Suddenly, there was a thump and crash, and the air around them whooshed dramatically. A male voice shouted something unintelligible in the distance and then a poof! A large cloud of smoke appeared and dissipated, leaving behind six men lying on the floor of Draupadi’s living room.
“I can’t believe I have to do this again,” muttered Narad Muni, the elderly messenger sage, who travelled between worlds, as he stood up and dusted himself off with skinny, wrinkled arms. “Of all the hare-brained, cockeyed, half-baked schemes the gods have ever come up with...” He ran his piercing eyes around the room, his gaze falling on a shocked Draupadi, a slack-jawed Kunti and Amba’s naked breasts.
Slapping his palms over his eyes, he shrieked hysterically, “Cover yourself! Cover yourself, you shameless hussy! How dare you try to tempt a sage? This evil world has polluted you, as I knew it would! You will not debauch me, I swear it! Cover yourself!” His voice became so high-pitched that Kunti had to shield her ears.
Amba rolled her eyes at Narad Muni and continued feeding without so much as a twitch. “Not again. What does it take to get rid of you, old man?”
Narad Muni screeched back at her with his hands over his face, “You think I want to be here, brazen female? Your kind are worse than demons, I tell you! And that Saraswati; she is the worst! She complained about me to Krishna. Me! All because of you lot, with your idiotic, extended holidays. If I could, I would smite you all to dust, never mind the consequences!”
Amba snorted. Then she noticed he was dressed in a light brown shirt and trousers instead of his usual sage’s habit. “Why are you dressed like that?”
“Because he’s been suspended,” said Arjuna, fidgeting next to his brothers, all of them staring at the floor awkwardly to avoid looking at Amba breastfeeding.
Arjuna’s voice snapped Draupadi and Kunti out of their stunned silence. Kunti got up and walked towards them. “Boys? Can this be true? Are you really here?”
“Mother!” All five of them fell at her feet, their gazes still locked on the ground.
Amba sighed loudly and got up. “I’ll be in the bedroom.”
After she had gone, the Pandava brothers stood up and each one hugged Kunti with a smile. Tears began to flow down her cheeks. “I never thought I’d see any of you again!” she exclaimed, touching their faces as if to prove to herself they were really standing before her. “I can’t believe it. You’re here! In Delhi!”
“Delhi?” asked a puzzled Bhima. “We were told this was Indraprastha.” He frowned at Narad Muni, who was sulking near the front door.
Kunti nodded. “Indraprastha is called Delhi now. We’ve been here for a year.”
Yudhishtra spoke in gentle reprimand, “We know. We spoke to Krishna and he told us everything. He’s allowed us thirty days to – ”
“How are you, Mother?” Arjuna interrupted him quickly, earning a puzzled look from his elder brother. Best to get the lay of the land before they sprung the reason behind their visit to earth on their mother. Victory was always easier when you knew what you were fighting.
Kunti smiled. “I’m well. I’ve become the warden of a home for orphaned children. It’s quite an exciting life.” She didn’t mention Karan.
Arjuna smiled down at her, a warm feeling wrapping around him. It was so good to see her face, be reassured that she was safe and well. “And Draupadi? How is she?”
“Er, hello?” Draupadi stood up and walked towards the Pandavas, a little peeved at being completely ignored so far.
All five brothers turned and stared at her in shock. Then, Arjuna whispered, “Draupadi? Is that you?”
Bhima stepped closer and bent down to peer into her face, his eyes scrunching up as if he were examining an unknown insect. “The voice is Draupadi’s, but it’s difficult to tell from the face. This one is taller.”
Draupadi rolled her eyes. “It is me. I’m wearing face paint. And raised footwear.” She stuck out her heels to show them.
Bhima rubbed her cheek with his thumb, and looked down at the cocktail of colours and shimmers on his finger. Then, he frowned into her face again, mentally check-listing her features against the ones he knew so well. Finally, he grinned and stated, “Hah! It’s her!”
Draupadi’s irritated expression turned into an involuntary laugh when he lifted her off her feet and enveloped her in a growly bear hug. Bhima was the only man who could make her feel almost petite.
Arjuna stood back and blinked at her. “You cut your hair,” he accused softly.
Draupadi huffed at him. “Is that how you greet me?”
The reproof worked, and he shook his head with a rueful smile. “No, of course not. I’m sorry.” He stepped forward and hugged her, prompting Nakula and Sahadeva to give her smiling side-hugs too. She returned their affection warmly, and laughed when Arjuna commented that he knew a thing or two about face paint from their thirteenth year in exile.
Only Yudhishtra held back.
Scowling at her, he said in a voice that would have made a nymph feel promiscuous, “What have you become, my queen?” He pointed to her made-up face, shoulder-length hair, the dress that ended above her knees and clung to her eye-catching curves with a scornful hand. “You look like a lewd stage performer.”
Draupadi returned his look with a scowl of her own, holding his eyes in a moment fraught with tension. Aeons of resentment and regret poured out of her eyes. Then, she shook her head and laughed, replying in a mocking tone, “As it happens, I am a stage performer now, Yudhishtra. And a good one at that.”
“Nonsense. And don’t call me by my name. It isn’t becoming for a wife.”
“I’m not your wife anymore.”
Yudhishtra turned to Kunti. “See? This is exactly the kind of attitude and behaviour I expect from her. What I don’t understand, Mother, is why you went along with this mad scheme.”
Confused, Kunti asked, “What mad scheme, son?”
“Coming down here and playing at being mortals!”
Draupadi shook her head. “Typical.”
Kunti looked from Yudhishtra to Draupadi and back. She spoke in a gentle voice, “Son, much has changed in the last year. We will explain everything, but first, you must tell us what you’re doing here. You mentioned you spoke to Krishna?”
Arjuna interjected again. “We did, Mother. We were worried about you both and Krishna allowed us to visit for thirty days.” He gave Yudhishtra a pointed look, silently entreating him not to argue their case, for now. Yudhishtra responded with a terse nod.
Kunti beamed. “That is wonderful news!’
Excerpted with permission from The Misters Kuru: Return to Mahabharata, Trisha Das, HarperCollins India.