The forest glade was quiet. The dasis and dasas were all asleep. The fire that was built in the centre of the clearing to keep away the animals was still burning brightly. One of the dasas wrapped in a blanket sat near it, to stoke it and to replenish it with firewood.
In the large hut, Pandu was asleep in his room, and his wives shared the smaller bedroom. Madri, her mind untroubled by dreams of grandeur or by ambitions, fell asleep immediately. It was not so easy for Kunti. She who had cherished grand ambitions of being a queen of some great king, of a great kingdom had been constrained to marry an impotent man. And to add to her shame, a co-wife had been forced on her, and now, nothing but ignominy awaited her. She sat up and slipped out of bed without waking Madri and stood staring out of the window. If her husband was not impotent, the situation could still be salvaged. If she were to give birth to his son before a son was born to Gandhari, she could still claim the throne of Hastinapura for her son. But how was she to manage it when her husband was impotent?
Her thoughts turned to her first child, whom she’d hired assassins to drown. Had he lived now, perhaps she could have convinced her husband to adopt him. But it was too late, and being a practical woman, Kunti did not dwell for long in what-ifs. She had to find a way to either have her husband reinstated as King or to have a child whom the world will accept as his.
A movement by the fire attracted her attention. It seemed she was not the only one not able to sleep. Vidura stood by the fire, holding out his hands, warming it. At his sight, her fury blazed again. This man was the real author of all her misfortunes! If his cursed spies had not caught one of the assassins and had he not told Vidura about her, he could not have forced her to marry the impotent King of Hastinapura. She closed her eyes and willed herself to calm down. Perhaps she could use him as he’d sought to use her.
She went out of the room, and out of the hut, standing in the verandah for a moment. The dasa had his back to her, but Vidura could see her. She came down the steps and walked towards the back of the hut, to where the dasas had planted a small garden. It was still a few straggly plants, but there were a few Jasmines among them that were already blooming. She stood there inhaling their fragrance. The full moon hung low in the sky, and gave a ghostly aspect to the surroundings.
“Couldn’t sleep?” Asked a voice from behind.
“I could ask you the same,” she said without turning around.
“And I can ask you what is your purpose in this,” he replied.
She turned around to face him, but his face was in shadow.
“My purpose?” She demanded.
“Let’s not pretend. You abhor me. And yet, you have deliberately lured me here. I wish to know why.”
“You blackmailed me into marrying an impotent man. You are responsible for my plight today. Do you wonder that I hate you?”
“I did my uncle’s bidding,” said Vidura. “Not that that’s any excuse, but… to refuse to do as he said would have been…. risky.”
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
“There were rumours,” said Vidura. “All this was before I was born, but my mother being a dasi at one time was privy to most of them…”
“What rumours?” She asked, still frowning. It did not surprise her that Bheeshma’s had been the plan to blackmail her. She’d seen the calculation in his eyes, and knew him to be a dangerous adversary. He’d proved it when he’d arranged Pandu’s marriage to Madri, when he’d arranged Pandu to go on the Dig Vijaya, and again when he’d forced Pandu to abdicate.
“It was said, Bheeshma couldn’t become King of Hastinapura because he had to swear an oath to relinquish the throne and to remain celibate. It was rumoured to be a pre-condition for his father’s marriage to Satyavati, the Queen mother.”
Kunti gasped. “He must have been a very young man at the time. How could his father have forced him to take such an oath?”
“It was said King Santanu did not force him, and he took the oath on his own, for his father’s happiness. But I guess he’s only human, and in later years, it must have rankled. Anyway, Bheeshma had two half-brothers. Chitrangada who was elder was installed as King, and met his demise at the hands of a Gandharva soon after.” Vidura paused. “At the time, there were mutterings about his death.”
“But he died in battle, didn’t he?” She was confused.
“Yes, but where was the Senapati while the Maharaja was doing battle? Where was the invincible warrior, the great Bheeshma?”
“That’s just conjecture,” she said automatically, even while his mind accepted and admired the strategy of the Senapati.
“Maybe. Then Vichitravirya was made King though he was still a boy. Rumours abounded about the new King’s excesses, but why did his elder brother never attempt to check him?”
“Whatever that might be, the King died of Rajayakshma,” said Kunti dismissively. It was Ambalika, her mother-in-law who’d told her the story. Of how her husband had died of that dreaded disease. Of how she and her sister had to go through Niyoga to beget children for the dynasty.
“Did he?” Asked Vidura. “I’m no Vaidya, but even I know that Rajayakshma is a lingering illness, it wastes away a man. Vichitravirya died suddenly, vomiting blood, and Bheeshma was the first at his side, and he said Rajayakshma and the court Vaidya nodded.”
Kunti shivered. “All this is… it’s just rumours….”
“Yes,” said Vidura. “Worse, the palace servants’ rumours…. but…. a lot of dasas and dasis who’d spread the rumours disappeared with their families…. some lost their tongues…. the rumours stopped after that…. As I said, it’s not- wise to cross the will of Bheeshma. I know I wronged you, but there’s nothing either of us can do about the situation.”
“I think you enjoyed it,” she said relentlessly.
“Perhaps I did,” he said. “Perhaps I’d still enjoy watching you squirm. But… there’s no purpose in any of it now… I’ve lost, and so have you.”
“I haven’t lost yet.” She said. “And I won’t if you’ll help me.”
“Help you with what? There’s nothing you can do now!”
“What if there is?” Asked Kunti, her face determined. It was his turn to frown and to look confused.
“How?” He asked. “And even if there is, I can’t promise to help.”
“Since my husband cannot be King of Hastinapura,” said Kunti, “I’m determined my son would be.” She fixed him with a challenging and penetrating glance. “And you’re going to help me do it.”