and punches a man, have a sense of humour about it. It’s not the end of the world…it’s just a reflection of it.
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