“We have to do something,” spoke the man. He was tall, regal in appearance, with an unlined face, though his hair and beard were both turning grey. He was pacing inside a handsome room, spacious and furnished minimally. Both the ornamental desk and the colourful tapestry were both of the highest quality. A large window at the north wall stood wide open and provided enough illumination.
“What can we do, uncle?” demanded a younger man, sitting at the desk. He was also tall, with a determined chin and piercing eyes. But at the moment, he looked anxious. His fingers were drumming the wooden surface of the desk.
“I don’t know,” muttered the older man. “I really don’t know, Vidura. All I know is we can’t allow this to get out.” He paused. “You are certain about this, aren’t you?”
“Neither I nor my spies were hiding in the bedroom, if that’s what you mean,” Vidura’s voice was dry. “But the whore talked, of how the King could not –ah- perform, and of the tantrum he threw when he realized that.”
“If she talks again-”
“She won’t. She will have to pleasure her men without a tongue from now on, both her and the one to whom she gossiped. I have rebuilt the room he demolished, and the owner does not know what caused the tantrum. He believes his whore displeased the King.”
“You left them alive?” there was displeasure in the old man’s voice.
“They are both illiterates,” remarked Vidura. “I deemed it better to leave them alive. The statement is more effective that way. Just in case our monarch gets the urge to- try his nonexistent virility in some other whorehouse.”
“Perhaps I should talk to him,” muttered the old man.
“Perhaps. You are his uncle, and the best judge.”
“I don’t want to risk my mother finding out.”
“She has her own ways of finding out things, but this is one secret that is safe from her.”
“She wants to see him married,”
Vidura snorted. “And then, the shameful secret of the impotency of the Kuru King will be all over Aryavarta.”
“You think so?”
“Any princess whom we choose will complain to her father if she learns her husband is impotent. That means war. And while Hastinapura is strong enough to win, the news will be all over the continent.”
“But if he is not married, that could lead to the same kind of talk.”
“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Vidura chuckled. “It’s an interesting conundrum. But there is one point to be noted.”
“If he doesn’t marry, it will lead to talk, true, but that talk will at best be speculation. Whereas if he does get married, it won’t be a speculation, but a fact.”
“The Kuru King has to be married.” Said Bheeshma decisively.
“Then be prepared for war, and ridicule.” Vidura’s tone was bland.
“Not if she chose him,” said the old man, thoughtfully, his hand stroking his beard.
“A Swayamvara?” asked Vidura. “That could work, uncle Bheeshma. But you will have to get an invitation for our King. Then you will have to convince him to agree to go. And then, you will have to find a way for the girl to choose him. And frankly, in spite of his good looks, he looks far too pale and unhealthy for any girl to voluntarily choose him.”
“She will choose him. I’ll make sure of that.”
“But even if it is a Swayamvara, the girl’s family could still demand reparation from the Kurus. And if they do, it won’t be in secret.”
Bheeshma frowned. “I think I know what to do,” said he slowly. “While we cannot make Pandu anything other than what he is, there is a way to ensure that the honour of the Kurus remain intact. We managed to do that once. We can do that again.”
“How? By abducting another set of princesses?” Vidura’s voice held a hint of acerbity.
Bheeshma frowned again. “You think you can judge me for that act?” he demanded.
“I am not judging you, uncle. But I think such a course of action twice in a row might be – inadvisable.”
“Don’t worry. I have a better plan. But I need your help.”
“You want my help for Pandu,” Vidura’s voice was flat.
“I want your help for Hastinapura.”
Vidura nodded. “For Hastinapura.” He paused. “Have you considered that Hastinapura might be better served to have Dhritarashtra as its King?”
Bheeshma grimaced. “Do you think I made the decision lightly to have Pandu as the King? Dhritarashtra is blind!”
“He is only partially blind. And the physician did express hopes for his sight improving.”
“We can’t have anyone but a whole man as the King.”
“Right. A partially blind man is not whole, but an impotent one is.”
“You don’t understand. Pandu looks whole. And that is what matters. When people see their King, they should not feel repelled. They should feel joy, admiration, devotion, hope. The sight of a partially blind man invokes revulsion and at best, pity.”
Vidura shrugged. “Whatever you say. What is it that I’m to do for you? I beg your pardon, for Hastinapura?”
“You don’t feel devoted to this Kingdom?”
“I am devoted to it, uncle. But I can still see the realities under the colourful exteriors. Just like our monarch, our Kingdom too is deeply flawed.”
“And you think you are the best person to be its King,” said Bheeshma suddenly.
Vidura said nothing, just kept gazing at his uncle. Bheeshma drew a deep breath. “If… if circumstances were different, Vidura… why did you never say anything before Pandu’s coronation?”
“To what end? To be called unrighteous by our priests and presumptuous by my brothers? To be called ambitious by you? We both know I am better than both my brothers. I am more – whole- than either of them. And yet, I am denied the Kingdom because of- what? My birth? We all share the same father. And yet, my birth is considered inferior because my mother is not a princess.”
“It is not that,” stammered Bheeshma. “By law, they are the sons of Vichitravirya, and you-”
“I am the son of a maid. Sired by a sage. A bastard if you will.” Vidura paused. “So, what can I do for this vast Kingdom of the Kurus, in return for my birth?”
Bheeshma took two parchments from a sheaf on the desk and handed it to Vidura. He read the first in silence. And then, “My spies don’t appear to be as effective as I thought.”
“The news would have come to you, had I not killed the source.”
“But the men are still alive.”
“One of them is.”
Vidura nodded as he examined the second parchment. “I see your plan. We can’t trust this to spies.”
“No. Which is why you must accompany Pandu to the Swayamvara.”
“I will need to talk to the man first.”
“He is to be executed at sunrise tomorrow.”
“No time to waste then. Arrange a meeting at sundown today. In the meantime, I’ll make arrangements for the King’s journey.” He paused. “How did you convince him to accept?”
“By impressing upon him that there’s no other choice. The world expects it of him. Hastinapura expects it of him.”
“For the first time, I’m feeling a bit sorry for him.”