Madri cooed to the baby in her arms. He was too young to recognize her or to respond to her, but she still kept talking to him. There was no one else for her to talk to anyway. She was no fool. She knew Kunti saw her as a rival from start. And the truth of Pandu’s impotence had shattered all her hopes. Though Pandu appeared to prefer her, Madri knew different. She was just one more reminder of his inability, and he resented her just as much as he resented Kunti. It was actually a relief when he had gone for the Dig Vijaya campaign.
What hurt Madri the most was neither Pandu’s indifference nor Kunti’s hostility. What hurt her was the way her brother had all but sold her to the Kurus. She knew of the bargain that Bheeshma had struck with her brother. She knew just how much her brother had been paid for her. And what was worse was Bheeshma knew the kind of life he was condemning her to, and when she reached Hastinapura as a new bride, he acted as if nothing was amiss. She wondered if the man was simply amoral or if he enjoyed making others miserable. Was it due to the rumoured vow of celibacy he’d taken?
That vow was only a rumour outside Hastinapura. Even in Hastinapura, most people did not remember it, and those that did rarely talked of it. The queen Satyavati knew, and perhaps the two queen mothers. But apart from them, Bheeshma himself was the only one who knew the truth of those rumours. In her early days as a bride, Madri had gently and subtly pried. Her mother-in-law, Ambalika had snorted.
“There was never any vow. The truth is, the former King was so enamoured of Satyavati, that he agreed to make her son the King and ordered Bheeshma to honour that promise. Somehow, it all got twisted to a vow of celibacy, probably because he never got married. Not that the queen would have permitted him. She was just as determined as her father to see her son as King and for his children to follow him to the throne. Don’t be fooled by her benevolent mask. She is just as ruthless as her stepson, and quite ambitious.”
That conversation had stayed with Madri. She knew then that the Kurus were not just ruthless and ambitious, but also capable of twisting the truth to suit them. And no one was left alive who knew the truth. She knew that both the queen mothers were frightened of Bheeshma, which spoke more than any words would have. She also knew why Satyavati had chosen Vyasa for Niyoga instead of Bheeshma who was the obvious choice. The queen was determined that it should be the children of her son who would inherit the Kuru throne.
Even after her marriage, a part of her had hoped that her brother would rescue her once he learned of Pandu’s condition. On Salya’s visit to Hastinapura, she had plucked up the courage to confide in him. And in return, she had got a lecture on the duties and responsibilities of a good wife. But Madri knew the truth. The riches Bheeshma gave meant more to her brother than her. Besides, her return would occasion a scandal, and Bheeshma would make sure that the scandal would reflect more on her than on Pandu.
Madri rocked the baby in her arms gently. Bheema was almost asleep. She looked at the hut where Kunti was sequestered with Pandu and Vidura. Try as she might, Madri could not bring herself to like Vidura. She had noticed the way he looked at Kunti from the beginning and had been shocked by it. But Pandu seemed to pay no attention to it. No one did. She knew that Kunti hated him, and yet she had agreed to lay with him for the sake of having a child. Madri glanced at the babe in her arms. Was it really worth sleeping with a man she loathed? Kunti certainly seemed to think so. And though Madri could tell that Kunti still hated Vidura, she was being civil to him these days.
Bheema hiccuped in his sleep and Madri went towards the hut which served as the nursery. It had two cradles and pallets for the wet nurse as well as for the dasis who looked after the children during the night. Yudhistira was in his cradle, asleep. Madri lay Bheema down in his cradle, nodded at the dasi and went out again. The days were quite monotonous, and she was bored already. There was nothing to do.
She went to where Vidura’s horse was tethered. The grooms looked at her, but made no attempt to stop her as she went near the horse. Vidura had good taste in horses, at least. She stroked the glossy mane of the horse. She missed riding. She had not ridden a horse since her marriage. Apparently, such pastimes were not feminine enough for the Kurus. She looked at the hut. Vidura was not likely to come out anytime soon. And even if he did, he could wait.
“Saddle the horse,” she ordered the groom. “And help me up,”
She was not dressed for riding, but she was not going to allow that to stop her. The groom stared at her in confusion.
“Didn’t you hear what I said?” She asked imperiously. That tone had caused the domestic servants in Madra to quake, and the groom seemed to be cut from the same cloth, for he hastened to obey her.
Madri rode out of the clearing, and into the trees, up the hill next to the clearing. The wind whipped her face, and her hair came out of its knot to stream behind her. Madri laughed, and the sound startled her. How long had it been since she had laughed! It felt good to be on a horse, and suddenly she felt exultant, jubilant. She galloped up the hill and reined the horse in once on top. The clearing was invisible from here. The wind was strong, trying to knock her down, but she stayed firmly on the saddle, her knees gripping the sides of the horse, and her hands firm on the reins.