“My son,” the words slipped out before she could stop herself.
“What?” Gandhari pounced on her.
“Arjuna!” Muttered Kunti, trying to cover up her mistake, but her eyes were fixed on the intruder.
Gandhari’s maids were whispering in the Queen’s ears, Kunti saw in dismay.
“Then why are you looking at that stranger?”
Kunti hemmed and hawed but managed to evade. Gandhari looked suspicious though she did not press Kunti. But what was happening before her was enough to make Kunti bite her lip and clench her fist. The stranger and Arjuna were standing, facing each other. Kunti was hoping someone would stop the duel. She saw Kripa take a step forward as if to stop the fight, but Suyodhana who was standing next to him laid a restraining hand on his arm.
Kunti felt her vision go black. It was a momentary weakness and it passed, but it was not unnoticed.
“Why are you so affected?” Demanded Gandhari, “Do you feel that the intruder is better than Arjuna? Your other sons are quite unconcerned, my maids tell me. Why are you alone so bothered?”
Kunti swallowed and shook her head before remembering that the other woman could not see her.
“It’s nothing,” she muttered.
“I’ll tell the King to stop the fight,” there was a sneer in Gandhari’s voice. Kunti stiffened. Arjuna would never forgive her if he learnt that this fight was stopped due to her fears. But how could she simply sit here and watch this? To reveal the truth was even more unthinkable.
“No, don’t!” She said. “I’m certain my son would prevail.”
Which was true in either case, thought she bitterly.
A figure materialized before her.
“Stop this fight,” he said sternly.
“Who is that?” Asked Gandhari. “Who’s there?”
The deva’s eyes bored into Kunti’s. His next words were for her ears alone. “If you do not reveal the truth, I am going to announce it from the sky!”
Kunti blanched. The deva had gone, but she had no doubt he would do as he said.
“What is happening?” Muttered Gandhari.
“I have something to tell you,” said Kunti and finally admitted the truth. The stranger was her son, hers and Suryadeva’s, born before her marriage. She also confessed she knew he had been adopted by a charioteer in Hastinapura.
Gandhari rose and went to her husband. She whispered in his ear. He paled and then said to Vidura. “What is going on now?”
“The stranger and Arjuna are facing each other for battle! The stranger looks to be as skilled as Arjuna!”
“Small wonder!” Chuckled Dhritarashtra, raising an arm to stop the proceedings.
The crowd fell silent and the two men lowered their bows.
“Bring him to me,” ordered Dhritarashtra.
Kripa and Drona escorted him to the King.
Dhritarashtra felt the young man’s face. He was good looking. And from Vidura’s descriptions, he carried himself well too.
The King hugged the stranger amidst exclamations from the crowd.
“Citizens,” he said aloud and lowered his voice to ask the young man his name.
“Vasusena,” he said, bewildered.
“Citizens,” The King announced. “I give you the eldest son of my brother, Pandu, his Kanina son, Vasusena!”
The uproar was deafening. Kunti clutched the sides of her seat and kept her smile fixed. If looks could kill, both Gandhari and Dhritarashtra would have been dead by then.
Vasusena stood still. He opened his mouth to tell the King that obviously there was some mistake when he caught sight of Kunti’s face. If it was a mistake, his mind told him, it was for her to correct them.
The next moment, the five Pandavas were there, bending down to touch his feet and looking at him with tearful and adoring eyes.
He felt helpless as he was gathered into the arms of Bheeshma and Vidura who both kept smelling his head like dogs who had got a particularly appetizing piece of bone.
He automatically raised his brothers and they threw themselves into his arms with gusto, nearly knocking him down in their enthusiasm.
“Oye! Be careful,” said he, clutching them and bracing himself.
“Sorry, we got carried away,” Bheema looked really cute when he was sheepish.
Vidura whispered something in Yudhistira’s ears and Yudhistira nodded.
He went down into the arena and escorted someone respectfully up. Vasusena immediately went forward to touch his feet.
“Father!” Said he.
Atiradha raised him and smelt his head.
“My son,” he whispered. There was regret and grief in his tone and Vasusena knew then that he was not this man’s son by birth.
“Be with your family,” Atiradha said and would have walked away if Vidura had not stopped him. “You and your family shall stay with Prince Vasusena and his brothers.” Said the Prime Minister.
Vasusena smiled gratefully at the man and was surprised by the warmth of his answering smile.