I, Sikandi, stand face-to-face in battle with my enemy. The bow strung, the arrow pulled taut, ready to pierce his heart. I have been dreaming of this moment over two lifetimes.
I am with Arjuna at the Kurukshetra, the war of the Kurus. Dead and dying beings – men, horses, elephants – lie still or feebly twitching as far as the eye can see. In the middle stands Arjuna’s chariot. I hold the reins. Our enemy is Bhishma, a man who cannot die except at the time of his choosing. But our enemy is a man with no taste for life. He only lives to see the end of the battle and to make sure the eldest of his wards is safely on the throne again. He only lives to fulfil his duties.
I can feel the sweet taste of victory at the tip of my tongue. A balm of satisfaction about to heal a heart sore with two lifetimes lived. It will be I who brings death to Bhishma.
Who am I, talking myself up as a great enemy of the celebrated Bhishma? He of the terrible oath. Virgin saint. Protector of the throne. Guardian of the realm. Granduncle and great-granduncle to kings.
Bear with me. I cannot exist without Bhishma. I must explain him to explain myself. It is imperative to know one’s enemy intimately, empathize with him, feel his bones, hear his heart ticking in order to successfully destroy him. Of course, one is then becoming part of the enemy that one is destroying, but that is no matter. What use is this life after achieving its purpose?
Bhishma: he of the terrible oath. They also call him Gangaputra: son of Ganga.
The river goddess Ganga fell in love with King Shantanu, Bhishma’s father. I will marry you, she tells him, as long as you never question my actions, no matter what they are. Do not stop me. Do not ask why. He consents, against the advice of his court. The king and queen have a son. As soon as she is able to walk again, Ganga carries the infant to the river, her own waters, and drowns him. The king watches, kneels on the stones by the riverbank, grooves the mud. But he is bound by his promise to never question her actions. He tries to forget the incident as if it was a bad dream. He is besotted with Ganga.
In due course, a second son is born. Ganga carries him to the river and drowns him. The king follows her and watches but does not interrupt. Seven sons are born and killed by their mother. An eighth son is born. Ganga carries her son to the river. The king holds her back. He snatches his son from her. He sobs. Ganga’s eyes fill with pity for the king. It was merely their destiny, she tells him. Eight Vasus, celestial beings, were cursed to suffer human birth. Ganga is their redeemer. They were to be born to her and she was to drown them in her own waters.
The eighth child, the prime perpetrator of their crime, would spend an inordinate amount of time on earth and suffer a very long life, before he too achieves moksha. She hands the king his son and heir and goes back into the river, to flow once again.
Bhishma pulls an arrow from his quiver and sets it in his bow. Battle-ravaged, silver locks matted behind his shoulders, the great swarthy planes of his skin cracked with the heat and dust of wars won, the veins on his forehead pulsing with tension.
What does it do to a boy? To learn that his mother had killed seven of his brothers, then abandoned him? That she is a goddess and hence without reproach, untouched by human needs and frailty, ties to family. Is this why he eliminated all frailty from himself, and lives only for duty – to father and fatherland? And when the king married Satyavati, a fisherman’s daughter, is this why the promise spilled so easily from him to his stepmother, the promise to never lie with a woman, never marry, dedicating his life in service to the kingdom? A rare thing in a prince, they all say, to give up the throne to some usurper of his mother’s place, some fisherman’s daughter, some slut and all her beast spawn. Only a demigod, they say, can be capable of suppressing the basest of urges – to fornicate, to procreate, to win power for himself.
He has his bow raised, arrow pulled to his ear. His charioteer grips the reins of his horses tight, keeping them as still as possible. In Bhishma’s eyes there is a hint of weariness, or perhaps I imagine it. He never became king, but all his life he has shepherded other kings, his half-brothers, helped raise their progeny, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, taught them how to rule in turn. Now he finds himself supporting the Kaurava clan’s claim to the throne even though he knows they are, in Krishna’s words, evil. Bhishma is the only one who can win the war for the Kauravas. Arjuna is the Pandavas’ best hope of defeating him.
Bhishma aims arrow at his nemesis, who draws arrow at him. He narrows his sage eyes. Then instead of letting loose, he brings it down.
‘See how she trembles,’ he calls across to Arjuna. ‘A woman may persuade the gods to make her into a man, but she cannot pray away her true nature. She is born to nurture. I cannot, and will not, do battle with a woman, even if she has grown a bone in her throat, and some fierce manners with arrow and horse.’
Arjuna smiles in a most callous manner and says, ‘So, Grandfather, will you do battle with me then, not only the greatest of the kshatriyas, but also a man?’
You see, I am two people. In this life, here, standing beside Arjuna in the battlefield, I am his shield, his brother-in-law. I am Sikandi, his charioteer. Krishna has taken the day off. But in a previous birth I was Amba, incomparable princess, destined to rule a kingdom beside the beautiful young King Salwa. And it was as Amba that I swore vengeance on the great son of Ganga, who had wrecked my life.
I met Bhishma for the first time on my wedding day. My father had arranged a swayamvara for me and my two younger sisters so that we could choose our husbands from the princes who came from all over the land to show off their skills and win us. Musicians played, dancers danced, guests thronged, eating and drinking. My life that day was a picture of perfection, and the only blight on my horizon was the possibility of starting my period before my wedding night.
Wordlessly, like a giant crow, Bhishma descended beside me as I lifted a garland to Salwa’s head. I felt Bhishma’s hot breath on my neck as he embraced, then lifted me over his shoulder. He sped with his arms around my rump, his ear against a virgin breast, his own virgin body rigid and unfeeling against mine. Amid the emotions – fear and shock, anger and helplessness – the emotions of a woman under the direct power of a man, I felt as well the thrill of romance, of physical contact, of sex. And I would have yielded to him, given way to this great warrior and what I thought was his overwhelming desire for me, even though I still loved Salwa and desired to wed him.
But Bhishma locked me in a carriage and left. I heard shouts, the ringing of steel. In minutes, he brought my sister, shocked and screaming, the garland in her hands wrung into a string. He shut her in with me and left once more. He returned with our youngest sister, thrusting her in whilst kicking off sword blades with his feet. Then with a final cold eye upon the three of us, he shut the door and bolted it. The carriage flew over the roads away from our beloved Kasi.
It was a rocky journey, the carriage stopping and starting constantly, as our father, brothers, suitors, our army, our allies’ armies caught up with us and attempted our rescue. One by one, they were defeated. I spent hours with my ear against the carriage wall, cheered when I heard my Salwa commanding Bhishma to stop. His voice so young, so brave. But within minutes, his same beloved voice cried abjectly for mercy, then faded from me forever as Salwa retreated and fled.
I grew numb, paid no attention to my whimpering sisters. What kind of monster was this Bhishma? This Gangaputra. What did he want with us? There was no enmity between our kingdoms. Famed for our beauty we may have been, but not worth warring for. Bhishma had never met or spoken with any of us. He was a man who could have any woman he wanted. Goddesses regularly descended to tempt him from his sworn bachelorhood. Even apsaras were enamoured of him, and so were princesses more highborn and beautiful than us. If he did want to marry us, he could have turned up at the swayamvara, which was open to all princes. He could have bet his chances on his great reputation and looks and manners and his undoubtedly formidable feats with weaponry. And in any case, what did he want with marriage at his great age? He was thirty years old – quite over the hill, in my opinion.
Long days passed. We wilted in the carriage. Refreshments were brought. We were by now content to be still. My sisters began chattering again. One even laughed when her favourite fruit, blue mangoes, were brought by a servant. The servant himself had been employed by Bhishma after the last of our would-be rescuers turned tail and ran. The servant did not know we were captives, and treated us as guests of the warrior. We in turn stopped feeling like captives. It wasn’t very different from travelling with our own family, a lock on the door for our safety. When the carriage stopped briefly, the servant even let us out to walk around, once a day.
We did not see Bhishma until we reached Hastinapur, his home, the capital of the Kuru clan of kings. A grand city with good roads and well-dressed citizens. We surveyed the breadth of buildings and the colours of market stalls from a small window I had ripped from the side of the carriage. Great fanfare greeted us as we entered the palace grounds. Trumpets and drums, attendants in livery. Palanquins carrying rich gawkers jostled women bearing sweetmeats and drinks for the weary travellers.
Queen Satyavati, erstwhile fishwife, came to greet us. Eyes crinkled with age and good humour, she looked delighted, as if we were her favourite guests unexpectedly arrived, and not strangers brought by force. She urged attendants upon us, shouted instructions for the soothing of our stomachs and skins and feet. She hugged us, called us daughters. We entered the palace, passed into more intimate rooms. My sisters and I sank on to cushions, with the relief of a journey ended. Bhishma appeared.
Stiff, unused to talking to women, he said, ‘I have brought you here because the future king of Hastinapur needs wives.’
Too weary to speak, we merely nodded. Why had the future king of Hastinapur not claimed his own wives? The simple procedure was to attend the swayamvara, strut around showing off his prowess with word and sword, and establish his dominance in the pecking order.
It was only when the prince came to greet us that I got my answers. He was a shy little runt. Even making allowances for the fact that he was only a twelve-year-old boy, he was no showcase specimen. My sisters, young, full of health and vigour and good humour, clapped their hands in glee, took to him immediately as a plaything. The boy was pleasant. He smiled shyly at my sisters and turned his round, fearful eyes towards me. Only then I remembered my Salwa.
I crashed. Here I was, hopes and dreams dashed. Far from home, parents and friends. Fear of the future and loathing for the weakling prince overcame me. I wept.
The queen was alarmed and penitent. ‘Nobody is forcing you,’ she said.
I could not stop crying. The queen embraced me, shed a few tears herself. When I was all sobbed out, I drew away from the queen and saw that my sisters and the prince had been sent away. I caught Bhishma’s eyes. He stood near the door as though looking to escape, which was ironic, considering the situation. He looked pale of skin and full of doubt. I realized he was not sure if he had done the right thing, bringing us here on a whim. I grew angry.
‘I have given my heart to Salwa,’ I told the queen, when I could speak. ‘I cannot marry this boy.’
Satyavati told Bhishma, ‘If she has given her heart to Salwa, she is as good as married to him. In any case, my son has more than he can handle with two lusty wives. It won’t do his nerves any good to have three at such a tender age.’
Bhishma looked aghast. What did he know of wives and nerves, having never laid a finger on a woman himself?
‘Forgive me,’ said Bhishma, the very first words he had directed to me.
It is dawn. We wait for the conch to sound, to begin battle on the tenth day of the Kurukshetra. Arjuna asks me, ‘Have you ever considered forgiving him?’
I was going to forgive Bhishma once reunited with Salwa. We sped towards the kingdom of M, Bhishma and I, in a swift two-horse chase, spurning the comforts of a carriage and servants. Sitting for hours on end beside a Prince Regent who was as out of place in the situation as I, my bones rattled and heart jumped as the carriage clattered over the uneven roads of lesser kingdoms. Bhishma: all he was used to until then were politics, wars, hunts. Was he ever before on such a tender mission, to arrange the meeting of hearts?
I was curious about this man – the great sacrificer. Here I am, I whispered to myself, beside Bhishma, he of the terrible oath. Our shoulders touched. And he seemed afraid of me – a mere girl. It amused me to see him draw his breath, as though in fear, every time a jolt threw my shoulder against his.
Tiring of the landscape, which only changed and became more ruinous as we sped away from Hastinapur, I studied him. So much of his mother in him. He dressed in long, fluid robes, favouring grey and white. He was lean, tall and languid-limbed. Swift as he could be, he moved as slowly as possible. His movements when resting were a river that meandered. When roused, he fell roaring upon his enemies and his tasks alike. Roused as he now was, speeding me towards my sweetheart, driving the horses on with short barks from his throat and gut, his forearms all sinew and tendon, not a word to me, of course, he seemed a creature without language, a creature of purpose and not of emotions.
Towards dusk, the axle broke, the chase collapsed and Bhishma and I were thrown to the ground. The horses, tangled in their yoke and ropes, whinnied in pain. Bhishma leapt up to release them before casting a glance towards me. I only had a few bruises. The horses lay down on the ground in utter exhaustion and so did I. Lying with my head in my arms on the rough ground, a profound irritation came over me.
We were beside a road skirting the edge of a forest. There weren’t any settlements as far as the eye could see, only a hut a little way into the dark trees. Bhishma went to the hut. He returned with a man, a short, shabby creature who was overawed and prone to giggling.
Bhishma cleared his throat and said stiffly, ‘There aren’t any women or houses for two miles. Will you be able to walk till we find one?’
‘Does this man not have a wife?’ I said, still on the ground.
‘No, he is a woodcutter, and lives alone.’
‘Well then,’ I said, ‘I’m prepared to go looking for a woman who will shelter me, but I’m not prepared to walk. You will have to put me on a horse.’
Bhishma looked towards the horses. ‘They have no strength left in them. They need feed and water.’
‘Then you will have to carry me yourself,’ I said, by then knowing how to rile the great man.
So we spent the night there. I slept on the woodcutter’s filthy mat, surrounded by his pots and wood and soot. He and Bhishma slept outside the hut, guarding me. My irritation kept me awake all night. It intensified at dawn when I realized that its cause was not the few bruises but the fact that Bhishma had leapt towards the horses first.
As the foot troops march towards us and the first arrows fall, Arjuna asks me, ‘Should it not be Salwa towards whom you direct your anger? He was the one who callously set you aside, called you tainted. My grandfather was bound by his oath. He did not mean to be callous. I do not know of a kinder man.’
‘And yet, here you are, plotting Bhishma’s death with me.’
Arjuna looks pained. ‘I am bound by my oath, to win this war for Draupadi, for my brothers, for the good of all, for the end of evil.’
‘That last bit Krishna has put into your head.’
An arrow rips the flag on the chariot.
Arjuna does not blink. He says, ‘You have not answered my question.’
Salwa seemed much diminished in eyes that had beheld only Bhishma for the last three days. In a childishly petulant voice Salwa said, ‘I cannot take for my wife a woman who has been abducted and ravished by another man, then returned like soiled goods.’
Truth of the matter – he was peeved at being beaten so soundly by another man. The only way he could regain his lost sense of manhood was to reject me and throw me back at Bhishma’s face.
We did not speak for the entire first day of our journey back. Dusk approached, the landscape closed in and bled away into the night. All that remained was us, the horses and the monotonous rattle of the chase wheels. Salwa’s Mathura and Hastinapur and my home Kasi all seemed distant, unreal places. My whole life until then, which had been a preparation for a life beside Salwa, the painstaking learning of all kinds of queenly things, seemed an elaborate joke. I could have been anyone on that road, travelling with a strange man in an uncomfortable cart: a lover, a prostitute, a child, a yakshi. There was nobody who could explain my place in the world. My sisters belonged to the future king, the boy. My parents could never take me back. If they did, I would remain with them like a hot brick, burning their hands till they died of the hurt. Who but Bhishma could offer me a place in the world?
We stopped when the horses stopped. Bhishma made no pretence of looking for houses or women. We sat in the dark; it was the night of the new moon. He did not bother relighting the oil lamp that hung from the yoke of the cart. We sat listening to the horses snuffling in their nosebags. He had untied them and we must have been close to a stream. We heard the horses wander over to the water.
In the pitch-black, suddenly it seemed like the world was turning upside down. My heart fell into my stomach. My arms wrapped around Bhishma’s head as though he was the only fixed thing I could cling to.
When I finally slackened my arms, the man drew great gulps of air. ‘You were smothering me,’ he said, but he did not sound angry. It seemed impossible to draw away from him. My arms remained touching him. I had the sense that he was the only anchor in a sea of illusion.
It was he who kissed me, and I do not know how he could tell where my lips were. We kissed until dawn’s beak split the horizon like a peach.
‘I know what it is to be woman,’ says Arjuna. ‘Other men might say that to patronize a woman, or to woo and bed her, but I mean it.’
‘We all know, Arjuna,’ I say, ‘that you spent the final year of your exile dressed as a woman.’
‘But I was not simply garbed as a woman,’ he says. ‘I really was one. My body changed. I grew breasts and shed my manhood. I bled with the moon. I began confiding in Draupadi like a sister.’
It is Krishna who takes me to Arjuna. The war has just been announced and the sides are being drawn up. I volunteer. Krishna – boyish, pretty Krishna – is running logistics for the Pandavas. They are gathered in the great hall. Four of the five Pandava brothers stand around looking grave-faced and miserable. Krishna slumps on a couch with a parchment spread on a table beside him. His eyes are closed.
‘He is thinking,’ someone cautions me. Krishna holds a peacock quill between his ink-stained fingertips. Watching Krishna think is a sensual experience. The Pandava brothers, their friends, cousins, soldier-generals, servants, we all wait, desiring him as he lies there, brushing the quill against his lips.
Krishna’s eyes open. He smiles, jumps up and embraces me.
‘Sisters, brothers, us all,’ he winks, ‘united in the battle against evil. Come, Sikandi,’ he says. ‘Have you met Arjuna?’
He searches the throng for Arjuna.
‘He married my sister,’ I tell him, ‘while I was away from the capital.’
‘Arjuna agrees with you that a woman should have every right as a man, to be compensated for a crime done to her.’
‘What does he care to hold any opinion on so piffling a matter as the rights of a wronged woman?’
‘Ah, you forget who he is married to,’ says Krishna.
‘And moreover,’ says Arjuna, appearing from behind a body of soldiers, ‘I was a woman myself, the thirteenth year of our exile.’
‘On the tenth day of the battle,’ says Krishna, ‘Sikandi will drive Arjuna to confront Grandfather Bhishma. Sikandi will shoot the first arrow that slays him.’
Everyone laughs. A little boy-girl, slaying the great warrior.
‘A woman,’ says Arjuna, as we wait for the dawn, wait for the horses to be yoked to the chariot, wait to begin the strut to the battleground, ‘a woman has the same passions as a man. The same feelings of love, anger, jealousy. She also has the same capabilities. Even though my body changed for a year – my skin grew fresher, softer, my hips broadened, voice shrilled – my thumb on the bow was steady just the same, my first finger directed the arrow just as deftly, my aim still perfect. I loved and desired my wife Draupadi the same. I still sneaked a kiss when I could. I loved my brothers the same, and my mother. I hated my enemies the Kauravas with the same degree of passion. But if you saw me, you would not have recognized me. I played the tabla in an all-woman band. I giggled and gossiped and preened, flirted with patrons. I sighed and complained and slept with my hair tied into a bun on top of my head. You would not have seen any trace of Arjuna in the body and habits of that woman, although we were the same person.’
‘Then you know that is how I feel. I am still Amba, with the same feelings towards Bhishma she had, all of the feelings, in her previous birth. It is still Amba who lives in the body of Sikandi.’
‘Do you hate Grandfather the same as you did as Amba?’
‘Hate.’ I nod. ‘And much more.’
Our journey back to Hastinapur was a strange one. Bhishma would not speak a word all day, as we travelled. When dusk fell, still wordless, he spent the whole night in darkness, holding and kissing me. His cheeks at times were damp with tears, which I believed were of overwhelming emotions, or of love for me.
The third night after the new moon, the sky was clear and a sliver of moon lit the night just enough for me to catch the shape of his eyes. His ardour was much reduced. He simply sat looking at his knees for most of the night, unresisting but unresponsive to my embraces.
The next afternoon, we reached the capital, and soon we were with Queen Satyavati. She heard of Salwa’s rejection of me and said, ‘Why, Bhishma, in that case, you must marry her yourself, if she will have you. Look at her. She will not refuse you, I think. We can have a double wedding. A month of celebrations.’
I looked expectantly at Bhishma, trying to hide a smile. But he stood wordless.
‘Yes?’ prompted Satyavati.
‘Mother, you know better than to throw such words so carelessly at me. Do you not know that I am Bhishma, of the terrible oath? It was an oath I made for you to be able to marry the king.’
‘It was an oath that had nothing to do with me,’ said Satyavati. ‘My father was being difficult and would have given way if I had some time to convince him. The king was a good man. You did not have to make that oath, and there is no need for it. Marry this girl,’ she said, ‘and make us all happy.’
‘Even your wish, mother,’ said Bhishma, ‘cannot break this oath. An oath, taken with several gods and all your people as witnesses, binds for eternity. I cannot ever marry or beget a child who will challenge your progeny’s claim to the throne.’
‘What a mountain you have made,’ said the queen, though she did not add of what he had made such a mountain. She apologized to me and left, saying she had her son’s wedding arrangements to attend to.
‘Forgive me,’ said Bhishma when we were alone. ‘I have never had feelings towards a woman before. I betrayed myself these last few nights. I became someone else entirely. You know that I cannot wed you, or bed you. I have taken an oath.’
And that was when rage replaced the love I felt for him. But even that great rage was soon swallowed by a black sea of despair.
I told Bhishma, ‘I suppose the only thing left for me to do, as a virtuous woman, is to die.’
‘I do not want you to die,’ he said. ‘There is, I am sure, somebody, worthy and noble, who will nevertheless marry you. I shall go and find him.’
‘Death,’ I said, ‘is the only way open for a woman to defend or to prove her honour.’
‘Yes,’ said Bhishma. ‘It would be different if you were a man. But why talk of such things? You are young, with your life to live, children to beget.’
‘Pray, tell me, what ways are open to a man to defend his honour?’
‘Why discuss useless what-ifs?’
‘If I were a man, how would I settle this matter?’
‘A man, if he feels himself insulted, would challenge me to a duel. Dharma will wield the sword of the righteous man. He who wins proves he is right and honourable.’
‘O Bhishma, then that is what I choose to do. I contend that your actions have wrecked my life, and when I appeal to you to repair it, you dangle the joke of an oath before me. And the world praises you for your idiocy. Even the gods shower you with boons for showing such tenacity… to what? I contend I am in the right and you and the world of men and gods are wrong. I challenge you to a duel. Pick your weapons.’
‘I cannot accept the challenge of a woman,’ said Bhishma. ‘The laws of Manu and my personal code forbid it. Feisty as you are, you are still a woman.’
He smiled then. A smile of contempt.
‘Here you are.’
Arjuna holds out a hand to help me into the chariot. We are about to depart from the tents to the battleground. There is a great commotion. Servants shout. Steel clangs as armour and helmet are bolted on to warriors. Horses stamp and complain as they are pushed and poked into the yokes. Chariots nudge behind us, trying to push us out of the way. We cannot move until the older Pandavas’ chariots depart.
‘This is it,’ continues Arjuna. ‘You are about to arrive at your life’s destination. Such a long journey it has been – birth and rebirth, deaths of the physical and metaphorical kinds, transformations. Do not get me wrong, I am sympathetic. I lay my life to your cause. The very trajectory of your life, your two lives, has been to reach this point from which you can battle Grandfather. But he is a man even Parasurama could not defeat. I am the greatest warrior of my generation, and I cannot defeat him either. What makes you believe that you can defeat him? You have been a woman. You have not had the training, the teachers to show you how to kill a warrior.’
‘As the great man once said to me, the hand of Dharma directs the righteous.’
‘Then why have I bothered training all my life?’
‘If Bhishma kills me, I die. If I kill Bhishma, I triumph. The important thing is that we fight. I cannot abide if he will not fight me still.’
‘And once you achieve your life’s end, what will become of you? What will become of your rage and purpose?’
‘Without Bhishma,’ I begin, but the words that follow are obliterated by the noise as finally the paths clear and our horses, rushed on by Nakula’s chariot behind us, leap into the gap. I grab the reins and Arjuna steadies himself. Soon we approach the battleground where row upon row of enemies, cousins, old friends, servants, teachers face Arjuna.
‘Bring me a warrior to fight on your behalf,’ Bhishma said to me when I, Amba, challenged him, ‘and I will fight him. But I will not fight you. How can I touch spear to soft skin made to yield? How can this sword pierce a heart made to give? How can I cut a belly that must remain whole to nourish new life? How can I bring myself to drag fingers through hair like silken strands, which, if they snap under my brute knuckles, would sound like the snapping of my heart chords? But never mind my heart. My eyes. I will gouge out my eyes before I see harm come to a strand of hair on that comely head.’ So he went on.
And I swear the devas from the heavens came along to listen, rapturous. Apsaras blew him kisses. Even Kama, the lord of love and desire, seemed to have forgotten for a moment that Bhishma was testament to his impotency, and sprung tears in his eyes.
His speech leaked out into Hastinapur. As I walked through the roads to the city gates, tiller and merchant, cook and sweeper quoted snatches from it, about the virtuous woman’s delicate features, about the shrine that was her womb, the strands of hair likened to a man’s heartstrings.
I walked from the capital in a blind rage. It was all I could do to still an urge to tear out the silken hair, rip the soft skin off the delicate bones, drag fingers through mud, sob and rail at the injustice. But I calmed myself down and went to find a proxy who would fight Bhishma in my stead.
‘Many warriors,’ says Arjuna, ‘would fight a woman’s cause. But none would fight against one such as Bhishma.’
‘Why so?’ says Krishna. ‘There are many who would fight you and me.’
‘It is not just fear of defeat. It is fear of righteousness. Bhishma, to eyes watching from the past, present or the future, is the embodiment of righteousness, piousness, perfection. A virgin warrior. Nobody would take him on so lightly.’
‘What is so special about virgins?’ says Krishna, flippantly, and begins playing his flute in step with a passing servant-girl.
Travel, for a young woman alone, is perilous in many ways. Imperious princess that I was, the gentle people in little towns and villages perceived my superiority and gave me what they could by way of food and shelter. The local guardians escorted me when they could, directed me towards any warriors they knew of. The warriors, Kshatriyas, men who rush to protect the honour of a woman in distress, were polite until I mentioned my nemesis. They would not believe me. They thought me bewitched. They thought me insane. They thought I was playing a prank. They thought they were being tested, and they would fail Goddess Righteousness if they accepted, or be torn apart by Goddess Wrath.
It was more dangerous travelling between places, edging villages, skirting forests. There were lost souls about, desperate creatures, ragged, starving, who could not tell a princess from a slattern. I survived them by becoming Goddess Fury. I whirled and cursed and shrieked my way along these dangerous passages. I carried stones, became adept at running, climbing and hiding, like the boy-child I’ve never been.
When I finally saw Hastinapur once more, many months had passed and I had my champion. Parasurama, the greatest warrior on earth. Some called him ‘the immortal’. He was Bhishma’s own teacher, now mightily annoyed at his former student for his reprehensible behaviour. Parasurama: seven-feet tall, a tower of hair and loincloth, dwarfed by the weapons he carried on his person. He had borne them, heavy iron and copper, for days in the sun and rain. He was yet to break a sweat. We stopped at the city gates and sent word to the Prince Regent. We camped.
Two days passed. The people of the city stayed behind the mahogany gates, fearful. As if through some instinct, great carrion-eating vultures arrived and circled. Dawn creased the low sky when the gates creaked open to let Bhishma out. He welcomed Parasurama, sought his blessings, accepted the challenge. He did not look at me.
The noise, like Ganga pouring down to earth from the heavens. Sword striking boulder. Spear on shield. They fought with every weapon. Mace, arrow, chains. And it went on and on – a monotonous roar as the two immortals, one by nature and one by choice, fought skin on teeth. Without rage, without rancour, without personal enmity. It was a sham of a fight, a fight to death where death was denied to one and unchosen by the other. This duel would never end, I thought, as neither could die. It was pigswill. I stopped them.
‘A draw,’ I said. ‘Yet the status quo remains. My rage remains. I will find another way to avenge myself.’
‘And so you became a man,’ says Arjuna. ‘To fight him yourself.’
Krishna listens too, though his eyes are closed and one arm trails down the couch’s leg. The night is near leached from the dawning sky. The embers on the fire still glow. I rattle a poker in the grate. Flames leap.
‘If only it were that simple,’ I sigh. ‘My penance to Sivan, lord of the half-castes, was long and arduous. He gave me the boon of rebirth as a man.’
‘That is not what I heard,’ says Krishna. His eyes are open. ‘I heard he gave you a garland of blue lotuses and said only the man who wears it will be able to defeat Bhishma.’
‘He did give me a garland of blue lotuses. To remind me in my next birth who I really was.’
‘And yet you were born a woman again.’
‘As my wife’s sister,’ adds Arjuna.
‘Draupadi’s sister. Drupad’s daughter. You will remake yourself, said Sivan. It was open to interpretation. While still a small child, I found the garland of blue lotuses, still fresh, still fragrant, on my father’s palace gates. People avoided it in fear. No one had dared to take it down for years. So I climbed the gates and took it down. Went home wearing it. Terrified my father and mother. Bhishma will kill you, shouted my mother. He won’t, said Draupadi, sneering. He will not fight a woman. The purpose of my life came to me then. I remembered who I was.’
‘Remarkable,’ says Krishna.
‘I went into the forest. Into the wilderness where beasts, birds and spirits live, into the jungle depths where shadows wrestle their creatures and animals talk to the trees and the trees reply, where the spirits emerge in places if one knows to look for them at certain times of the day.’
‘Yes. In father Drupad’s kingdom, in his forests, there roams a yakshi who was once male and is now happy in her own skin at last.’
‘You exchanged skins with a yakshi.’ Krishna laughs, though, I note, with approval.
‘This forest,’ says Arjuna, ‘seems a delightful place.’
I shrug. ‘It gave me what was necessary.’
To Bhishma, I am irrelevant. His noble eyes are set upon Arjuna. His milky hair flares about his head. His eyebrows are twin arches of righteousness. He is a man answering his call to duty, to king and country – about to battle one grandnephew to protect another. In the world of men, he is a champion. Raising his bow to Arjuna, he says, ‘I might be bent with age, but my aim is steady, my eye sharp. Beware young ’un. Grandfather will eat you up.’
Arjuna says, ‘I would not be so sure of my eyesight or my hearing, Grandfather, if I were as old as you. Pay attention to whom you are fighting. I am a great warrior, the greatest that lives, including you. Would you rather not fight my friend here – who is much more of a match to your talents?’
‘You mock me,’ Bhishma roars. ‘You youngsters have no respect for elders, no honour. You dare taunt me to fight a woman. Where are the manners I taught you?’
Sikandi, I, stand a little forlorn. Arjuna looks to me with triumphant eyes. Answer him, they seem to say.
I find my voice. Or is it I?
Sikandi says, ‘Grandfather. I am a man. I swear by all the gods that lived, I am truly a man. I was born a man. Fight me, Grandfather. I am no match for you. You are the righteous one. I am a gutless cheat. Dharma is on your side against a worm such as me.’
Bhishma roars again. ‘You mock me, young Sikandi. Do I not know who you are? Raise your bow, come, raise your bow. Pull that arrow. Come, shoot it. You cannot. Look how your arms tremble. A woman’s arms. Weak. Capable of lifting no more than a child. You are not built for battle. Yet you persist. Do I not know you, Amba? You plague me in all your forms. Dying, birthing, man, woman, spirit. You slip into my thoughts, you remain in me like dregs of tea on my darkest days. Why will you not rest from this stubborn insistence to fight me? Come, shoot that arrow with your trembling woman’s fingers. I will run to catch the arrow with my breast. If it does not carry strength enough to pierce my ribcage, I will fall upon it. I will die a happy man, a better man, for paying with my life for what I have done to you. I will die a Kshatriya. I will have that, if nothing else. I will live up to my duty as Kshatriya, and as defender of the throne, until I fall. I will not fight you. You may have all the attributes of a man, but you will always be Amba to me. Your soul is Amba. If I were a different man, I would embrace you. But I am not. I am Bhishma, of the terrible oath. And I will keep the oath till dust fills my eyes and mouth.’
Sikandi lowers his trembling arms. ‘If you will not fight me, Grandfather, then I have nothing more to say.’
Arjuna laughs a cruel laugh, a ringing, shrill tone only a child or a woman could produce. ‘Come, then, Grandfather. I am a man, through and through. Measure for measure, we are made to fight each other.’
Bhishma’s eyes light up. Aged, but aged as a teak tree from the eastern slopes of the Himavat, he raises burnished arms and snaps back the arrow. Arjuna mirrors him. Two arrows shoot instantaneously towards each other. All the thousands of men and beasts upon the battlefield have suspended their motion, breath. The wind has fallen.
On Arjuna’s silver crown, its stem wedged between hair and metal, is a single peacock feather. Krishna put it there this morning, a token of good luck. Bhishma’s arrow pierces the feather. The blue-green centre gapes a hole. The arrow sticks fast into the chariot’s flagpole, missing Arjuna’s head by three inches.
Arjuna closes his eyes. A great wash of pain moves over his face, even though the arrow has not grazed him.
Sikandi throws down his bow and arrow. He rips off his helmet. He tears his vest, bends over the rump of the horse, wails.
Bhishma is still standing. He frowns, then understands. ‘Ah,’ he says, and his hand grips the arrow stump jutting from his breastplate.
‘One won’t do, light of my eyes,’ he says. ‘Finish me off.’
I nod, and with great fat tears pouring down my face, hail arrows upon him. Bhishma falls from the chariot on to the ground.
Bhishma lies on the bed of arrows. His head sags, and he growls in frustration. He cannot die except at his own choosing. A boon that is his burden. Arjuna and I walk up to him. Bhishma’s head, unsupported, struggles to lift, to see us.
‘A support for the neck,’ I tell Arjuna.
‘Let me,’ he says. ‘At least let these two arrows be mine.’
He shoots two arrows into the ground so Bhishma can rest his head upon the cross they make.
‘I told you, Grandfather,’ I tell Bhishma, stroking his soft, silver hair, ‘I would not be too sure about my eyesight if I were your grand age.’
Bhishma laughs, then groans in pain.
‘So now that I have no pressing concerns,’ he says, ‘I have time to chew the cud. Tell me, dear Amba, Sikandi, whoever you are, how have you been? And how came you to persuade Arjuna to swap clothes with you?’
This is an excerpt from Anita Sivakumaran’s The Terrible Oath: Sikandi’s revenge. You can read the full story on the Juggernaut app. To read click here.