“A Garland of Blue Lotus” by Shefali Shah Choksi
“A Garland of Blue Lotus”
by Shefali Shah Choksi
The brass vessel clanged on the stone floor, and a sudden alarm rippled through the palace. The princess’s temper was legend all through Kashi. Every time her mind was troubled, the palace shimmered in tension, and she was often troubled.
“Apologies, my princess,” the dasi who had brought in the meal shifted uneasily, praying fervently to herself.
“Why doesn’t my meal have my moong with banana flowers?” Amba stormed.
“Madam, the rains last week spoiled the soaked moong. Daima has soaked the next batch.” The dasi assured her.
“Then you shall bring this meal back when the moong is ready!”
The queen entered and asked the dasi for kasturi, the main ingredient for the unguent that Amba liked for her headaches before dismissing the relieved server.
Shikhandi, the prince, gulped a sudden longing for moong with banana flowers. He shook his head and went back to the meeting with the army chief.
The villagers and forest dwellers alike avoided the mansion, the folklore being that it was haunted. In spite of brightness of noon, its halls remained cloaked in undefined, grey shadows. Illogical, chilling breezes swayed and raced through deserted corridors, whistling and moaning. The mansion had been abandoned long ago, yet the lost visitor sensed company, flurries of impossible, urgent rushing and swirling, just beyond the range of vision. Dried leaves and orphan branches shifted constantly, as though in a fever, twitched and trembled as though controlled by invisible strings.
The yaksha, perched on the roof, looked down quizzically at the running woman, dressed strangely like a groom, her breasts bound tightly, the delicacy of her jaw belied by the rather large, jeweled, saffron colored silk turban, punctuated by huge tilak in the center of her brow. Her arms, not hirsute like a man’s, were nonetheless bronzed with combat and war training; well-toned muscles rippled beneath the skin. Her feet were dusty, as though grooming them was not part of her ablutions, and clad in rough sandals designed for protection and grip rather than decoration, as though trying to distract from the daintiness of the ankles. Beneath the decorative chest plate underlined her taut stomach muscles, clearly defining the steep curve of her waist. Her silk dhoti hinted at sturdy thighs, like pillars.
Shikhandi reached the mansion, alone, disheveled, as though she’d been running through the day, as though pursued; it was already late afternoon. She seemed unaware of where she was. She looked like she had reached the end of a stretched rope and could go no further. She collapsed on a stone that had broken through the floor tiles, took a couple of deep, open-mouthed breaths, and gave in to copious tears, her turban unravelling, stumbling and falling all over her bowed head, almost hiding the lotus garland around her neck.
The yaksha settled into a nook in the ceiling to watch. Not much of interest went on during his watch, and this woman whose very aspect screamed denial of her sex, intrigued him. Even the gold she sported was of a distinct male cut, and without the extra sight that a yaksha’s eyes afforded, she could have easily been mistaken for a man.
But then, as the yaksha looked farther into this being, he saw that she was not just a curious woman sporting a man’s clothes because she wanted to feel what life felt like to a man, a curiosity the yaksha could relate to; this was a jatiswaram, a being knew who she had been in her past life. As the yaksha thought of all he had heard, he sucked in a tight breath through his teeth: Here was the wronged princess Amba, of legendary anger, re-born as this woman-dressed-like-a-man.
The yaksha had often wondered what it would feel like, to be a woman, to feel one’s square frame bend into seemingly illogical, fascinating curves, to appreciate and notice the texture and hue of a garment one would choose with deliberation, to wield power over strong men with weapons like batting lashes, slanting glances, and fiddling with hair, to play at coy shyness and mix it with just enough knowing to be disarmingly playful. He could not imagine why a woman with this impressive arsenal at her disposal would actually choose to be male, need for revenge notwithstanding.
He smirked to himself as he donned the guise of an old woman and tip-tapped his leaning stick towards her. He need not have bothered with the glamour. She too was no ordinary woman; she could see beyond and before, and she was aware of who he was. She began speaking at him as soon as she saw him, as though she expected him to be there, without surprise.
“I am cursed in this body! I have distressed my father, caused a war, and shamed my wife! And I am a man inside!” Shikhandi cried, beating on her decorative chest plate.
The yaksha saw that he was fooling no one, let go of his guise with a sigh and resigned to a conversation with Shikhandi. He prompted, “Lady, your bride . . .?”
“Oh, the shame! She ran screaming out of our chamber, calling for her father. Now, my illustrious father-in-law wants me to prove that I am a man, give truth to the way I dress and look! My father insists I am a man and claims that such tests defy Lord Shiva!” Shikhandi exclaimed.
Then sighing, she went on, “Two armies face each other over my masculinity. My wife thinks she is not beautiful enough for me!”
She resumed her choked sniffling.
The leaves of the haunted mansion trembled in sympathy and the shadows hugged her hunched shoulders like comforting shawls. Shikhandi quieted a little, gathered herself together.
“I thought that you were the great Bhishma’s nemesis? Bhishma the unconquered?” the yaksha ventured after a while, giving her a few moments of quiet sobbing; in spite of hiding here as a ghoul that haunted this mansion’s treasures, he had recognized the blue lotus garland.
“Did you lose a battle or a bauble, Lady?” he repeated.
Shikhandi looked up suddenly and Sthuna the yaksha saw Amba glaring at him.
Sthuna, as though to present a mocking mirror to Shikhandi, took on the form of a young girl with a long braid and demurely looked down, bringing the braid to the front in a graceful movement. He then looked up at Shikhandi with a bright smile and simpered, “Apologies, my prince! Why don’t you tell me all?”
The playful woman flung the braid and changed into an ash-grey creature with mold-green skin, red eyes, and impressive horns.
“So what should I call you? Princess? Prince? Lady Amba? Lord Shikhandi?” Sthuna teased.
“I am a yaksha, of course! You have recognized me truly!” he said with a flourish,
“Sthunakarma at your service! You can call me Sthuna.”
Shikhandi absently stroked the blue lotus garland she wore as she said, “So, Sthuna, you ask me what I have lost. How can I lose that which I never had? Perhaps I must end this useless life that has failed in its destiny in being born female again; I take a daily concoction of bitter herbs to keep the monthly flow away; I pray, fervently, daily, to Shiva, the god who is both male and female, to make me male outside as I was male within; my chest hurts with the stifling binding, but none of it seems to have helped!”
Shikhandi looked up in anguish and said, “I need to be male! Don’t you see? The entire world, my father’s pride, the kingdom’s future, it all hinges on my being truly, indubitably male!” Sthuna cackled at that; this was perhaps the longest thing Shikhandi had ever said to anyone. He realized that she was perhaps asking for some poison, but he had other ideas could help her, no potions needed.
“I can lend you my male body in exchange of your female body for one night. I have always wondered what it would feel like, being a woman,” he offered. After all, Sthuna was not scheduled to report to Kuber, his overlord, for at least a few years. This sex change might, he thought, could very well elevate the monotony of his guarding mission and satisfy his curiosity, all tied up in a neat package.
“What do you mean?” Shikhandi had gone very still.
“You have to promise to return this male body to me in exactly one day, though; it is only a loan, of a very short duration, you understand, your highness,” he clarified.
“Yes, yes, but of course!” Shikhandi murmured, her racing mind reflected in her feverish eyes.
“No, your highness. Look up at me and I need your word, your honor that you will return her for the exchange as soon as the morning dawns. My lord is a powerful god and there is nowhere to hide if you try to abscond with this borrowed body!” Sthuna wanted to make sure that Shikhandi understood the terms of his bargain. He did not want a sex change, only to satisfy his curiosity with a temporary situation.
“Amba, do be reasonable!” The queen of Kashi argued with her oldest daughter. Around them strewn on the floor and bed were detritus of Amba’s rage. Fresh flowers lay helter-skelter, a pot upturned and smashed; milk, orange with saffron strands, splashed on the floor, stained the drapes; bits of almonds lay around, caught in the broken pottery.
Amba lay on her cot, dizzy with all the red that always clouded her vision when the rages rode her. Every injustice she perceived, each unfairness she understood directed at her set her on edge.
The queen admonished, “Amba, you can always choose the King Shalva in your swayamvara. He is coming; we have received his missive. This swayamvara, this groom choosing is a tradition, a privilege of every Kashi princess! You would deny your sisters that privilege? You choose your king; they will choose theirs! Your father has approved King Shalva’s suit already!”
“Why can’t I marry my king without a swayamvara?” Amba insisted. Then she glared at her sister, “Let these two do the swayamvara! Why do I have to be bunched with them all the time?”
The queen turned away to close the curtains against the harsh afternoon light.
“I wish, then, that I were the lowest sweeper woman!” Amba’s wept desperately, “My princess-hood has brought me misery and robbed you of warm understanding!”
The queen, too, knew the power of static quiet. She fixed an unwavering, clear gaze on Amba and waited till Amba met it. Then with a calm deliberation that would brook no denial, she spoke, “Ready yourself for your swayamvara, Amba. And mind that you keep your temper bated for your King Shalva, lest you find yourself wandering the earth alone with nothing but your precious anger to keep you company!”
Sthuna nodded and flew up to the tree that had broken through the roof of the mansion. He dropped down a leaf and bid Shikhandi to write her name on it and fold it over. Then, he took the folded leaf and folded it thrice over, took a breath, and chewed it down.
Within an hour, the bones deep within Sthuna re-arranged themselves into a different configuration; his cheek bones, lips, arms, waist, shoulders, all felt the change ripple through, the largest wave, logically, around the lower stomach. He could see Shikhandhi standing still under the tree, pinned to the spot by what was happening to her.
When it was over, Sthuna called out to see how Shikhandi’s mortal flesh had fared, “Panchal Kumar? Are you well? Do you feel male now?”
Shikhandi exhaled and replied in distinctly deeper tones, “The kingdom of Panchal is grateful for your kind exchange, yakshini! I shall return soon.”
Sthuna cackled anew and settled in to discover the world around through female eyes.
Just after Shikhandi left to prove his manhood, Sthuna’s world changed. She, Sthuna, was reveling in the new body she had commanded just for a night. The mansion’s ghoul acquired a gender and sounds of running feet were embroidered with ankle bells jingling. The family of mice that in the wall behind the front door huddled close and did not leave their hole; the night outside smelled strange. The aerial roots of the tree swayed gracefully, like women’s braids. Mist swirls, like diaphanous saris floated all over the mansion as a curvaceous yakshini admired her tapering fingers and tried out many way to tie her sari, to show her waist curve to most advantage.
Sthuna’s overlord, Kubera was the king of the golden underworld city, the powerful keeper of wealth, and little passed unnoticed by him. Barely had the midnight passed, and lord Kubera arrived at the mansion, along with his court. The herald summoned, “Sthunakarna! You are called!”
“I come, my lord!” Sthuna said, trying to inject a depth in her voice that it lacked, just for this one night.
Lord Kubera remained unamused when he heard a female voice answer to the yaksha’s name.
“Does Yaksha Sthunakarma believe his exchange a matter of amusement?” He thundered.
The yakshini standing before lord Kubera pulled her long braid to my front and stood demurely. She looked at her overlord through her lashes. This annoyed lord Kubera, and his brows knitted. Sthuna licked her lips and shifted on her feet nervously.
“You think this fun, Yaksha? Are you enjoying being female, all fluttering eyes and twinkling bangles?” Lord Kubera asked in a voice quiet like the earth rumbling.
Sthuna could say nothing to this.
“Very well, then,” lord Kubera said, “You shall stay where you are, in the form you are, until Shikhandi’s spirit has left the body, and your borrowed masculinity, behind. You can have your gender back when he had no further need of the body he inhabits.”
Sthuna looked up at her overlord in horror. She swallowed her protests. She would have ample opportunity to know a woman’s powers as well as a woman’s problems; she had not bargained for that, and now there was little to be done but wait.
Sthuna watched Shikhandi walk away from the mansion with his manhood unreturned the following morning and thought that she should have guarded her treasures better; she vowed never to carelessly barter away the treasure of being male in a moment of weakness at the sight of a crying woman.
Amba, abducted from her swayamvara by Bhishma, sobbed as she sat alone in her quarters in the palace of Hastinapur, “I had refused this cursed swayamvara! I was afraid! I begged my lady mother to stop the travesty! I loved a king and imagined him as husband! If only the warrior of Hastinapur had ignored me! Oh, whatever shall I do?”
The palace of Hastinapur sighed in resignation. This was the same roundel; there was no resolution possible. The argument would race around in circles all afternoon long and finally, Amba would lie supine, weighed down by a headache as unconquered as the immaculate, unconquerable warrior who had abducted her. The dasis would tip toe around the dance of serving her dinner, and then, a few hours later, clearing it, untouched.
“Where is my father?” Shikhandi asked the scribe.
“The king and queen have repaired to the Shiva temple on the mountain top,” the scribe nervously licked his lips as he spoke. He did not want to upset the prince by reminding him that his father sought another son, a proper born male for his throne.
Shikhandi acknowledged this with a sardonic half smile and a nod. The king had never recovered from the humiliation of Shikhandi’s wedding and the awkwardness that had ensued. Even though the prince’s masculinity had been established time and again since then, a bitter taste lingered, a taste that Shikhandi’s fatherhood could not sweeten. The king had set his heart on a “real” son, hence the aggressive yagnas and pujas to woo Gods’ favor.
Against his better judgment, he asked, “Are the Gods showing them favor? They are very generous and true with promise,” Shikhandi observed, fingering the lotus garland.
“The maharishi and pundits assure that divine favor is imminent!” the scribe gushed, grateful for the prince’s curiosity.
The king had appointed Shikhandi as his army trainer. Shikhandi enjoyed designing warfare strategy but had a genuine disgust of the violence that always accompanied wars and tournaments. He insisted on all armors being updated and freshened for the ranks, especially the front liners. He had delegated most of the actual training to hand-picked army generals and supervised them. There was no way to avoid the occasional tournament or match, but at least it was an occasional event and not part of his daily responsibilities. As a warrior and an army chief, he was expected to attend and sometimes even participate in these events with relish; Shikhandi always lived up to expectations.
A few years later, unable to bear her ambivalent, uncomfortable situation any longer, Amba left Hastinapur to vend her way to the mountains, intent on petitioning Lord Shiva, the patron god of Kashi, to confront the God in his home, rather than praying at a temple.
Once, as princess of Kashi, she had meticulously groomed herself to visit the Shiva temple; now, she had discarded her stale wedding finery and wrapped herself in a home-spun half sari and tree bark. She had carefully chosen every item of the offertory on her puja plate as the princess of Kashi; now, she had no offertory but her mortal self. Her anger unabated, she would petition the gods as a rightful denizen demanding justice, rather than a devotee pleading for protection of her imagined dreams.
“Our sister is to face a swayamvara?” He asked his brother, the boon of gods.
“Yes. It is the custom and father has arranged . . .”
“Do you know how many things can go wrong in a swayamvara? It is a travesty! Why would our noble father subject our fire-sister to such . . .” Shikhandi erupted.
Then he calmed himself with an effort and tried again, “Swayamvaras can do terrible things to brides. Let me tell you about one such . . .”
“She is a princess through and through, and the only proper wedding for a princess is a swayamvara.”
The king assured Shikhandi and said, “No two swayamvars are equal. I have brothers who will protect their sister against unwelcome abductions.”
Shikhandi chose a set of chores that prevented him from attending the early part of the swayamvara. He wore his silk clothes, nonetheless, lest he run into some guests. Finally, unable to put it off any longer, he took his seat and surveyed the gathering.
It was a bright day, clear and cloudless, with just a gentle breeze to keep it from being too hot. The flags and banners of the various royal and noble contestants and attendees fluttered in the blue sky, like joyful kites. Several large tents had been erected for guests and some even larger tents to accommodate the citizenry of Panchal. The pervading fragrance of incense pots placed all around was spiced with human sweat and ghee-fried treats.
Minstrels hired by contesting princes roamed about the crowds with songs and short enactments extolling virtues and feats of their patrons, weaving clever rhymes, plucking fancy three-stringed lyres. Visiting princes had spared no expense in their effort to impress. In addition to the minstrel troupes, they had sponsored many events, like puppet shows, story-tellings, dance-drama performances, and feasts so that each hour of the week-long event was filled with amusement for all who cared to partake. There were specially trained dance-drama troupes that the princes had brought with them, for the singular purpose of presenting them when it was their turn to stride before the gathering, after the herald announced them and before their ambassadors introduced them.
Shikhandi tried to enjoy the show. However, as though through a palimpsest, he saw another swayamvar, like a shadowy underscore to all that was unfolding before him.
He saw the king and queen of Kashi before whom a row of hopeful kings were arranged. The three princesses waited behind veils. This was Amba’s swayamvar.
Amba found it difficult to concentrate. Her head ornament pulled at a lock of hair, trapping it at an awkward angle, so it throbbed deep in her skull, behind her ear. She feared that involuntary tears pricking the edges of her eyes would smear the thick kohl lining and weep down her face. She kept her eye on King Shalva, who studiously did not look back.
Shikhandi watched in helplessness, as a sudden, unwelcome furor erupted in the long past swayamvar, heralding the arrival of Bhishma, the unconquerable warrior of Hastinapur. Shikhandi watched Amba scream in protest, upending the platter with the garlands. Amba continued screaming until her arm was rudely snatched; the suddenness of the movement threw her head back and the head ornament that had tormented her flew off, releasing her long hair on one side. She had kept her eyes, mutely pleading on King Shalva, as she was being herded with her sisters onto the waiting chariot.
Shikhandi watched Amba’s abduction in mute despair. He could not understand words, nor could he discern the colors with any sharpness. The entire scene played as though it were a collage of a nightmare, gripping him in its unrelenting clutches until it was done. He shook his head wryly and thought that sometimes, nightmares lasted longer than lifetimes.
He again tried to get involved in the festivities of his sister’s swayamvara, but after a while, sensing a headache, repaired to his palace. When one of his headaches had come upon him and nothing but the smoothing paste of kasturi and sandalwood would make it bearable.
Later, he heard how his sister had chosen a poor Brahmin youth for her nuptial garland.
All his misgivings about swayamvaras seemed justified. But he knew that if he questioned anyone, he would get a lecture on karma, past lives, and hordes of merits. He knew all too well the clutching circumstances of previous life times that never released their talons, no matter how perfectly respectable a prince one might prove to be.
“Will no one accept this garland?” Amba shouted from the middle of the market place, hoarse by mid-day. Urchins pointed at her and laughed; street dogs barked. Her sari was a rag, barely covering her gaunt frame; her hair was stringy and knotted; her eyes burned. Peasant women, with crates of vegetables on their heads glanced worryingly at her as they walked by, herding livestock. Merchants in their tents selling pots and trinkets stared at her. Whispers of “Mad” and “Poor senseless creature” skipped and hovered around her, like so many gnats.
“I need a brave warrior to fight my cause! Does this fair city have no braves?”
An old woman hobbled over to her, “Here, girl. Come to that shed. I have a bit of grain mush. Eat a little, child! Let Grandmother rub some salve into those sore feet!”
Amba shook the well-meaning crone off and shouted, ‘I do not need food! I do not need your salves! I am shouting about what I need in the middle of the market place! Can no one take up my cause and kill the great and unvanquished Bhishma of Hastinapur?”
The market place did not skip a beat; it gauged that Amba had nothing to barter and weaved its flow around her.
Amba had been roaming the lands for years, searching for a champion for her cause. The god had promised her that whoever wore the ever-blooming garland of blue lotus would cause Bhishma’s demise.
She walked on, away from the market place, eyes fixed on the king’s palace.
“Preposterous!” King Drupad roared, “Lady, do you think my kingdom is Kuber’s Alkapuri? Do you see the streets paved with gold? I can ill-afford to burden my humble state with such expensive hostilities! Conquer the unconquerable Bhishma! Preposterous, I say!”
“Could your court not spare one warrior to champion the cause of a wronged woman? I do not need an army, King! I need but one neck willing to host this lotus wreath!” Amba’s scratchy, hoarse voice bounced around the walls and ceilings of the royal hall.
There was no answer.
“I have roamed the warrior lands for years, looking for a defender, a warrior courageous enough to avenge my honor. This court is my last hope for a champion. Yet you would disappoint me.” Amba said stonily. Her words hung around the court like smoke long after she had left.
Amba walked away from the palace of the Panchal king, her eyes like stones.
The sentries kept a wary eye on her as they closed the gates behind her. Amba paused at the palace gates, then reached up and draped the garland on the gates. She spoke to the palace gate, “Let he who would wear this garland remove it from where it hangs.”
Shikhandi, seven years old, played around her father’s palace. No corner of the grounds was forbidden to her. Being the only child at the time, she wandered around the gardens, the gyms, the queens’ quarters, the market place, and the city at will. No one refused the prince anything. If she fancied a mango in the market place, she helped herself to one; she wouldn’t be shooed off like street urchins. If lingered near a pigeon chick, it would reach her quarters before the evening; the palace servers would feed and spoil it, like they would a treasured pet. If she admired a rose blossom in the royal gardens, the gardeners would make a production of presenting it to her, as though her regard had turned its mortal petals to rubies. If she wandered into the kitchens, the attendant cooks would roll a special laddoo or a potato-stuffed puri for her; they would leave other chores and make a fuss over the young prince, feeding her the treat, steaming from their fingers into her open mouth, as though she were a lost chick who, tired of wing, had reached them after much suffering and needed to be coddled.
Shikhandi skipped around the garden mazes, gathering pebbles, humming to herself. Her day had begun at dawn and now, just before mid-day, during a break between lessons, she had an hour to herself. She wanted to build an altar to Lord Shiva, to whom she always began her days praying. She and her mother, the only person who helped her dress, always prayed that the Lord would show mercy and send a miracle to make Shikhandi’s male-less body whole. Shikhandi did not know exactly what that meant, male-less-ness, but as her mother explained, something had gone wrong, somehow, and her child, who was supposed to be born male, had failed; but, the queen assured the young prince with a smile, male-ness could be achieved, if Shikhandi tried very hard, worked diligently, prayed devotedly, and continued to work on self-improvement constantly. The first thing to do, the queen told her, was to begin thinking in the right way: Shikhandi must always think of herself as a prince, a male prince, and must never refer to herself with a female indicator. Shikhandi agreed, every morning, to do whatever was required to attain manhood. She studied hard at lessons and weaponry and spent her spare hours building altars to the Lord and praying.
Like any royal child, Shikhandi had picked a shady bank of a stream, an isle where she could be what she was never allowed to be. She liked to build things, to arrange shapes so they would hold their own against the air. Today, she wanted to build a temple-fort for Lord Shiva. She had chosen this spot for her temple-fort with deliberation; she could always wash off her muddy hands in the stream just before her lesson. She squatted on the sand, concentrated on her task, her brows knitted, absently humming. When she finished, she got up and surveyed her pebble fort-temple held together with damp sand. She looked around to add something that would mark it as hers, so that the gardener boys would leave it alone.
The palace gates were not far from the stream and she saw a garland of blue lotus blossoms fluttering slightly in the breeze, woven around the top of the gate, just waiting, it seemed, for her purpose!
Surely, the Lord would appreciate the flowers!
The prince ran to the palace gates and scrambled up the gates to reach the lotus garland. From afar, the sentries suddenly saw her and ran, shouting, “Don’t pick that, Highness! Oh! Someone stop the prince! Oh, look to the Panchal Kumar!” They all ran, but it was obvious, even to Shikhandi that they were too far to stop her. She gave them a questioning look before grabbing the garland and jumping down.
She stood at the bottom of the gate, waiting for the sentries.
Then, with a grin, as though to taunt them, she flung the garland over her own neck.
The world gasped and forgot to breathe. The sentries stopped in their tracks, staring.
Shikhandi became a storm tossed twig, and helpless and rudderless, sucked into the whirlwind of time. When she came to herself, she was in her quarters and she had missed her weapon-bearing lesson as well as two days, but she knew the name of the god who had given the garland: the peacock mounted Kartikeye, Lord Shiva’s warrior son.
Amba’s mind whispered desperately, “Revenge, Lord! Another life?”
All around her, through dusty hills, in rare, chilly wind, and across the stark, unrelieved blue of the sky, silences roared.
Amba decided it was time to take matters into her own hands and built a pyre. She kept Bhishma’s features before her eyes as she stepped into the flames, with only one thought, “To hasten my revenge! To hasten Bhishma’s end!”
War was imminent. Kampilya, the capital suffered a sudden burst of diplomats and dignitary visits. Citizens, warriors, and royals alike acquired furtive glances, as though unsuspected enemies hid behind earthen pots of store houses and every forgotten door. The hurly-burly of war preparations had put a stop to daily businesses, while new businesses had opened. Blacksmith shops had sprung up on every street corner and their forges lit up the nights. Potters whirred their wheels almost non-stop, and it seemed that every muscle was employed in digging and bringing in the mud and soil for the wheels. Combat trainers kept gyms open all day and any youths who walked in would be offered free meals and training. Temporary kitchens had been set up all over the land to feed the burgeoning armies, and the royal kitchens smoked and puffed day and night.
Shikhandi walked the streets at night, wrapped in a roughly woven blanket against the night chill, sipping from a pot of piping hot buttermilk. There was something exciting in the air, as the news of an imminent war lowered people’s reserves and somehow liberated them from the yoke of routine that peace weighed them with. Women gathered on thresholds, chatting, singing, gossiping as they wove, mended, and stitched more quilts, more blankets, that every soldier might be warm. They roamed around pit-fires where their men sat discussing the intricacies of allegiances and enmities, offering smiles and freshly brewed restoratives, their anklets and bangles tinkling and chiming, as though to remind the men of the home they planned to fight for. Everywhere Shikhandi went, he was hailed and welcomed to share the fire’s warmth, sample some kitchen’s fare, admire the exact dimensions of arrows, even offered mead. He accepted none of these offers, knowing fully well that if he did draw near a light bright enough to shine his features, he would be recognized and this would check the camaraderie of their gatherings.
“Let them enjoy this time the best they can,” He thought to himself. “Soon enough, they will be reminded of the royals and the reasons why they had to leave their homes and agree to die on strange soil, why they are forced to kill a man they don’t know and stain their souls with blood of strangers.”
Shikhandi ‘s lotus garland around his neck trembled with anticipation. Finally, a war against Hastinapur!
Shikhandi’s head pounded with stomping footfalls of coming time.
Amba walked away from the cities and villages of the warrior lands towards the mountain of the gods, where she would be promised just retribution in another lifetime. The thin thread that had tethered her to her worn, emaciated mortal frame was broken; to this day, part of her immortal self gurgles and tumbles around as a mountain river, too agitated to be a home any but the most tenacious beings.
As Amba gave up her mortality, she glanced a thought at the gates of the palace of King Drupad of Panchal, and the garland of blue lotus curled around the gate pike, settling down for a long wait.
“Have a care with that strap, Sainik!” Shikhandi ordered, relishing the burning as the armor rubbed and scrapped against scars sustained in the week’s war. It was to be the day he was destined for; finally, his battle had found him. He briefly wondered about the strategies he would use and the weapons he would choose.
By day’s end, there was not a single foot soldier, rider, elephant, general, horse, or rider left, who had not sustained at least some wounds, who had not wounded in turn. The chariot drivers or sarathis and the mahouts, sore and wounded, exclaimed to each other that they could not remember a time when they were not in pain. Casualties were heavy and included not just soldiers and their mounts; there were water bearers, messengers, weapon bearers, even cooks who were counted in the list of martyrs.
The sun had just set on the ninth day of the battle. No one could remember a time before those nine days. The euphoria and camaraderie of pit fires had long worn off. The women who had laughed as they joked and jangled around their men had quieted and more than half could be found sobbing and hiccupping to themselves as they wandered like ghosts on the battle fields, looking for their wounded and dead; the bangles and anklets had come off when the sun set on the first day of the battle. Children whose laughter, shouts, and endless games had been ubiquitous were quieter than the women; their haunted, large eyes united them like their games once had. The kitchen tents had a hot bowl to anyone who asked, but a lot of the food was left uneaten.
Just as Shikhandi was about to enter the generals’ tent, he heard, “What is more, my king, Prince Shikhandi’s manhood has not been questioned since the embarrassing business just after his wedding!”
Shikhandi licked his lips; he suddenly knew this was about, and a latent consciousness in him woke up and writhed. His garland shivered.
When he was told of his part in the fray, Shikhandi could not control the color that rose up his neck. Bhishma, the unconquerable warrior who had wronged Amba was the general of the enemy’s army. The legend about Bhishma being unconquerable had begun to seem like an uncompromising natural law that was useless to argue with.
Shikhandi looked down and blinked a few times: it was not his battle strategy or weapon wielding that was called for; the ambivalence that clouded his gender was to be the strategy and the weapon, for Bhishma would not fight a woman, a non-man. Thus would the unconquered be vanquished.
The following dawn, Shikhandi ensured his armor shone like new, counted his arrows, and strapped them to his back. Then he wrapped himself in a sari instead of his usual garb and stepped out of his tent. He contained both within his person, avenger and avenged. An anger that survives undiluted through lifetimes and immolations deserves at least that much.
The afternoon was rent with the clang of cymbals, clash of weapons, shrieking of war horses, cry of the wounded, and moans of the dying. The sky above was speckled with dark birds, waiting for the movement on ground to abate that they may descend to their feasts, like unwelcome death-angels.
Finally, Bhishma saw a chariot advancing towards him. He stared unbelievingly at the chariot for a beat, and then he sighed and knew that he was beaten.
That evening, Bhishma was pinned to the ground by arrows. It was the exact middle of the cosmic battle. The unconquerable warrior told the story of his nemesis from his bed of arrows. It would take him days to die, and he had the time to beg forgiveness of Amba as he folded his hands before Shikhandi.
As Bhishma lay dying on the battlefield, the garland of blue lotus fell from Shikhandi’s neck and stopped blooming, turned mortal as the bodies it laid surrounded by.
Amba, Immortal: The River cursed me, so I locked part of myself in the river’s curse and left it behind me, chilling cold, gurgling and stumbling on hard rocks, too turbulent to sustain life. My anger kept the rest of me tied up in a single bundle and I had no need for food; some years, a single leaf was sustenance enough. Cuts on my soles, scratches on my arms, monsoon floods, I felt none of it.
Everything that I had been had evaporated.
I was mere wind tied with a purpose.
If ever I find a mirror, I would see a flame in it.
I used to be Amba; now, I am a legend, a cautionary tale to frighten the wrathful with.
It is the eighteenth day of the great battle, and the unbalanced universe is finally righted: the righteous had won a hard, painful victory, and evil had abated for the time being.
A lone survivor, a prince and a teacher’s son, unbelieving of the course the war has taken, finds himself in a cyclone of conundrums, and he wishes to make sense of the world again, to stop seeing red, to dry his ever-wet eyes, to pacify the war-madness that runs through him like lightning. He sits at the edge of the pond, feeling the full import of the various frontiers he has perched on: between the scholar that he was born as and the warrior that he became, between fighting for his father’s rights and his own ambitions, and finally between the torpidity forced by defeat and the feverish need for active revenge.
He imagines that this is how Shikhandi would have felt, caught in so many in-betweens.
He is the avenger of the defeated army. He has vowed revenge.
In a haunted mansion, a yakshini ululated to urge the avenger on to his grim task. Shikhandi hears the yakshini and jolts out of deep sleep, but finds that he has left his body behind.
As Shikhandi gave up his mortality, Sthuna closed her eyes and braced for the ripple remembered almost a lifetime ago. She could feel her frame expanding, the curve of the waist straightening, feet regaining their substance, his very being centering.
The world outside the yaksha’s mansion, beyond the forest is rearranging itself as well.
Shikhandi-Amba watched the yaksha, the shadow, the keeper of their hidden selves, who kept their feminity while they split selves and life-times to defeat the undefeatable.
Finally, Amba leaves Shikhandi behind. Shikhandi’s story sings alone as he blinks out, a puppet dancing alone on a deserted stage, tagging behind epic heroes, twitching on unconnected strands as he hops out his pre-determined caper.
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright Shefali Shah Choksi 2017