EXCERPT: PALACE OF ILLUSIONS
Through the long, lonely years of my childhood, when my father’s palace seemed to tighten its grip around me until I couldn’t breathe, I would go to my nurse and ask for a story. And though she knew many wondrous and edifying tales, the one that I made her tell me over and over was the story of my birth. I think I liked it so much because it made me feel special, and in those days there was little else in my life that did. Perhaps Dhai Ma realized this. Perhaps that was why she agreed to my demands even though we both knew I should be using my time more gainfully, in ways more befitting the daughter of King Drupad, ruler of Panchaal, one of the richest kingdoms in the continent of Bharat.
The story inspired me to make up fancy names for myself: Offspring of vengeance, or The unexpected one. But Dhai Ma puffed out her cheeks at my tendency to drama, calling me The girl who wasn’t invited. Who knows, perhaps she was more accurate than I.
This winter afternoon, sitting cross-legged in the meager sunlight that managed to find its way through my slit of a window, she said, “When your brother stepped out of the sacrificial fire onto the cold stone slabs of the palace hall, all the assembly cried out in amazement.”
She was shelling peas. I watched her flashing fingers with envy, wishing she would let me help. But Dhai Ma had very specific ideas about activities that were appropriate for princesses.
“An eye-blink later,” she continued, “when you emerged from the fire, our jaws dropped. It was so quiet, you could have heard a housefly fart.”
I reminded her that flies do not perform that particular bodily function.
She smiled her squint-eyed, cunning smile. “Child, the things you don’t know would fill the milky ocean where Lord Vishnu sleeps--and spill over its edges.”
I considered being offended, but I wanted to hear the story. So I held my tongue, and after a moment she picked up the tale again.
“We’d been praying for thirty days, from sun-up to sundown. All of us: your father, the hundred priests he’d invited to Kampilya to perform the fire-ceremony, headed by that shifty-eyed pair, Yaja and Upayaja, the queens, the ministers, and of course the servants. We’d been fasting, too—not that we were given a choice--just one meal, each evening, of flattened rice soaked in milk. King Drupad wouldn’t eat even that. He only drank water carried up from the holy Ganga, so that the gods would feel obligated to answer his prayers.”
“What did he look like?”
“He was thin as the point of a sword, and hard like it, too. You could count every bone on him. His eyes, sunk deep into their sockets, glittered like black pearls. He could barely hold up his head, but of course he wouldn’t remove that monstrosity of a crown that no one has ever seen him without-- not even his wives, I’ve heard, not even in bed.”
Dhai Ma had a good eye for detail. Father was, even now, much the same, though age—and the belief that he was finally close to getting what he’d wanted for so long--had softened his impatience.
“Some people,” she continued, “thought he was going to die, but I had no such fears. Anyone who wanted revenge as badly as your royal father did wouldn’t let go of body and breath so easily.” She chewed ruminatively on a handful of peas.
“Finally,” I prompted her, “it was the thirtieth day.”
“And I for one was heartily thankful. Milk and rice-husk is all very well for priests and widows, but give me fish curry with green chilies and tamarind pickle any day! Besides, my throat was scraped raw from gabbling all those unpronounceable Sanskrit words. And my buttocks, I swear, they were flat as chapatis from sitting on that freezing stone floor.
‘But I was scared, too, and stealing a glance here and there, I saw I wasn’t the only one. What if the fire-ceremony didn’t work the way the scriptures had claimed it would? Would King Drupad put us all to death, claiming we hadn’t prayed hard enough? Once I’d have laughed if someone had suggested our king might do that. But things had changed since the day when Drona appeared at court.”
I wanted to ask about Drona, but I knew what she’d say.
Impatient as mustard seeds sputtering in oil, that’s what you are, even though you’re old enough to be married off any day now! Each story will come in its time.
“So when your royal father stood up and poured that last pot of ghee into the flames, we all held our breath. I prayed harder than I’d ever done in my life—though it wasn’t for your brother I was praying, not exactly. Kallu, who was cook’s apprentice then, had been courting me, and I didn’t want to die before I’d experienced the joys of having a man in my bed. But now that we’ve been married for seven years--” Here Dhai Ma paused to snort at the folly of her younger self.
If she got onto the subject of Kallu, I wouldn’t hear the rest of the story today.
“Then the smoke rose,” I interjected, with experienced dexterity.
She allowed herself to be pulled back into the tale. “Yes, and a spiraling, nasty-smelling black smoke it was, with voices in it. The voices said, Here is the son you asked for. He’ll bring you the vengeance you desire, but it’ll break your life in two.
‘I don’t care about that, your father said. Give him to me.
‘And then your brother stepped from the fire.”
I sat up straight to listen better. I loved this part of the story. “What did he look like?”
“He was a true prince, that one! His brow was noble. His face shone like gold. Even his clothes were golden. He stood tall and unafraid, though he couldn’t have been more than five years old. But his eyes troubled me. They were too soft. I said to myself, How can this boy avenge King Drupad? How can he kill a fearsome warrior like Drona?”
I worried about my brother, too, though in a different way. He would succeed in completing the task he was born for, I had no doubt of that. He did everything with such meticulous care. But what would it do to him?
I didn’t want to think of it. I said, “And then?”
Dhai Ma made a face. “Can’t wait till you appear, eh, Madam full-of yourself?” Then she relented.
“Even before we’d finished cheering and clapping, even before your father had a chance to greet your brother, you appeared. You were as dark as he was fair, as hasty as he was calm. Coughing from the smoke, tripping over the hem of your sari, grabbing for his hand and almost sending him tumbling, too--”
“But we didn’t fall!”
“No. Somehow you managed to hold each other up. And then the voices came again. They said, Behold, we give you this girl, a gift beyond what you asked for. Take good care of her, for she will change the course of history.”
“Change the course of history! Did they really say that?”
Dhai Ma shrugged. “That’s what the priests claimed. Who can tell for sure? You know how sounds boom and echo in that hall. The king looked startled, but then he picked the two of you up, holding you close to his chest. For the first time in years, I saw him smile. He said to your brother, I name you Dhristadyumna. He said to you, I name you Draupadi. And then we had the best feast this kingdom has ever seen.”
As Dhai Ma counted out the feast-foods on her fingers, smacking her lips in happy remembrance, my attention veered to the meaning of the names our father chose. Dhristadyumna, Destroyer of Enemies. Draupadi, Daughter of Drupad.
Dhri’s name fell within the bounds of acceptability—though if I were his parent I might have picked a more cheerful name, like Celestial Victor, or Light of the Universe. But Daughter of Drupad? Granted, he hadn’t been expecting me, but couldn’t my father have come up with something a little less egoistic? Something more suited to a girl who was supposed to change history?
I answered to Draupadi for the moment because I had no choice. But in the long run, it would not do. I needed a more heroic name.
Nights, after Dhai Ma had retired to her quarters, I lay on my high, hard bed with its massive posts and watched the oil lamp fling flickery shadows against the pocked stone of the walls. I thought of the prophecy then, with yearning and fear. I wanted it to be true. But did I have the makings of a heroine—courage, perseverance, an unbending will? And shut up as I was inside this mausoleum of a palace, how would history even find me?
But most of all I thought of something that Dhai Ma didn’t know, something that ate at me like the rust corroding the bars on my window: what really happened when I stepped from the fire.
If there were voices, as Dhai Ma claimed, prophesying my life in a garbled roar, they hadn’t come yet. The orange lick of flames fell away; the air was suddenly cold. The ancient hall smelled of incense, and under it, an older smell: war-sweat and hatred. A gaunt, glittering man walked towards my brother and me as we stood hand in hand. He held out his arms—but for my brother alone. It was only my brother he meant to raise up to show to his people. Only my brother that he wanted. Dhri wouldn’t let go of me, however, nor I of him. We clung together so stubbornly that my father was forced to pick us both up together.
I didn’t forget that hesitation, even though in the years that followed King Drupad was careful to fulfill his fatherly duty and provide me with everything he believed a princess should have. Sometimes, when I pressed him, he even allowed me privileges he kept from his other daughters. In his own harsh and obsessive way, he was generous, maybe even indulgent. But I couldn’t forgive him that initial rejection. Perhaps that was why, as I grew from a girl into a young woman, I didn’t trust him completely.
I turned the resentment I couldn’t express towards my father onto his palace. I hated the thick gray slabs of the walls—more suited to a fortress than a king’s residence--that surrounded our quarters, their tops bristling with sentries. I hated the narrow windows, the mean, dimly-lit corridors, the uneven floors that were always damp, the massive, severe furniture from generations ago that was sized more for giants than men. I hated most of all that the grounds had neither trees nor flowers. King Drupad believed the former to be a hazard to security, obscuring the vision of the sentries. The latter he saw no use for—and what my father did not find useful, he removed from his life.
Staring down from my rooms at the bare compound stretching below, I’d feel dejection settle on my shoulders like a shawl of iron. When I had my own palace, I promised myself, it would be totally different. I closed my eyes and imagined a riot of color and sound, birds singing in mango and custard apple orchards, butterflies flitting among jasmines, and in the midst of it—but I could not imagine yet the shape that my future home would take. Would it be elegant as crystal? Solidly precious, like a jewel-studded goblet? Delicate and intricate, like gold filigree? I only knew that it would mirror my deepest being. There I would finally be at home.
My years in my father’s house would have been unbearable had I not had my brother. I never forgot the feel of his hand clutching mine, his refusal to abandon me. Perhaps he and I would have been close even otherwise, segregated as we were in the palace wing our father had set aside for us-- whether from caring or fear I was never sure. But that first loyalty made us inseparable. We shared our fears of the future with each other, shielded each other with fierce protectiveness from a world that regarded us as not quite normal, and comforted each other in our loneliness. We never spoke of what each one meant to the other--Dhri was uncomfortable with effusiveness. But sometimes I wrote him letters in my head, looping the words into extravagant metaphors. I’ll love you, Dhri, until the great Brahman draws the universe back into Himself as a spider does its web.
I didn’t know then how sorely that love would be tested, or how much it would cost both of us.
Perhaps the reason Krishna and I got along so well was that we were both severely dark-skinned. In a society that looked down its patrician nose on anything except milk-and-almond hues, this was considered most unfortunate, especially for a girl. I paid for it by spending hour upon excruciating hour being slathered in skin-whitening unguents and scrubbed with numerous exfoliates by my industrious nurse. But finally she’d given up in despair. I, too, might have despaired if it hadn’t been for Krishna.
It was clear that Krishna, whose complexion was even darker than mine, didn’t consider his color a drawback. I’d heard the stories about how he’d charmed his way into the hearts of the women of his hometown of Vrindavan—all 16,000 of them! And then there was the affair of Princess Rukmini, one of the great beauties of our time. She’d sent him a most indecorous love letter asking him to marry her (to which he’d promptly and chivalrously responded by carrying her off in his chariot). He had other wives, too—over a hundred, at last count. Could the nobility of Kampilya be wrong? Could darkness have its own magnetism?
When I was fourteen, I gathered up enough courage to ask Krishna if he thought that a princess afflicted with a skin so dark that people termed it blue was capable of changing history. He smiled. That was how he often answered my questions, with an enigmatic smile that forced me to do my own thinking. But this time he must have sensed my confused distress, for he added a few words.
“A problem becomes a problem only if you believe it to be so. And often others see you as you see yourself.”
I regarded this oblique advice with some suspicion. It sounded too easy to be true. But when the festival of Lord Shiva approached, I decided to give it a try.
On this particular night each year, the royal family would go in a procession—the men in front, the women behind-- to a Shiva temple and offer their prayers. We didn’t go far—the temple was situated within the palace grounds. Still, it was a grand spectacle, with the entire court and many of the prominent citizens of Kampilya accompanying us, dressed in their glittery best—exactly the kind of event that brought out my worst anxieties. I’d make excuses of ill health so I could stay in my room, but Dhai Ma saw through them and forced me to participate. Miserable among a crush of women who chattered among themselves and ignored me, I’d try to make myself invisible. The other princesses with their bright faces and cheerful banter made me feel doubly awkward as I slouched behind them, wishing Dhri were with me. If someone addressed me—a guest or a newcomer, usually, who didn’t know who I was--I tended to blush and stammer and (yes, even at this age) trip over the edge of my sari.
But this year I allowed a delighted Dhai Ma to dress me in a sea-blue silk light as foam, to weave flowers into my braid, to place diamonds in my ears. I examined Queen Sulochana, the youngest and prettiest of my father’s wives, as she walked ahead of me, carrying a platter filled with garlands for the god. I observed the confident sway of her hips, the elegant grace with which she inclined her head in response to a greeting. I, too, am beautiful, I told myself, holding Krishna’s words in my mind. I tried the same gestures and found them surprisingly easy. When noblewomen came up and complimented me on my looks, I thanked them as though I was used to such praise. People stood back, deferential, as I passed. I raised my chin proudly and showed off the line of my neck as young courtiers whispered among themselves, asking each other who I was, and where I’d been secreted all these years. A visiting bard stared at me admiringly. Later, he would make up a song about my unique comeliness. The song caught public fancy; other songs followed; word traveled to many kingdoms about the amazing princess of Panchaal, as mesmerizing as the ceremonial flames she was born from. Overnight, I who had been shunned for my strangeness became a celebrated beauty!
Krishna was much amused by the turn of events. When he came to visit, he teased me by playing the tunes of the most extravagant songs on his flute. But when I tried to thank him, he acted as though he didn’t know what I was talking about.
There were other stories about Krishna. How he’d been born in a dungeon where his uncle Kamsa had imprisoned his parents with the intention of killing him at birth. How, in spite of the many prison guards, he’d been miraculously spirited away to safety in Gokul. How, in infancy, he killed a demoness who tried to poison him with her breast-milk. How he lifted up Mount Govardhan to shelter his people from a deluge that would have drowned them. I didn’t pay too much attention to the stories, some of which claimed that he was a god, descended from celestial realms to save the faithful. People loved to exaggerate, and there was nothing like a dose of the supernatural to spice up the drudgery of facts. But I admitted this much: there was something unusual about him.
Krishna couldn’t have visited us often. He had his own kingdom in distant Dwarka to rule, and his many wives to placate. Additionally, he was involved in the affairs of several monarchies. He was known for his pragmatic intelligence, and kings liked to call on him for counsel. Yet whenever I had a serious question, something I couldn’t ask Dhri, who was too straightforward for the knotted ways of the world, it seemed that Krishna was always there to provide an answer. And that too is a puzzle: why did my father allow him to visit me freely when he had kept me segregated from other men and women?
I was fascinated by Krishna because I couldn’t decipher him. I fancied myself an astute observer of people and had already analyzed the other important people in my life. My father was obsessed by pride and the dream of getting even. He had absolute notions of right and wrong and adhered to them rigidly. (This made him a fair ruler, but not a beloved one.) His weakness was that he cared too much about what people might say about the royal house of Panchaal. Dhai Ma loved gossip, laughter, comfort, good food and drink and, in her own way, power. (She routinely terrorized the lower servants—and, I suspect, Kallu--with her razor tongue). Her weakness was her inability to say no to me. Dhri was the noblest of all the people I knew. He had a sincere love of virtue but sadly, almost no sense of humor. He was overly protective of me (but I forgave him that). His weakness was that he believed completely in his destiny and had resigned himself to fulfilling it.
But Krishna was a chameleon. With our father, he was all astute politics, advising him on ways to strengthen his kingdom. He commended Dhri on his skill with the sword but encouraged him to spend more time on the arts. He delighted Dhai Ma with his outrageous compliments and earthy jests. And me? Some days he teased me until he reduced me to tears. On other days he gave me lessons on the precarious political situation of the continent of Bharat, and chastised me if my attention wandered. He asked me what I thought of my place in the world as a woman and a princess--and then challenged my rather traditional beliefs. He brought me news of the world that no one else cared to give me, the world that I was starving for--even news that I suspected would be considered improper for the ears of young women. And all the while he watched me carefully, as though for a sign.
But this I would recognize later. At that time, I only knew that I adored the way he laughed for no reason, quirking up an eyebrow. I often forgot that he was much older than me. Sometimes he dispensed with his kingly jewels and wore only a peacock feather in his hair. He was fond of yellow silk, which he claimed went well with his complexion. He listened with attention to my opinions even though he usually ended up disagreeing. He had been a friend of my father’s for many years; he was genuinely fond of my brother; but I had the impression that it was I whom he really came to see. He called me by a special name, the female form of his own: Krishnaa. It had two meanings: The dark one, or The one whose attraction can’t be resisted. Even after he returned to Dwarka, the notes of his flute lingered in the walls of our cheerless quarters--my only comfort as Dhri was called away more and more to his princely duties, and I was left behind.