The forest was unfriendly, and wild, and to Kunti, used as she was to a life in a palace, this place seemed like an enemy. An enemy that sought not just to make life difficult, but which sought to end that very life. Time spent in the forest had not dimmed her dislike if it nor made her reconciled to her lot. But she knew her lot was better than many others. They still had the dasas and dasis to cater to their daily needs, they still had chariots and charioteers to take them to another part of the forest, the guard that accompanied them were good enough for protection and for hunting, and therefore, they never had to worry about finding food.
But even with all that, she was still nothing but the wife of an exiled prince. And the guards, the sutas, the dasas, were all here out of Dhritarashtra’s mercy. Gandhari, who had ever envied her, was now the queen, and she, the rightful queen was reduced to a life of poverty, all because of an ill-judged action of her husband, and the false morality of Bheeshma. She still had no clue as to how to salvage the situation. Her cheeks burned as she thought of how Vidura had laughed at her when she’d declared her intention to have her son as the King of Hastinapura.
“And how do you propose to have a son when you’ve an impotent husband?” He’d mocked.
She’d had no answers then, and even less now.
“Kunti,” Pandu’s voice broke into her thoughts. She looked at him in question. He was thinner, but still looked regal. Even his unnaturally pale complexion gave him an ethereal appearance. Only a fool would take him to be a forest dweller. He looked every inch a King, and her heart pained to see him in hermit’s attire.
“So deep in thought?” His tone was light and teasing as he sat next to her. The tree under which they sat was large and shady, and the prominent and thick roots were spacious enough to sit, though hard. But they both preferred it to the mossy ground. Neither of them were used to sitting on the ground.
“Not so deep,” she parried, just as lightly, though her gaze on him was intent enough to know he had some purpose in coming to her now. He wasn’t here for a chat. He was too tense for that.
“I’ve a favour to ask you?”
Her eyes went wide with surprise. “A favour?”
He fidgeted, avoiding her eyes for a moment before squaring his shoulders and looking at her with determination. “Kunti, you know that a man without sons is cursed. The gates of heaven are forever barred to such a one. You also know that Niyoga is an acceptable practice for a Kshatriya woman when her husband is dead or unable to give her offspring.”
She lifted her hand to stop him. The gesture was imperious, and it shocked him into silence.
“I’m your wife!” She hissed, her voice throbbing with anger. “And you’re not yet dead. How dare you ask me to sleep with another man!”
His shoulders slumped. “Kunti… I’m… I can’t give you children.”
“I know. Haven’t I known from the start? Why do you think it matters to me now?”
She was furious. True, she wanted a son to regain her lost status, but not like this. A part of her was hoping her husband would somehow become a real man. But to sleep with another man even for the purpose of having a child was abhorrent. But a part of her was urging her to accede, to give in. After all, a son could be her salvation.
“I received a message from Vidura,” Pandu said heavily. “Sister Gandhari is pregnant.”
Kunti wanted to scream. It was so unfair! First Gandhari stole her position as queen, and now her son would be the future King! But she remained obstinately silent. Pandu gazed at her and them said, his voice steady, “Shall I ask Madri?”
Kunti cringed. If Madri had a son, she would be elevated above her. She, Kunti would forever be relegated to the background. It was inconceivable.
“I’ll do it,” she said, her voice hard. “But if Gandhari is already pregnant, it will not do any good.”
“I’ve faith in Vidura,” Pandu said. “He’ll contrive something.”
“And why should he do that for us? He hates us?”
“He hates me,” Pandu corrected her. “He desires you. Which is why I’ve decided he’ll father our son. That’ll give him an incentive to help us. Also, you know what everyone says about him. He has a reputation for following Dharma.”
Kunti could only marvel at the cold-bloodedness and also the acumen of her husband. But then, he was a Kuru, so perhaps it was not so surprising after all. But Vidura… she hated him. How could she allow him to touch her? The very thought of being with him revolted her.
She took a deep breath. “Tell him to be here in a fortnight for my fertile period. But I’ve a condition. No one shall ever know who sired this child. Tell them the devas did, if you will. But no one shall ever learn the truth!”
“The child will have to know,” Pandu said. “But no one else will. I promise.”
“All right,” she nodded. “Send word to him. Make sure no one knows.”
He dipped his head in acquiescence as he rose, a smile of triumph hovering over his lips. She suppressed the rage which choked her at that sight. All this humiliation was going to be worth it. Once she had a son, it would all be worth it.