We have been made beautiful. We are transformed. We are the “once upon a time there were three princesses, each as lovely as the day”. Our feet are dyed red, as are our fingertips. Our hair is heavy with oil and jewels. Small ornaments hang off our bangles, set all the way up to our elbows. Our eyes are so darkened with sandal paste burnt in oil that we can barely see, except through lowered eyelashes. Our gold belts hold our saris to our waists and keep us from breathing in too deeply, so we take short, shallow breaths and feel giddy with more than just excitement.
Every single precious gem that is possible to put on us has been placed – we glint, we shine, we dazzle, and we are so laden we are helped along the corridor by our maids, steady bare arms for us to hold on to as we hobble and shuffle down the path. We hear murmurs of approval from the assembled princes as we approach and we cannot look up because our heads are covered and strings of pearls dangle in front of our eyes.
All that we can wear is on us, behind us, three trunks lie open in front of the guards who stand with swords and moustaches bristling over more jewels, three dowries, three princesses, you’ve never seen anything like it before.
The priest is saying his words, blessing this event, and the rulers are pretending to listen to him, but we can feel their eyes on us, like innumerable flies crawling on a carcass. Each one weighing our gold, our looks, the feel of our bodies. Each one wondering which of us will be docile, will bear him sons, will be the envy of all the other kings.
Ambika stands a little to my left, Ambalika behind her. They can barely see her, but we hear the murmur anyway. The little one, the smallest princess, the one standing behind her sisters. The murmurs rise to a susurration, hisses like snakes. Behind us, Ambalika trembles.
Our father is about to speak to the crowd, he enjoys this, he makes expansive gestures. He begins with a quip about having three daughters and no sons. He means real sons, not Gaurprabha’s bastards who are somewhere in this crowd, probably driven wild with the excitement of earning tips and being among so many noblemen. Our father speaks of his family, his mother and how she helped him rule. He touches upon his own father, but only briefly, and of his brothers there is no mention at all. The other rulers do not seem to notice; they shuffle their feet and cough. One of them says something and the crowd around him laughs in that loud way men do when they want to show how powerful they are. We wonder if he will mention our mother, who is sitting inside a flower-bedecked palanquin with her maids. We wonder if our mother will emerge from her palanquin to watch us get married. We wonder if our mother even cares that we are marrying today and leaving her.
Our father does mention our mother after all – a great beauty when I won her hand. The audience is respectfully silent. Suddenly, we think to worry about our mother when we will leave her; without us, there is no reason for our father to continue the way he does. We need a mother for respectability, but once we are gone, our father is free to do as he wishes. He is still tender to her, still solicitous of her wishes, but she no longer receives company, not even him, preferring to stay in the dark of her rooms in mourning for something perhaps only she knows the name of. Some of the kings have accompanied their eligible sons, some of those have brought their queens, and they are all being entertained by maids. Our mother should be among them, making talk, finding out about their sons, their kingdoms, but no one expected her to. And now the queens will find out that she is here but not here, present but absent.
We know we will never see our mother again.
Duty, our father booms, it is our sacred duty to marry off our sons and daughters, just as much as it is our duty to be good rulers, good Kshatriyas. He is a good orator, everyone is caught up in his words, the rulers shout and cheer, someone blows a conch shell. It is as though he is declaring war. Even we are caught up in it, we straighten our backs and look as regal as we can manage. It is our duty to get married and bear children who we must get married as well and so on and so forth until the end of time.
He is listing the tasks the brave men who want to win our hands will have to undergo. The physical tasks: an archery contest, a mace-wielding round, and finally a test of horse-riding prowess. The scholarly judged by the priests: reciting the holy verses that call upon Skanda, the god of war, the correct way to pay obeisance to Yama, god of justice, the ability to recite the doings of their own noble ancestors and what lessons they learned from them. Then, the kingly: the correct battle formation for when your enemy has more archers than you do, how to give away your wealth to Brahmans and the poor while still maintaining a healthy treasury, how to divide land between three parts of a family that are fighting with each other. He is telling them all the tasks in advance so that the rulers can be prepared, each will now sit with their priests, their most trusted and wise ministers, their fathers and their teachers to decide in which of those they will compete the best. Each new son-in-law will have to prove himself in all three categories, but if, say, you were a better archer and king than a scholar, it would not be held against you.
My father knows to not make the tasks impossible – we are getting married today, by hook or by crook.
Then the conch shells resound again, and all the royals begin to get up and leave for their tasks, and we are about to be ushered back into our chambers, where we can sit down, have some refreshments, maybe loosen our hair for a little while before we go back out again. I long to watch Salva at his tasks, his bottom lip caught up in his teeth as he concentrates, I want to tell him of my confidence in our new life together, let him catch my eyes so that he knows I am not angry or upset with him. I know my sisters too want to get a glimpse of the princes vying for their attentions, so I’m not surprised when Ambika says loudly and falsely, “Oh dear, I think I’ve lost the pearl that was on my nose ring.”
Obediently we all stop, and the maids begin to lift our skirts up and the smallest ones are recruited to check underneath the platform we are standing on. Lalita is by my side, murmuring into my ear that if I want to leave, she will accompany me, she has noticed me shifting from foot to foot because I am growing tired and also need to use the outhouse.
As I turn and lean on her arm, we all hear a chariot approaching at the same time. The horses are so loud, it is almost like thunder, the ground begins to shake beneath us and a few of the younger maids shriek and throw themselves down, curling into a ball. “Wait!” I say. “Stay still!” – but no one is listening to me except for Lalita, who is frozen into a statue next to me.
“Look!” says Ambalika and points, and we all turn to see the chariot, a speck surrounded by dust but growing larger as it approaches us.
“It’s probably just a king who was late,” I say, laughing a little, because of how scared we all were. “Come, let us go back into the palace, Ambika, if you haven’t found it yet, it’s probably lost forever. Now, come on, the dust is everywhere, our clothes are filthy!”
I nod at Lalita who begins to herd the rest of our party together so we can walk back, and I don’t realise I’m doing it, but I’m also listening for the sound of the chariot to stop, for loud voices and laughter and explanations, and yet, it isn’t doing any of those things, it’s just getting louder and louder, and then Ambalika screams, “He’s going to run right into us!” and I turn and...
Excerpted with permission from Girls of the Mahabharata: The One Who Had Two Lives, Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, HarperCollins India.