This is my take on a couple I’ve always loved since I was seventeen. That was when I came to know what the Mahabharata was and the deeply woven emotions and conflicts underlining it between each character. My love and devotion for this epic only increases with each day that passes by.
So it was out of this irrevocable fascination I wondered on a whim on what it was like for Subhadra when she discovered the love of her life, Arjuna himself, was living incognito under her care for four months and revealed himself before her with a bang. How would she have felt? What reaction would she have given? Romance really isn’t given a huge priority in the epic and the same applied to the profound workings of Subhadra’s heart and mind. So I wanted to take on it in my own way and write the episode through her eyes.
I hope you enjoy the story and please leave your feedback in the comment section below!
Something warm fell on my closed eyes and it was a while before I realised it was sunlight. I groggily opened my lids and the first sight I saw was of the rising sun, red orange as it ascended.
My maid had opened the curtains.
‘Good morning, your highness,’ she said, bowing and leaving the room.
I sat up, trying to clear my head from the aftermath of the dream I had last night.
I shouldn’t exactly be surprised by the events that happened in it. I was there, obviously, and so was another person – a beautiful man, someone who was the same age as my second elder brother, Krishna. This man really exists. He wasn’t some fantasy.
Okay, he kind of is, but he really lives in this planet. Bhoomidevi supports him too, the same Devi who supports me. He breathes in the same air.
In some other part of the world, where he doesn’t know some girl like me exists.
His name was a legend in Dwaraka and I had heard wonderful stories of him ever since I could remember. Every time I go out into the city for a stroll, I would hear kids saying they would grow up to be like him. Mothers would yearn for a son like him and it was no secret every single virgin fantasised about him.
My obsession with a man I’ve never met before grew steadily unhealthy with each passing day.
Well, I can’t blame myself.
Leave it to Krishna and Balarama to praise him, right when I was there in the same room.
Blame Krishna even more. Why does he have to simply love mentioning his name at least once during conversations? He would drop by his name casually, not knowing what it does to me every time I hear it. It would create a string of bubbles that make my stomach flutter.
It was quite frightening to see I was always thinking about him and conjuring forbidden images, which always consisted of him whisking me away to a flower garden or a secret place to confess his undying love for me.
I’ve never looked at the face in my dreams though.
Because you’ve never even set eyes on him before, you silly, immature, obsessed girl!
I can bet all my jewels Krishna knows about the stupid phase I’m going through. As far as I know, he isn’t what people call “normal human being”. He was something more than that. Those shrewd, calculative eyes miss nothing.
Which gives me enough reason to go to this amazing and compassionate brother of mine and pour my heart out, seeking help.
But I never do that.
Nervousness, inhibition and fear backtrack me.
Which makes me even more desperate for the man whose bloody fault all of this is.
He was the son of Indra, the excellent student of Drona, blessed son of my aunt Kunti and the best archer in the world. The fame of his charm and handsomeness has reached far and wide, painting the picture of being a knight in shining armour.
Oh, Arjuna …
Is this some kind of payback? Some revenge for a crime I committed against you in our previous births? Did I refuse you or spurn you? Why in the name of Yama are you doing this? Do you know that I’ve never even seen you before, never ever talked to you before, never found any rational reason other than your fame and valour to love you?
And yet, you’ve successfully turned me into this lovesick young girl pining after you.
You wicked, wicked man.
DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA OF WHAT YOU’VE DONE?
Another proof that I was unhinged was that I wasn’t pining for a single man.
I was pining for a married man.
The man in question isn’t married to any woman, but the most beautiful creation in the world, who everyone knows, is born straight out of the fire.
Draupadi, the precious daughter of Drupada, is the very incarnation of gloriousness, seductive beauty and charm. She is a goddess born on earth, a real enchantress.
Krishna told us all the whole story. Of how Arjuna entered the tournament disguised as a Brahmin, due to his and his brothers’ hiding from the Varnavrata incident, where they were almost burned to ashes. After all the failed attempts of the burly princes and kings in there, Arjuna had stepped forward, picked up the bow of Shiva, which absolutely no one could even move, and had strung it, keeping his focused eyes on the spinning fish he was supposed to hit only by looking at its reflection in a bowl of oil.
With one clean, swift stroke, he’d sent the arrow flying upwards and slice through the fish’ eye. Draupadi had rewarded him by putting a garland of flowers around his neck and happily accepted him as her husband.
But that was not all.
Due to an order unknowingly given by my Aunt Kunti, all five of my cousins had married Draupadi. It was a huge shock but Krishna eased all of us by telling us of the reason for the strange wedding.
I had smiled, but deep down, I was haunted by thoughts of Arjuna and Draupadi. The gorgeous warrior with the most beautiful woman to exist.
It’s true a man can have more than one wife in our age of time, but come on! How can I even dream of competing against her?! if that was even possible? Am I going to spend the rest of my life thinking about the way Arjuna and Draupadi spend private time?
No, I told myself fiercely. No, I was NOT.
My maids came into my room and unconscious of reality, I let them bathe me, dry my hair, comb it and dress me. It took more than an hour and once I was under the heavy silk dress and jewels, I walked out of the room and while climbing down the steps to head to the dining chamber, I walked into my sister-in-law, Rukmini.
She flashed a motherly smile at me.
‘Good morning, Subhadra,’ she said.
‘Good morning,’ I said back. My voice was dull.
‘Anything wrong?’ she asked, concerned.
‘I’m fine, sister,’ I said, trying to pull myself together.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes,’ I said firmly. ‘I’m hungry, let’s go and have breakfast.’
I was hardly aware of the meal I was having.
Rukmini was seated beside me, next to who sat my brother, Krishna. He was as luminous as ever, draped in golden silk and precious ornaments. His signature was the famous peacock resting on his crown. And to cap his attire, his lovely yet mysterious and mischievous smile was colouring his face.
Right now, he seemed to have noticed nothing about my sadness and was enjoying his meal. Or did he know what was eating me and decided against showing it in front of everybody?
Opposite me sat my brother Balarama and my other sister-in-law. At the head of the table sat my parents, King Vasudeva and Queen Devaki. None of them paid any attention to me, to which I was grateful for. I sat alone in my thoughts of the enticing and forbidden devil.
‘I received news of Arjuna’s departure from Indraprastha,’ said Krishna and the water I was drinking went down the wrong way.
‘Careful, Subhadra!’ said my mother.
Rukmini took the glass out of my hand and patted me on my back as I choked. Krishna waited till I was okay, a smile on his lips, before continuing. ‘He has exiled himself for a year.’
‘For what?’ my father asked, frowning.
‘Apparently, he broke the rule concerning Draupadi. The Pandavas agreed that no one should enter Draupadi’s chamber while she was with a brother. Should the rule be broken, the brother should go on a year exile. Last night, Arjuna entered her room while she was with Yudhishtira.’
My mother gasped. ‘Why did he go in there?’
‘By his righteousness of being a warrior, he needed to save a man’s captured cows and his weapons were in Draupadi’s room. He could not stop himself.’
My mother shook her head. ‘Where is he now?’
‘He’s gone north,’ Krishna answered. ‘I think he plans on going around the country.’
I showed no expression.
Will Arjuna come to Dwaraka?
My stupid heart danced at the thought. And stopped abruptly. If he did, what would he want with me?
Me, this weirdo who was hopelessly in love with him? If he ever entered these four walls, he’d mind his own business and never give me a second glance, let alone thought.
As we left for our separate chambers after breakfast was over, I clenched my jaws and got my mind and heart in order. Things have gone on long enough. He had a life, and I had mine. Both lives were never going to be interconnected, unless I was a damsel in distress he saved and he spared a couple of hours checking to see if I was all right. And that’d be it.
What was I expecting?
As I snapped the door shut to my room, I held my chin up and squared my shoulders.
Guess what, Arjuna?
I’m erasing you out of my heart and mind.
A few months passed by.
On a breezy morning, I was sitting in my garden. It was for my private use but quite a few visitors have been left in my care. They were made to stay in the bamboo hut built in the side of the garden and I was made to tend to their every need. The visitors mostly consisted of sages, brahmins and yatis and they had always blessed me when leaving. I loved taking care of them and listening to their words of wisdom and spiritual intellect. They were a peaceful company and I loved every minute of being with them.
Conches blared deafeningly and I whirled around in surprise. Who was being welcomed?
Then fear gripped me, making me gulp.
I’d worked so hard on getting myself back. Banished every single immaturity lurking within me, refreshed my mind, kicked a certain warrior out of my heart, and embraced the world as a new Subhadra who’d opened her eyes to reality. And I loved this.
But what was the meaning of that loud noise?
Was it a sign that all hell was about to break loose?
That man was not coming here and destroying everything I’d built around myself.
Oh no, he has no right to march in here and destroy me.
Angry, and squaring my shoulders to tell Arjuna to butt the hell out of my life if he so much as caused another flutter in my heart, I got up and headed to the huge balcony of the palace, where my sisters-in-law and mother were seated.
‘Who’s arrived?’ I asked, holding my breath.
‘It seems we have another yati to visit us,’ said my mother. ‘Balarama just passed on the message from the nearby Prabhasa mountain him and Krishna found him.’
I exhaled in relief. Huge relief.
Closing my eyes, I thanked Indradeva for keeping his son away from me, and then opened them to eagerly see our new guest.
The palace gates were flung open and there was a tide of jasmine and roses falling on him like holy rain. Conches continued to blare in a high soprano and every citizen of Dwaraka were out of their houses, staring at the wonder seated on the royal chariot, flanked on either side by my brothers Krishna and Balarama.
I was intrigued by the smile on Krishna’s face though. True, he always felt it was an honour to have holy ones like the yati to stay at our home but there was a definite level of ecstasy on his lips that were peculiar.
My eyes shifted from my brother and landed on the holy one, just as the tide of petals cleared to give me a proper vision.
He was tall and was clothed in saffron robes, rudrakshas coiled around his arms and neck. His hair was a matted mass that hung all the way down to his waist and his beard and moustache covered the majority of his face. He had his hands raised to bless the people who rushed to the chariot to get a better look at him.
As we were told to descend the palace steps, I kept my eyes fixated on our guest. Absent-mindedly, my legs carried me all the way down to the front doors and stayed in one place as my sisters-in-law stood ready to welcome him. The chariot stopped and after my brothers stepped down, the yati did so. I was transfixed by the amount of gracefulness that was put into his movements. He was lithe and supple on his feet that was shocking. It was then that I took a closer look at his profile.
Did yatis have that kind of muscle?
They appeared to be rock hard and manly, shaped to perfection. The rudrakshas actually looked out of place on such limbs. My eyes continued to the side and noticed the planes on his chest, which were partly visible under the cloth. His skin was a beautiful bronze colour, with a rich complexion and just by appearance, I could tell the texture would be smooth and sleek.
I had this sudden mad desire to touch him.
My conscience kicked me hard.
I shook my head, trying to clear it. Unfortunately, my head moved a little vigourously that my earrings dangled along with it, creating a weird noise. I blushed furiously but thankfully, nobody noticed.
My eyes went to the yati again.
This time, at his face.
And it was a second later that I realised it was a huge mistake.
They were the single most exquisite eyes I had ever seen. The irises were dark and the shape of his eyes resembled an almond, fringed by thick lashes.
With a jolt, I realised just how handsome he was.
In my twenty years of life, I have never ever come across a yati or brahmin that looked the way he did. I couldn’t believe this man actually lived this life. What a waste, really. This was injustice.
My sisters-in-law showered him in flowers and applied sandal paste on his forehead. The procession went inside and I followed behind, eyes on the mysterious guest.
Another reality hit me and it made me blush again.
Oh dear God, now I was being drawn to yatis!
‘… I am sure Subhadra will be honoured to take care of you,’ said Krishna and I zoomed back to what was happening around me.
All eyes fell on me but I was paying attention to one set in particular. The one set I shouldn’t be absorbed in.
If any part of my thoughts wondered if his very stare will not have as much as a profound effect as the very appearance of his eyes, it was wrong a thousand times over. The dark ebony orbs pierced right through me, capturing my body, reading my soul.
Ask me to divulge what Krishna’s thoughts were on a regular basis, I think it would prove to be a much easier task than to break the eye hold I was now under.
Then I slowly realised Krishna, Balarama, my parents and sisters-in-law were standing in the room with me and I snapped out of it.
Krishna actually looked close to laughter and I knew he hadn’t probably missed what was going on through my head. My cheeks burned.
‘Subhadra,’ he called. Did I imagine it or did he just wink at me? ‘It is your job to take care of holy guests, isn’t it?’
I collected myself and pulled myself up to my full height, dignified and calm.
‘Yes, it is,’ I smiled, casting it at my brother first and then at the yati, hoping my smile presented a warm welcome.
But then he returned that smile and my knees went weak.
And half of his face was obscured by matted hair.
What was with me and men who I’ve never seen properly before?
I inwardly rolled my eyes at myself.
‘Please come with me,’ I gestured for him. He nodded once, still smiling and feeling my stomach in flutters, I started walking, with him following behind.
I walked through the palace corridors, towards my chambers and garden. And was fully aware that he was trailing behind with sure, graceful steps. Once or twice, I sneaked a peek at him over my shoulder and nearly cricked my neck to turn back front when he caught me looking.
No word was exchanged and yet, it seemed to be a comfortable silence all the way to my garden. We stopped near the peony bushes. His eyes roved around the garden appreciatively and then came to a rest on my eyes.
I smiled, butterflies in my tummy again.
‘Will you be comfortable in my garden house?’ I asked him.
‘Of course,’ he said. I gave a start at the sound of his voice. It was pure velvet and deep, suiting his beautiful stature flawlessly. He was smiling. ‘I would be honoured.’
I motioned for him to follow me to the bamboo hut that was luxuriously built for yatis and brahmins and the moment the pair of us entered the accommodation, he was quite happy.
‘Please sit down,’ I said and he obliged to my request at once, settling himself upon the stool near the threshold. I called for my maids, who were ready, to come forward and they did so with the golden plate and bowls of milk and water with which I was going to wash his feet. Taking in a deep breath, I knelt down at his feet.
Silently happy that my earlier wish to touch him was about to come true, I picked up the golden plate and gently slid it under his pink soles, trying not to notice how smooth the skin was or how well his nails were manicured.
This man was blessed by the Gods over and over.
He carefully put his feet down on the plate and I picked up the bowl of milk, one hand under as I poured it over every inch of his feet. And then swallowed excitedly as I reached my hand out to wash it.
It was better than I imagined it to be.
It was silk and satin, with a touch of rough manliness that was enticing. My fingers whispered over the surface, slowly, reverently. But if I rubbed his feet for longer than was necessary, this would be one of the most awkward situations I’d be in, so I peeled my hands away, reaching for the holy water. I was also admiring the way the crystal clear water danced off his shapely feet, glistening in the light.
As I sprinkled flower petals over it, I felt a warm weight touch the top of my head and I nearly dropped the basin I was holding once I realised what it was.
I stared up to see him blessing me and shakily, I folded my hands to him.
Please don’t read my mind. Please don’t read my mind, Lord!
I stood up, swallowing.
‘I trust you are hungry?’
‘Yes, princess,’ he said smoothly.
I bowed out of the bamboo house.
Ducked for escape would be the more appropriate term.
As I stirred the rich nutrients in the pot in the kitchen, far away from his presence, his effect on me slowly wore off and I was shocked at myself. Here I was, Subhadra, smitten by a yati. And it was completely out of the question. Was I really crazy?
No, seriously, was I?
After all the effort I’d put into forgetting about Arjuna, this is what it came down to in the end? Lusting after a man who has taken the oath of celibacy?
My heart was ready to be given to another man, yes I know it was. But there has to be a better replacement for Arjuna than this yati! Had the stars aligned themselves haphazardly when I gave my first cry into this world?
Shaking my head at myself and feeling more ludicrous than ever, I checked the taste of the meal to be served once the cooking was complete, and arranged it on a golden tray.
He was waiting patiently, sitting erect on the floor and eyes closed. He was meditating and I made myself as silent as possible as I settled down beside him, gently placing his meal in front of him. As I did so, I inhaled his scent. It was a sweet mixture of sandal and honey, an aroma so addicting that I lost myself within it.
As he opened his eyes, he smiled at me, one so strong it won my appreciation again, and pulled his plate of nutrients towards him.
On the other hand, I sighed and assured myself, I guess I am reacting like any other sane girl. No woman can resist that smile.
Being silent seemed like a dangerous thing to do so I initiated conversation.
‘Um,’ I began. He looked at me immediately. ‘How long have you been travelling?’
‘For quite a while now. I have been scaling the country.’
‘Can you recount some stories for me?’ I asked curiously. I generally loved the yatis’ narration of their pilgrimage. They were so divine and captivating.
So that was how the rest of the day went. I was by his side the entire time, lost in his majestic retelling of the wonders he had come across along the plains of Bharatavarsha. He pulled me right into his encounters and I was engrossed when he narrated his dhyana at the foot of the mighty Himalayas. That was where the abode of Lord Shiva was, the great Mahadev. We worshipped him a lot and I was told no place as pure as the arena of Mount Kailash existed anywhere.
‘Wow,’ I sighed as he finished his stories. Night had fallen and I was bemused at how time had practically flown. I stared out of the window in shock.
‘What is it?’ he asked, curious by my reaction.
‘It is very late,’ I said, getting to my feet. ‘I shouldn’t be out here.’
‘Oh,’ he said, looking at the dark environment behind me.
‘You must be hungry too,’ I said. ‘Would you like me to bring you dinner?’
He gave me that dashing smile, robbing me off thinking capacity, and shook his head. ‘No, thank you, princess. My hunger was satiated just by your company.’
My skin heated. ‘Er … well, that’s …’
‘I hope I haven’t been cutting into your dinner time,’ he said, worry lines on his features.
‘No,’ I said quickly. ‘I, um, I am not hungry either.’
‘Well, in that case,’ he said, the radiant smile back on his face. ‘I wonder if you don’t mind listening to another story. I was under the impression you liked them.’
‘I did. But maybe tomorrow? I really should get back. My family will be wondering what is taking me so long.’
And I better have an excuse that isn’t concerning my need to sit beside him twenty-four seven.
All right, that was the cue to haul myself back to my chambers.
‘Sounds nice,’ he said, voice soft. ‘Tell you what, Subhadra, if you’re so interested in my yatras, I believe you won’t disagree with some lessons I would love to teach you. How about the magic of dhyana and keeping your mind under rest? A young girl like you should ease control over her emotions.’
For a wild second, I was frightened he knew every single thought that ran through my head. Could he possibly? No, please no.
But he couldn’t have.
He would have showed some signs if he had. He had remained divine, unruffled and formal. Nothing to be afraid of.
Or what if he did know and my reaction was one among a similar million he’d received?
The thought made me feel even foolish. I almost refused his offer, but those kind and compassionate eyes told a different story.
Maybe he was like the other yatis. Imparting all the wisdom he had into people like me. How can I ever assume the yati would taunt me or do any thing to degrade me? I was being delusional. He knew how hormonal a young girl can get and he would have wanted to teach me the ways to keep my crazy chariot under the right speed.
The yati can teach me new levels of maturity.
All that I had wanted.
‘Of course,’ I told him, respect for him blooming in my heart. ‘Please teach me.’
He gave me that dazzling smile again. It was going to haunt me for the rest of the night.
After prostrating myself at his feet – resisting the urge to feel his skin again – I got up and ducked out of the house, rushing towards the door to my chamber.
And banged headlong into Krishna.
‘Oh!’ I gasped, clutching my chest.
‘Whoa there, Subhadra. Did I scare you?’
‘You appeared out of thin air, in case you didn’t notice,’ I said, my heart calming down.
He raised an eyebrow, face completely mischievous. It was never a good sign.
‘I think your heart began hyperventilating long before you ran into me here,’ he smirked.
‘Excuse me?’ I said, tensing. He always knew.
‘I was talking about the cold climate outside,’ he said innocently. ‘Your heart begins pumping faster to create body heat, doesn’t it? Why, what’s the matter?’
I narrowed my eyes. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘I’m not allowed to visit my sister?’ he asked, pretending to be hurt.
‘You are if the sister’s lounging in her room. What brings you out here instead of waiting inside?’
‘A question I may ask you, Subhadra,’ he said, quirking an eyebrow. Oh no. I was in trouble. And that smirk of his indicated I was in heaps. ‘Why aren’t you in your chamber?’
‘I was tending to the yati,’ I said imperiously.
‘I see no reason why washing his feet would take a long time,’ he said, controlling his laughter.
‘No,’ I said, determined to never let him floor me this time. ‘I was wising up my brain. He is very intelligent.’
The smug grin never left his face. ‘Well, that he is. In fact, I don’t think anyone will ever measure up to him in that aspect. I’ve seen a major picture of that sharp intelligence.’
‘How can you be so sure? You didn’t spend more time with him than me.’
‘Maybe not today, but on other days, yes I have.’
‘What?’ I said, taken aback. ‘Where?’
He waved his hand. ‘Around. Last year.’
‘What was he doing?’ I asked curiously.
Krishna gave me an intent smile. ‘Doing his rightful duties. I assure you, he was a great source of support to the people around him.’
‘Oh …’ I said, trailing off. The yati was an interesting character. I wanted to know more about him.
Krishna happened to finish my thoughts. ‘I am sure if you want any details of him, he won’t begrudge you any answers.’
I looked at him, pride on my face. ‘He promised me meditation lessons.’
‘Really?’ Krishna said, eyes sparkling. ‘So I’m guessing you won’t be seen in the palace much.’
There was something in his pleased tone that made me suspicious.
‘Yes, dear?’ he said, innocent.
‘Is there something you’d like to tell me?’
‘You look absolutely beautiful tonight.’
‘Cut it out. Is there something about out guest that I should know?’
‘You tell me.’
‘Yes, he is.’
‘You know his secrets?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘Would be kind as to tell me?’
‘That’s for me to know and for you to find out,’ he said, tweaking my nose.
I grabbed his hand. ‘Oh, don’t be mean!’
‘Subhadra, his secrets have been conveyed to me with the strictest confidence. I cannot break my word. If you want to know more, ask him and he will choose whether to tell you or not.’
The days rolled by. I was getting more and more attached to my guest and was shaken by the amount of bonding we had developed between ourselves. He subjected me to meditation many times everyday and the hours that weren’t resorted to connecting spiritual links were dedicated to just talking. Sure, he continued with his wise stories but mostly, he would ask me about myself, what I liked and what I hated.
I never managed to know more about him than I wanted, since his interview of my tastes seemed to have no end. He gave every single one of answers equal importance, as if storing away them away in a memory chest. With the way he got me to open up, I reached a point where I could trust him with my weirdness and told him silly stories from when I was a little girl, which he simply adored instead of detested. I told him how I used to be a loner and found great interest in painting, which at his request, I brought him some of my masterpieces. He glowed with pride at the true likeliness of Krishna’s crown and peacock feather, a mother bird nesting her eggs, my favourite horses from the stables, Rukmini’s beautiful eyes alone, and the full portrait of Krishna, which I confessed protected me from nightmares during the night.
There was one more masterpiece of mine but I had never shown it to anyone, not even Krishna. It was one of whom I assumed was Arjuna, done three years ago. I’d let my imagination run wild of what he’d look like and had let my hand surrender to the fantasy, creating an incredibly stunning man bedecked in silk and warrior’s ornaments. But I didn’t show it to the yati, leaving it where it lay at the very corner of a back room in my chamber. I never even looked at that portrait ever since I erased him from my heart.
And while I told the yati almost everything about me, I never mentioned Arjuna either. Not once. Not that I was afraid of whether he’d judge me or pity me, but the fact that it sounded ridiculous to my own ears to accept how much in love I used to be with a man who I had never set eyes on before.
Time flew by and before I knew it, the yati had been with us for nearly four months.
He had become so close with me that he knew me so easily. I knew only little of him. He told me about his childhood, of how he loved his siblings, but that was all I knew. He himself declared there wasn’t much to him except for the various pilgrimages and interactions with people on his journey, which I’d asked about a thousand times already. But I did know this – He was kind, patient, very understanding, and someone who I felt at ease with.
Our talks usually had me as the topic of conversation and I had no idea how they went but by someway or the other, he will manage to callout something new about me, which even I have never considered. I wonder why he finds a girl like me so interesting.
But that was not all.
There were these brief moments when he and I would just sit staring at each other, lost in our own world. Nothing would be exchanged; just the sound of our even breathing and the music of the chirping birds in the background as we gazed and gazed at the other, memorising each and every feature. He had hardwired himself so much into my system that I ended up painting him too, which I showed him after it was done, presenting it as a surprise gift and as a token of gratitude for taking such good care of me.
When his eyes fell on the canvas for the first time, he was at a loss for words and when his eyes came up to meet mine, a strange gaze of something deep captured me. It was a gaze to make me forget about all my insecurities and make me feel worshipped. It was the same gaze that pierced me when I would be just strolling around my garden for a change of hobby. I caught him doing that many times and rather than feeling affronted, I actually felt like I was flying on top of the world.
Because I had fallen in love with him.
When the shocking epiphany hit me one morning, I literally stumbled backwards into my bed and lay there for a solid hour, staring in horror at the ceiling. Me, in love with a celibate man. Me, in love with a man who can never love me back even if he wanted to. Me, breaking all the rules.
But as soon as I got over that first wave of shock and my mind ran through all the reasons this could destroy me, my thoughts shifted to another dimension, something which made my heart swell.
So what if he couldn’t love me back? So what if he was celibate and I could never marry him?
Because I had now come to know what love really was. I realised what falling deeply and truly in love really meant and that my past love for Arjuna was nothing compared to this. It made me aware of who I was and what I was capable of. It felt an honour to have given my heart away to a man like the yati. This was the kind of man I needed, the man who deserved my love. He was a man who knew me inside and out, who understood me, who knew all my flaws, and who knew what to do and say to make me feel better about all the things that upset me and how to set my head straight. I could trust him with my life.
True, it was a bitter turn of fate that I couldn’t spend the rest of my life with him, but it was also a bitter turn of fate that he had to set the standard so high. I wasn’t going to stay in Dwaraka for long. The time for getting married was inching closer and closer. And with every prince and king pointed at by my parents or brothers, my mind would automatically start judging and comparing with the man who had swept me off my feet.
One day, as I was walking to the kitchens to get the yati his afternoon meal, I caught a pair of angry voices coming from the nearby chamber.
I recognised them immediately as Krishna and Balarama.
I froze in my tracks, shocked.
They never had a real fight, ever. Sure, Krishna loved pulling our older brother’s leg a lot of times but those two had never been in a heated conversation before.
‘… are you planning to ruin Subhadra’s life?’ Krishna said, voice stony.
They were having a fight about me?!
‘No,’ Balarama argued back. ‘I know what’s best for her, Krishna!’
‘I understand her better than you do,’ Krishna said. ‘Let me talk to her first.’
‘She’s just a child! She doesn’t know what she wants! I am sure she would be very happy in Hastinapura.’
‘Not as the wife of him, brother. I mean it.’
‘Krishna, I appreciate that you love the Pandavas very much, so do I. But the Kauravas are our cousins too. They are family whether we accept it or not and I am willing to seal the bond. Don’t you dare try to smart talk me out of this one.’
‘Let us hold a swayamvara or better yet, ask Subhadra herself whether she would like him,’ Krishna put his foot down.
‘Why wouldn’t she?’
‘You are planning to wed her off to Duryodhana, brother! Do you even know what kind of decision you’re making?’ Krishna’s voice was hard and he never sounded this harsh before.
‘What is wrong with Duryodhana? Is he not handsome? Is he not clever, talented and brave? What more does she want? She will be proud of being his wife.’
‘He’s also arrogant, vicious and demeaning,’ Krishna reminded him. ‘You give our Subhadra to him and you will face the worst mistake of your life.’
I swayed on my feet. The wall thankfully caught me before I swooned to the floor. It was either the apocalypse or my brother was really going to give me away to that demon of a man, the very incarnation of evil and adharma interspersed with alarming solidity.
The yati was waiting for me patiently in his confinement, eyes closed and his mouth murmuring mystic prayers that connect him with God. As I held his lunch in my hands, I swallowed, my mind replaying what I heard back there. My entire body was convulsing on the inside, writhing like snakes, nauseating every single peristaltic movement even though there was no food inside.
My sense of insecurity must have come to the yati’s senses. It was astonishing how people like him were able to feel emotions coming out of the person near them.
He opened those warm coals, piercing my heart.
As he took in my state, the lines on his brow furrowed in confusion and his lips tightened. His look of anguish tormented me even further.
‘Is everything all right?’ he asked, voice like velvet but a tone down. He was worried.
I stood rigid, my outside carved out of stone in contrary to what was storming inside.
‘Subhadra?’ he called, very concerned.
I looked at him.
He patted the seat next to him. ‘Come sit next to me, sweetheart, and tell me what happened. You’re making me very anxious.’
I didn’t oblige immediately. This topic had absolutely no connection with him, seeing as he never knew what marriage was and what the laws of matrimony held on a general basis. But on the other hand, my family inside the other building always seemed to find Balarama’s views on any matter correct and a cue to take it up without objection. No one ever contradicted his views and didn’t try to stop him. Not even Krishna, though he argued with him. He was under his older brother’s command as like any other and he accepted his decisions.
I was doomed to be tied with that … I couldn’t even get a bad enough word out of my tongue.
And I knew nothing could be done by lamenting over this to my sisters-in-law or mother. They would just say ‘Your brother’s heart is in the right place.’
Yes, it was. I loved Balarama with all my heart. But this time, it felt like jumping into a black hole. Get lost and never ever be seen again. Exactly what would happen if I married that wretch.
Losing my rigid balance with those thoughts, I shakily placed the tray safely on the floor before sagging down beside my rock, basking myself in his warm shelter and inhaling his seductive scent of sandal and honey. I wanted to curl up into his lap and cry, just holding onto him.
‘Subhadra?’ he said gently. Out of the corner of my eye, through my hazy vision, I thought I saw one of his hands reach up to touch my face but he dropped it instantly.
And that was all it took. Before I knew it, I fell forward and collapsed on his lap, closing my eyes against the hot tears and clutching his clothes like a lifeline. His hands immediately began smoothing my hair away from my face, voice saturated with anxiety and emotion. ‘Subhadra, please tell me what’s going on.’
His warm hands wiped away my tears, the comfort of it calming me down.
‘I …,’ I got out. ‘I’m doomed.’
The food lay forgotten.
I took in a deep breath, gulping. ‘My brother is deciding to wed me off.’
He went still.
‘And that is bad?’ he said after quite a while. His tone was distant.
I pulled myself together and sat back up, facing him. His face was ashen at the state I was in.
‘No,’ I answered. ‘No, I’m really looking forward to getting married. But I can’t look forward when it’s to man I don’t want.’
His brows lifted up, worried. ‘Who?’
I couldn’t even say his name. I hoped the yati would find out if I beat around the bush. ‘Do you know our cousins in Hastinapura?’
His expression became guarded, analysing. ‘Yes,’ he said, cautiously.
‘The hundred sons of the king?’
He looked so close to wrapping his arms around me but contained himself. Then his face frowned, eyes narrowing. ‘The Kauravas?’
I nodded. ‘It’s the eldest one.’
‘Duryodhana,’ he said and I was shocked at how much venom his voice contained just by the mention of the name. So my evil cousin’s fame spread far and wide through all of India. He should be proud of himself. Even a yati hated him.
‘He’s not even the last man I want to be wedded to and I can’t believe Balarama would do something like this!’
His hands shot forward to take mine between them and I felt a wave of serenity wash over my anguish and agony.
‘Please don’t cry, Subhadra,’ he said, his own voice shaking. ‘It pains me.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, noticing how this was the first time we ever touched each other. It was so ethereal. ‘I didn’t m-mean to upset you.’
He smiled, caressing the back of my hands with his thumbs before heaving a sigh and letting me go. I longed for them, wanted to shout at him to hold me again but it was utterly wrong. He only meant to comfort me.
‘When did he decide this?’ he said after a pause.
‘A few minutes ago,’ I said, an arrow of pain shooting through my heart.
‘Didn’t he ask for your acceptance?’ he asked.
‘I actually overheard him and Krishna arguing about this,’ I admitted, blushing. ‘I couldn’t help listening.’
The yati regarded me for a moment before saying, ‘Krishna will be in your favour, will he not? I know he would never do anything to hurt you.’
I gave him a watery smile. ‘He is my best friend and closest brother. But I don’t think he might win this time. Balarama’s word’s are firm.’
The yati eyed me with questioning and curiosity. ‘Forgive me for asking, Subhadra, but … do you have anyone else in your heart?’
I froze, the house spinning in my dizzy head. In my eyes, he suddenly lit up, as if answering his own question. And I found myself nodding my head.
He went very still, eyes widening slightly. Then he recomposed himself. His voice was controlled when he asked me the crucial question. ‘Who?’
I smiled again, glossing over the real answer.
‘Not right now … but … I used to be in love.’
I nodded again. ‘It was really silly, though. I didn’t even know the man.’
He furrowed his brows, looking closely. ‘You didn’t know him? What do you mean?’
‘I mean, I’ve never met him before. I’ve only heard about him. And developed a bizarre feeling which I believed was love. How could I have fallen in love with a man whom I’ve never spoken with? Doesn’t it sound ridiculous?’
He didn’t answer.
‘Aren’t you going to say something?’ I asked.
‘Well, yes,’ he said, clearing his throat and sitting back upright. ‘I think you are right. There’s no possibility of loving a person when you haven’t met or spoken with them before.’
‘So who was that man?’ he asked.
‘Promise not to tell anyone?’ I asked him.
‘I promise,’ he vowed.
This was actually the first time I was going to say that warrior’s name out aloud. As I built it up, I sat upright. And looked at the yati straight in the eye to answer.
The yati’s eyes widened in shock and disbelief. ‘What did you say?’
‘Arjuna,’ I repeated and froze for a few seconds as the electric current jingled along my nerves. I hated that some of my feelings still remained. But they would eventually wear off, I know. ‘You must have heard of Arjuna.’
‘As a matter of fact, I have.’
A smile tugged on his lips (which was exhilarated) and I suddenly remembered that Arjuna was travelling the country, just like the yati. Wherever he was was a mystery I had no intention of solving.
‘You … You used to be in love with him?’ he asked again, as if he wanted to make a clarification.
‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘I don’t love him anymore.’
He was silent for a couple of seconds, before saying, ‘Because … you’ve never met him. Is that why you decided to forget about him?’
I pulled my knees to my chest, wrapping my arms around them as I adjusted myself comfortably. His eyes were following every movement I made.
‘It’s not just that,’ I answered. ‘He’s also a married man. With a goddess for a wife.’
‘She’s not his wife alone,’ he reminded me softly.
I shrugged. ‘So what?’
‘A man can marry again, can’t he? Look at his brother, Bheema. He already married Hidimbi before Draupadi.’
I shrugged again. ‘I don’t care.’
I shook my head. ‘Not anymore. He’s out of my life. He’s like a fantasy dream, one that remains a fantasy. The reality is something else.’
‘A fantasy? He is real, Subhadra.’
‘I know that. He’s real for Draupadi. For me, he’s a fantasy.’
‘Is that your final decision?’
‘It is. Come on, you think he doesn’t love Draupadi more than his own life? It’s a sin for any woman to come in between that.’
‘Yes, he does love Draupadi,’ he agreed. ‘But Subhadra, Draupadi doesn’t belong with him alone. She shares her love between all the five brothers. Arjuna and Draupadi aren’t always together. Hasn’t it ever occurred to you that Arjuna would want a woman whom he has full liberty to be with? Hasn’t it ever occurred to you he would want to wake up to a pair of loving eyes, a heart whose love belongs to him alone, every single morning?’
I looked at him. ‘You seem to have given a great deal of thought to the matter.’
‘I just thought of things from his perspective.’
I smiled. ‘I do suppose you’re right.’
He edged a little close. ‘Can I ask you something?’
‘Yes, you can.’
‘If Arjuna himself were to appear before you and ask for your hand in marriage, would you refuse him?’
I looked at him. ‘Why would Arjuna want to ask for my hand in marriage?’
‘Why wouldn’t he?’ he smiled.
I smiled back. ‘You really think he’d want to marry me?’
‘I don’t find a valid reason as to why he shouldn’t. I’ve spent four months with you, got to know you, and I’m astounded by what an amazing young lady you are, Subhadra. You’re vivacious, kind, compassionate, warm, caring, and you can definitely make a man laugh, making him forget about all his worries. He’d be very lucky to win your heart and marry you.’
There they were again, the butterflies. It wasn’t created by the fact Arjuna would love me. But the fact that this forbidden man I had fallen in love with found me marriageable. And thought of me as an amazing young lady. There was no better honour than hearing the love of your life declare that you were amazing.
‘Thank you, that really means a lot,’ I smiled at him, wishing with all my heart I could confess myself. His eyes twinkled at me. ‘You listed down all the reasons why he would love to marry me, but can you do the same for him? What reason do I have to be willing to marry Arjuna?’
The yati was surprised. Then he laughed. ‘You’re absolutely right, Subhadra. You don’t have a reason.’
I grinned at him. ‘I don’t. See, look at you and me. We’ve been together for four months and we know each other, but the same isn’t for him, is it? In a manner of speech, I’d be more inclined to marry you instead of him.’
Had I not been laughing while I said that, he would have been shocked speechless.
But it seemed my bluff had the same effect.
He stared at me.
‘Please don’t be offended,’ I said quickly, blushing. ‘I was giving an example -‘
‘No, no, it’s all right,’ he assured me. He stared at me again. ‘I understand what you mean.’
My mind scrambled around for a way to get rid of the awkwardness, though I had kind of stated he was marriage material for me. Subhadra needs to know when to shut up.
‘Now that you mention Arjuna,’ I began hastily. ‘Did you see him on your way around the country? You know he’s travelling too, don’t you?’
He grinned, a beautiful grin. ‘I might have seen him.’
‘You did?’ I didn’t even bother hiding my burning curiosity. ‘What … What was he like?’
‘Do you mean in terms of physical description or personality?’
‘He was pretty normal. Nothing much to say.’
I frowned. ‘Nothing much to say? What are you talking about? I’m asking about Arjuna.’
‘I’m talking about Arjuna too. He was tall, was an archer, and he was all right.’
‘All right. That’s your description? If he was just all right, then why is the whole country singing his praises every single day?’
He shrugged again. ‘I don’t see anything remarkable in him.’
‘Maybe you haven’t been paying proper attention,’ I said. ‘Because as far as I know, my brother Krishna loves him more than I can imagine and Aunt Kunti cherishes him like a treasure. I wouldn’t be surprised even if Draupadi has a special preference for him. I may not know him personally, but he’s quite an amazing person from what I’ve heard.’
‘Is that so?’ he grinned.
‘Am I interrupting?’ came a mischievous voice.
Whipping my head around, I saw my second brother standing at the threshold, a beam on his face.
The yati immediately stood up, folding his hands to Krishna. Krishna smiled at him, taking his hands in his own. His eyes shifted back and forth from the pair of us. ‘Were you two talking about Arjuna?’
‘Yes, we were,’ the yati answered.
‘Amusing,’ Krishna smirked. I don’t think I imagined the wink he gave him. ‘And intriguing, I should say, because my sister has never even uttered Arjuna’s name before. I doubted whether she knew anything about him at all. Shame on her for not knowing about her cousin.’
I raised an eyebrow.
Like you don’t know how to read my mind, Krishna.
His eyes were on the yati but his smile was for me. Krishna always had access to my mind. It was how I lay alone in my room, spilling my fears and other insecurities to him. His presence in my head alone soothed me, like the way God would do.
‘Would you really like to meet him, Subhadra?’ Krishna asked me.
I crossed my arms over my chest. ‘Why would I?’
‘I assumed you might.’
‘I can meet him at my wedding. Where I marry Duryodhana,’ I said sarcastically.
I didn’t mean to let that out but when I saw Krishna, the argument he had with Balarama had popped back into my mind and I demanded an explanation of what was going to happen to me.
He froze, staring at me in surprise. ‘How do you know about that?’
‘I heard you fighting about it with Balarama an hour ago,’ I said. ‘So when’s the auspicious day? I need to know how long my smile’s going to last.’
‘Oh, Subhadra,’ he sighed, reaching for me and pulling me into his arms. I began trembling again, the tears leaking once more. ‘You’re not going to marry Duryodhana.’
‘Really?’ Sarcasm again.
‘You have my word,’ he vowed.
I pulled back, looking up at him. ‘Do you mean it?’
‘What kind of brother am I if I don’t know what’s best for my sister?’ he smiled, gently wiping away my tears. ‘I’m not going to let anyone, not even me, control your life and make decisions for you. Do you hear me?’
I smiled in huge relief, nodding. ‘I love you.’
‘I love you too.’ He kissed my head. ‘Now, let’s get to talking here, now that we’re on the topic.’
‘Talk about what?’ I asked as he stepped away, looking at me.
‘I need to know what you want. Shall we hold a swayamvara?’
I dropped my jaw. ‘Are you serious?’
‘I am,’ he grinned. ‘It’ll be the biggest swayamvara ever known in history. All the princes and kings will be there. Everyone. You will have all the liberty to choose who you want. Say the word.’
I sighed, but smiled. ‘I would have given you the go ahead had you asked me this question four months ago.’
He stared. ‘What are you talking about? What’s wrong with now?’
I pointed at the silent yati. ‘Blame him. It’s all his fault.’ But I gave him a warm smile. ‘My friendship and relationship with him inspired me to the realisation of how beautiful my relationship with my life partner can be if I have a chance to get to know him before throwing a garland around his neck. I know it’s a bizarre comparison but think, Krishna! I won’t know who I’m marrying except for the name and his accomplishments! What if I get fascinated at first look but then I hate him after getting married, when nothing can be done to reverse time? I’m really scared now.’
Krishna smiled. ‘I see. I understand. So you would like to get to know your groom-to-be before the big day. It’s a very rare phenomenon in our age.’
‘I know,’ I sighed sadly. ‘It’s not fair. Oh why can’t you be old?’ I whined at the amused yati. ‘Here you are, only a few years older than me and my best friend. I wouldn’t have felt this way had you been like a father figure like all the previous sages who’ve come here.’
‘Well, forgive me for being young,’ the yati laughed.
I rolled my eyes and turned away, kicking the sand under my feet.
‘Subhadra?’ Krishna called after a moment.
‘What?’ I didn’t turn around.
‘Would you like to marry someone you know so well? Someone who knows you so well too?’
‘I’d love to, but who? There’s no one I know like that.’
‘Oh, but you do, darling.’
I turned around to face him and his shining eyes. ‘I’d have known if I had ever been close to a man like that, Krishna, stop it.’
‘You’re right,’ he chuckled. ‘You don’t know. You have no idea how close you are to Arjuna.’
‘Oh, Subhadra, please open your eyes and take a closer look.’
I froze as he put an arm around … the yati.
In a brotherly fashion, as though the pair of them had been the best of friends for years.
Dear … Mahadeva …
‘How do you know this warrior, as Partha or Dhananjaya?’ Krishna grinned at me.
Breathe, Subhadra, breathe!
I opened my mouth, then closed it again, staring in some horror at the man in disguise, taking in everything he was, now getting the picture of why he was built like that.
‘You … you …’ I swallowed, trying again.
‘Yes, Subhadra, he is Arjuna,’ Krishna put in for me, suppressing his smile.
‘You … you … it was you!‘ I shouted, stumbling back several feet, hitting the wall with a thud. ‘Ouch.’
The yati – no, not the yati!
Arjuna stepped forward, wary. ‘Okay … calm down, Subhadra.’
‘Don’t you dare take another step towards me,’ I threatened, glaring at him full on. ‘Don’t you dare.’
He stopped, eyeing me. ‘Are you going to hit me?’
‘Who do you think you are?’ I snapped. ‘How dare you disguise yourself?’
‘Now, wait a minute,’ he said, raising an eyebrow. ‘I don’t think I remember manipulating you, if that’s what you’re accusing me of. I didn’t come with any intent of meeting you, let alone marry you. Ask your brother for further clarification. This was a punishment of my breaking the rule I had forged with my brothers. I didn’t even remember you before I came here.’
I stared at him, then threw my hands up with a laugh, a laugh of pity at myself as well as relief. ‘Well, I guess I was wise in taking the decision of kicking you out of my thoughts once and for all. You wouldn’t have even realised Krishna had a sister if it wasn’t for that rule breaking and you arrived at Dwaraka on a whim.’
‘Don’t do that,’ he told me sternly. ‘Everything happened for a reason. I was destined to come here and meet you. You and I are meant to be together.’
‘Oh, really?’ I said sarcastically. ‘After all the effort I put into getting over you, I’m going to put myself in that dangerous position where you have that effect over me again? Nice try. Go away.’
‘Subhadra,’ Krishna rebuked, stepping in. ‘You’re being unreasonable. Are you forgetting you’ve been with Arjuna for four months and grew close with him? He may have been in disguise but he was Arjuna all that time he spent with you.’
He was. He was himself. He had been Arjuna.
I knew it.
But the aftermath of my juvenile obsession and the damage it brought to my mind and heart overruled it.
I backed out the door and ignoring Arjuna’s calls, I turned around and made a beeline for my chambers, locking the doors and staring at the wall in some daze, horror and amazement, all rolled into one.
That night, when it was dark and quiet, I got up from my bed, knowing fully well this was the hour everyone was asleep. As soundless as a cat, I sneaked out of my room, made my way through my corridors and pushed the glass doors to my part of the palace open. The chill of the midnight air fanned my face, cooling the heat my cheeks adapted at the thought and execution of my attempt to go and see Arjuna with a calm and composed mind.
I knew I had been unreasonable when I blew my top at him earlier this afternoon. But how else could I have reacted? His reveal had come at me out of blue and had shaken me, which made me blurt out the first things that had always been there, ripe in my mind.
I’d forgotten everything we built for the past four months, only remembering how hard it was for me a few months ago when I realised what an immature fool I was to have been obsessing incessantly over him for so many years.
It took a while before I calmed down and thought things over.
It was true.
He hadn’t come with any intent of meeting me.
Krishna was the one who found him and brought him here. Arjuna didn’t come to Dwaraka of his own accord. He’d only been minding his own business.
And had been put under my care by Krishna …
He knew it was Arjuna. Why didn’t he ever tell me that before? Was this his decision or Arjuna’s? And had Krishna played the role of a matchmaker? He was unpredictable.
There was only one way to know.
I shivered in the cold night air as I put one foot in front of the other to walk across the fresh grass, eyes fixed on the bamboo hut. I knew Arjuna would be sleeping, but this will only take a few minutes. I hope he doesn’t mind.
As I reached the entrance, I took in a deep breath, and slowly peeked in through the doorway. And was perplexed to see it … deserted.
Puzzled, I stepped inside, looking around. All the luxuries that came with the hut were located in their rightful place, completely untouched. And the bed was devoid of creases, indicating he hadn’t slept on it.
Where was Arjuna?
A sinking thought seeped in.
Had he left?
It did create a strong pang of regret. Because I had really fallen in love with him this time. Got to know the man behind the Gandhiva and experienced his gentle, loving nature. He knew me inside out, and I knew him, connected with him. He’d made me realise what I was worth, who I was. He’d made me feel so confident about myself, turning me into a strong woman who knew how to look out for herself and make proper decisions.
After giving me that, are you going to leave me, Arjuna? My anguished thoughts asked him.
It was no secret his exile was over.
The door to Indraprastha had been opened again.
The door to Draupadi had been opened again.
‘Subhadra?’ came a deep, male voice from right behind me.
Startled, I jumped almost a foot in the air before whirling around, my heart in danger of failing.
It was Arjuna.
He no longer was in the attire of a yati, with the matted mass of hair hanging down his back and front. He no longer was wearing any saffron robes.
He was Arjuna.
Dressed to perfection in silk and ornaments. He was better than I imagined him to be. His tangled beard and moustache had been shaven off cleanly, revealing the godly man beneath the disguise; his hair had been cut and washed, back in their normal sleekness. Now that his features gave his eyes the throne of his handsomeness, I was struck by how I’ve never across such a glorious face before.
‘You’re still here,’ was what I said.
He smiled. ‘And you came back.’
I blushed. ‘I owe you an apology. I was taken by surprise this afternoon.’
‘It’s all right, Subhadra.’
The butterflies took flight at the sound of my name in his voice.
‘Can I come closer to you now?’ he asked with a smile.
I looked at him, swallowing, and took two steps closer myself, my expression warm. ‘Is this okay?’
‘More than okay.’ His eyes were swallowing me right up. ‘I’ve never told you how beautiful you are, have I?’
Blushing again, I shook my head, averting my eyes shyly to the floor. ‘No. You would have looked strange saying that as a yati.’
He laughed. ‘Yes, it would have been out of the question.’
‘Why were you in that attire?’ I asked, looking back up at him.
‘It was part of the rule if any of us broke the rule concerning Draupadi,’ he explained, reaching out to tuck a stray strand of my hair behind my ear, making me tremble slightly. ‘We swore if any of us disturbed a brother while he was with her we’d shed our royal clothes and take up the life of a sage for a year, far away from Indraprastha. I knew what I was in for that night I barged inside Draupadi’s chamber but I couldn’t possibly let that poor man lose his cattle.’
‘Arjuna to the rescue, like always,’ I smiled.
He shrugged, grinning. ‘Like I said, it was a blessing in disguise. Otherwise I wouldn’t have come here and met you.’
‘You could have told me it was you,’ I said. ‘You didn’t have to hide your identity.’
‘I honestly didn’t expect I’d fall in love with you, Subhadra,’ he said. The words set off a range of speeding chills throughout my body. He took my hand, encasing it in the warmth of his. ‘I’d only been planning to meet Krishna as soon as I finished my prayers but he found me himself and brought me home, asking me to stay with him for the rest of my exile. He mentioned you’d take care of me, as you do all sages and priests, and the first time I laid eyes on you, I was struck speechless.’
‘You were?’ I asked, shy.
‘More than you think,’ he grinned. ‘I couldn’t take my eyes off you. True, I did not fall in love with you in the beginning, I was only fascinated, but as we got to know each other, I was lost.’
I smiled, blushing. ‘You knew more about me than I knew you.’
‘Well, what else could I say about myself?’
‘You could have told me who you really were!’
‘I really wanted to but Krishna advised me not to. Because Balarama was already planning your wedding with Duryodhana and if I told you who I was, some involuntary way of exposing me would have come from you. Not intentionally, but accidentally.’
Well that was true. Something definitely would have happened to reveal Arjuna’s cover if I knew I was taking care of the most magnificent warrior of India and tried to keep it a secret. As Arjuna said, it wouldn’t have been intentional, but by accident.
‘And that would have driven me out. Krishna didn’t want that. I think he was planning on wedding you off to me long back,’ he grinned.
‘You and I both know I would have refused.’
‘I know. Your angry reaction and everything you snapped at me this afternoon really took me aback. Do you resent me?’
‘I resented you a lot after I realised how foolish I was being, obsessed with you when you had no clue I existed. It was very unhealthy for me. I used to imagine you and Draupadi together all the time and it always killed me -‘
His grip on my hand tightened and he came very close, his aroma of sandal and honey washing over me. ‘Like I already told you,’ he said softly. ‘My heart is shackled from expressing all the love I want. It has no outlet. I want to wake up to a pair of loving eyes every single morning and I want those eyes to be yours, Subhadra. I want to sweep you off your feet with all the love I’m capable of.’
I sucked in a breath. There was only an inch separating his body and mine.
‘Can I ask you something?’ I said.
‘What would have happened had your mother not uttered that order that evening you brought Draupadi home?’
He stared at me.
‘It would have been just you and her, wouldn’t it? She wouldn’t have had to marry all five of you and you wouldn’t have been shackled at all. You wouldn’t have exiled yourself for barging into her room. It would have been her loving eyes you’d have woken up to every single morning. I’d have never come into your life.’
‘But my mother did utter that order, didn’t she?’ he said. ‘What happened was beyond any of our control. And Draupadi was meant to marry all five of us. Do you know the story of her previous birth?’
‘No, I don’t. Krishna told me you and your brothers would have had a blood bath had she belonged to you alone, because the other four weren’t able to resist staring at her even at the swayamvara. She would have caused a huge rift.’
‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘It would have ended up horribly. I can’t blame my brothers for desiring her. It’s understandable. But, listen -‘
‘She really is tremendously beautiful, isn’t she?’ I asked, voice gentle.
He smiled. ‘Yes, she is. I won’t deny that. But I also won’t deny the woman standing in front of me is another dimension of breath-taking beauty. Why haven’t you made every poor male out there cry for being out of your league yet? Surely everyone in Dwaraka must have seen you, Subhadra. And I do believe news of your beauty must have travelled far and wide.’
I blushed, looking down and he chuckled, reaching up with his free hand to stroke my cheek. I leaned into it, closing eyes against the feel. ‘Krishna and Balarama received a lot of offers for my hand in marriage.’ I opened my eyes to look back up at him. ‘It was your fault I refused them before my sensible epiphany.’
‘Sensible epiphany,’ he drew out the words, narrowing his eyes at me. I stuck my tongue out at him. ‘I feel insulted.’
‘God, how am I going to put with this pesky woman for the rest of my life?’ he said, eyes burning with desire.
‘Who said I was going to marry you?’
‘I believe you already did. Or don’t you remember declaring you’ll only marry a man with whom you’ve connected with this afternoon?’
‘I said a man. I don’t remember saying your name.’
‘Do you always smart mouth to everyone you talk to?’
‘I do with Krishna but I think I enjoy doing it with you more.’
‘And do me the honour of smart mouthing at me for the rest of our lives together, Subhadra, please,’ he said and he leaned in and closed the distance, kissing me to oblivion. It lasted for years and when he pulled back, I had forgotten my name. Eyes gleaming at the effect he had on me, he put a hand behind my head, guiding it to lay against his warm chest, cradling it as his other arm wrapped around my body.
‘I love you, Subhadra,’ he whispered to me, running feather kisses wherever he was able to reach. ‘I love you, you the bubbly little bunny, with every fibre of my soul.’
Trembling with ecstasy, tears actually leaked out of my eyes. Happy tears. I wrapped my arms around his body, closing my eyes and holding him tight. I wasn’t ever letting him go.
‘I love you too,’ I whispered back at him. ‘And this time, I don’t plan on getting over you without damage so don’t you dare ever leave me. Do you hear me?’
‘You have my word, love,’ he vowed, his lips moving against my forehead. ‘I’m never leaving you. Don’t leave me either.’
‘Will you marry me, Subhadra? Make me the luckiest man in the world? Bear my children?’ he asked me, looking at me in the eye.
My heart swelled, almost bursting with happiness. ‘Of course I will. Nothing will make me happier.’
He pulled me close again. ‘Thank you.’ There was a pause, before he said, ‘Listen, I’m going to have to leave early morning but I will come back, asking Balarama for your hand in marriage, all right?’
‘How long will you be?’
‘Only for a few days,’ he promised.
We stood there for a long time, listening to the wind whistling outside and the sounds of the nightly crickets chirping. One or two frogs ribbeted in the background. But the sounds the pair of us were really focused on were the other’s smooth breathing and I had the additional luck listening to one more of Arjuna’s.
His steady heartbeat.
The side of my face was pressed against his thorax, to the left, above the place the most active muscle in his body worked tirelessly and the lovely music that reverberated from inside was enough to sing me a lullaby. It was even better than Krishna’s ethereal flute music.
‘I’m scared of Draupadi. She’s going to hate me forever for marrying you.’
‘Nonsense, of course she won’t.’
‘You don’t know that. I’m pretty sure she will try and kill you.’
‘Maybe, but I know how to soften her. And she can never resist loving you, I know Draupadi. She may resent you at first, I won’t deny that, but just be yourself and she’ll love you like her sister, maybe even daughter. She has strong maternal instincts.’
‘She does?’ I asked hopefully, heart warming at the thought.
‘She really does. She’s like a mother to us too. We never miss Mata Kunti when Draupadi’s there, comforting us in her love. What we feel inhibited to tell each other, we tell Draupadi. She’s never judgemental.’
‘Awww,’ I sighed, wishing I experience that too.
‘Don’t you worry at all.’
We were silent again, feeling each other and it seemed like years before Arjuna gently pulled me off him. And laughed at my disappointed expression.
‘What are you doing?’ I whined.
‘You need your sleep,’ he reminded me, his hand running gently up and down my arm.
‘I’d rather stay here,’ I said shyly.
‘I’d rather you did too but let’s not push our luck until Balarama comes along and haves my head,’ he smiled.
I laughed. ‘You’re right. So … Goodnight?’
‘Good night,’ he smiled, letting go. Our fingers slowly slid away from each other, hating the idea of separation when they just got together.
‘You’re going to haunt me, how do you expect me to sleep?’ he said.
‘Don’t take too long coming back to me.’
‘Three to four days is all I’ll be able to take.’
We stood staring at each other, hearts pounding, before I launched back into his arms and it was only after a long time of embracing then we were forced to let go of each other.
I swear I wasn’t going to sleep for the rest of the night.
‘Looks like someone went for a midnight stroll,’ said an amused voice.
I jumped and clutched my chest at the sight of Krishna leaning against the door to my chambers, giving me an enchanting smile.
‘Will you stop doing that? I’d better ask sister Rukmini to shackle you to the bed.’
‘I think she’d better shackle you instead, sneaky girl,’ he said, coming up to me and tweaking my nose. I slapped his hand away, unable to keep a silly, goofy smile off my face. ‘Where were you right now?’
‘None of your business.’
‘Okay, is Arjuna still awake? I have a delicious bowl of apples I think he’d like.’
I blushed and he laughed.
‘Go give him whatever he wants,’ I told him.
‘And I’m pretty sure it’s not the apples,’ he said, winking at me pointedly. My skin darkened.
‘I’d like an explanation, by the way,’ I charged at him. ‘You knew it was him all along, didn’t you?’
He shrugged. ‘I might have.’
‘Why didn’t you ever tell me?’
‘Well, you never told me you once fell in love with him, then fell out of love, and then fell right back in again.’
‘That’s a lame excuse. You know every single thought I have.’
He smiled, ruffling the tuft of hair that always unfurled from my longer strands. ‘I think Arjuna gave you all the explanation you need, darling.’
I nodded, my insides fluttering.
‘Bless you, sweetheart,’ he said, pulling me in for a hug. I held Krishna tightly. I don’t know what I did to deserve him as my older sibling.
We broke apart and he patted my cheek in a fatherly way.
‘Wait,’ I said. ‘Does Balarama know?’
Krishna shook his head. ‘Not really, no.’
‘Arjuna promised me he was going to come back for me after a few days. He’s going to ask Balarama for my hand in marriage. But he’s stubborn in wedding me off to Duryodhana,’ I said in fear. ‘He’s not going to accept this.’
‘Now, what did I say about giving you a fruitful life? I will make sure you become Arjuna’s wife.’
‘But – how?’
He regarded me for a second before taking my hand. ‘Come with me.’
And he led me back the way I came. I didn’t say a word as he pulled me along. We reached the grand hut, to see Arjuna sitting up against the wall, stroking his Gandiva. I was stunned by its beauty. Pure silver encrusted with diamonds and rubies from another world. And it reached an alarming height that I wondered how he wielded it easily.
The moment he saw me and Krishna, he stood up immediately and gave me a winning smile. He did the same to Krishna. My brother was his favourite man in the world.
‘Now that you two lovebirds have decided to sing together, I thought it was best to let myself go into older brother mode for a while,’ Krishna said, causing a faint tinge of blood to colour Arjuna’s cheeks. Here he was, valiant and bold warrior, the terror of enemies, blushing at a simple teasing statement from Krishna.
‘You and I are now officially going to be brothers, Partha,’ Krishna smiled, pulling Arjuna into his arms for a hug.
‘I am honoured, Madhava,’ Arjuna said, returning the hug. There was a mystical energy that reverberated off those two at their physical connection. I’ve never seen that with anyone else. Arjuna and Krishna had an other-worldly bond that was complicated for mortal eyes. I couldn’t decipher what it was either.
Once they broke apart, Krishna said, ‘Arjuna, you really can’t walk up to my brother and demand Subhadra’s hand. It’s not going to be smooth. I think you know why.’
Arjuna nodded, eyes solemn. I sighed sadly.
‘But …’ Krishna drew out.
My head shot up.
What was he up to now?
‘You two can elope,’ Krishna said brightly.
‘What?!’ Arjuna yelped, taken aback.
Krishna’s suggested shook me too, but I couldn’t help succumbing into a fit of giggles at the expression on Arjuna’s face.
‘I can’t do that!’ he exclaimed.
‘As Subhadra’s older brother, I give you permission,’ Krishna said, smirking.
Arjuna eyed him. ‘Be reasonable. It’s against the law. I can’t just carry off a girl!’
‘Well, the girl is willing,’ Krishna sang. He looked at me. ‘Aren’t you, Subhadra?’
I nodded, eyes sparkling. Arjuna, on the other hand, looked at us as if we had lost our minds. He shook his head. ‘Krishna, this is adharma. I have to be rightfully wedded to her. I can’t kidnap Subhadra.’
‘And that’s where you’re wrong, dear Partha. You’re the one who’s going to be kidnapped.’
I stared at Krishna. ‘I’m doing to drive?’
‘You are, darling,’ he said, winking.
I regarded him for a second, then beamed. ‘Can I have Sesha and Antra?’
‘They’d love the journey.’
Arjuna stared at us. ‘You two … are insane.’
‘What, are you the only one who knows how to drive a chariot?’ I said, raising an eyebrow. ‘How sexist of you.’
‘Believe me, she’s good,’ Krishna implored to Arjuna.
‘Something’s seriously wrong with both of you,’ Arjuna concluded. ‘How many times have Mother Devaki and Mother Yashoda dropped you two?’
Krishna shook his head, amused. Then he became serious. He put a hand on Arjuna’s shoulder. ‘Partha, adharma is letting a girl marry the man she doesn’t want to. It’s you my sister wants and you have every right to take her away.’
‘But, Madhava,’ said Arjuna, sighing. ‘If there comes a time where I have to raise weapons against you and Balarama, I will be helpless. I will never raise a weapon or a hand against you.’
‘You won’t have to, I give you my word. I can take care of my brother. Trust me.’
Arjuna assessed Krishna with unsure eyes, then looked at me, before taking in a deep breath, finally nodding.
‘I’m going to kidnap you then?’ I grinned at Arjuna.
‘I cannot believe this,’ he said, throwing up his hands and Krishna and I laughed together.
‘I’ll have the horses and chariot ready at the crack of dawn,’ Krishna said. ‘Subhadra will be waiting at the temple just outside. Make sure to give her the reins, Partha, it’s essential that you do. When you’re far away from Dwaraka, you can take the wheel then … that is, if she lets you. She’s a stubborn little fairy.’
All in all, it turned out that my eldest brother did accept me and Arjuna.
Just as we had planned, Arjuna met me just before Surya Deva came out and whisked me into the chariot. Then I had grabbed the reins and had shot off at breakneck speed along the streets of Dwaraka, where many people saw us. But the news that reached my enraged brother was that I was the one to kidnap Arjuna, not the other way around as they had all feared. Subhadra had taken Arjuna away.
Balarama was all in for setting the entire Narayani Senai on Arjuna but Krishna had stopped him at the last minute, giving him a recount of my love for Arjuna and my detest for Duryodhana. And he also put his foot down on the fact of what was detrimental in having Arjuna as their brother-in-law. After Balarama had calmed down and realised the auspiciousness of the entire picture, he had sent a messenger to call us back from the outskirts and Arjuna and I were wedded in a grand altar. It was the single most best moment of my life.
After spending a few weeks alone with each other – which were saturated with a love even I didn’t know I was capable of – he decided to take me back to Indraprastha, my new home.
Where we had an even bigger problem than a natural disaster waiting for us.
I was right in assuming she had a certain soft spot for Arjuna. Her razed temper and ferocity explained it all. She had locked herself up in her room, sending a message through one of her maids that Arjuna could assume she was dead and that he didn’t have to bother about her anymore. I was devastated at the way Arjuna cringed, eyes pained. But he dared to enter Draupadi’s room to confront her himself.
To say she almost threw a knife at him before shoving him out the door would sum up what happened.
Then he decided I needed to win her over first before he could go near Draupadi without having to fear for his life.
And I knew just how to do that.
I rid myself off expensive jewels and silk, dressing myself in a maid’s attire. Draupadi needed to be convinced I wasn’t going to be a threat to her post as the empress or as a rift in between her and Arjuna.
And it worked magically.
Draupadi took one look at my face, my dress and my stature, my disposition and, just like Arjuna predicted, she transformed from a furious fire to a soft, gentle wind that caressed me. She pulled me into her arms for a hug, apologising for her behaviour and after I firmly told her I was hers to command, she set me down on the bed instead, telling her maids to take off the maid robes from my body and lavished me with a warm bath and one of her own silk robe, along with her fineries.
Arjuna, who’d been anxiously waiting outside and and heard laughter instead of a raging fight, had curiously entered the room and and frozen at the sight of the two of us bonding.
‘What -?’ he said, amazed. ‘That was much, much sooner than I expected.’
Draupadi eyed him. ‘Thank you for your concern, Dhananjay. Now go away.’
‘Are you two really okay?’ he asked again.
‘Are you going to leave quietly or am I going to set my maids on you?’ she said. ‘You’re in major female territory and you have no permission.’
He opened his mouth, then closed it. I stifled my laugh with difficulty as he stared at the two of us, unable to believe we’d team up against him so soon, and left before Draupadi herself kicked him out.
Draupadi turned back to me with a smile. ‘That one is a handful. You and I have to stick together to handle him.’
‘You’re right about that,’ I laughed and she took my hand, asking me all about my childhood.
And that was when I had a second mother in the form of Draupadi.
She and I became so close that we went to the point of becoming inseparable. She had no one to talk to all these years (how could she possibly share girl stuff with her husbands?) and now that I was here, she spilled her inner self out to me and I her. There were many endless nights where we lay down next to each other, just talking, even if they were nonsensical.
And on the other hand, Arjuna was finally my soul mate.
The endless dream of my younger self had come true and every morning, I’d wake up to his loving stare, exactly the way I used to picture it.
And a little Arjuna soon became nestled in my womb. I was ecstatic the moment I found out I was pregnant and spent the following nine months picturing how my son or daughter would look like. I was expecting a son. I didn’t know, but I had the intuition it was going to be a boy.
Arjuna was worse than a frantic mother. He had me under his supervision nearly all the time and jumped at the slightest things. You’d think a tough warrior like him would stay stoic and composed at such things but with my gestation period, that wasn’t actually the case. Even Draupadi wondered if he was the same Arjuna and all but slapped him when he acted ridiculous for trivial things. He was so out of character during those months.
Finally, my baby pushed out of me.
And I was right in assuming he was a boy.
And was euphoric to see that he was the impersonation of Arjuna himself, with only minor interferences from me.
We called him Abhimanyu.
My little bundle of joy, along with the man who was the solid rock and backbone in my life – my Arjuna.
~ THE END ~
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