Bheeshma was standing in his room, eyes closed, hands spread out, head thrown back. Even with his eyes closed, he was aware of everything that went on around him. He could feel the breeze that came in through the balcony, the rustling of the curtains, the flickering of the lamps, the spluttering sound as an insect found its way into the flames. It was not yet dark outside, but the servants had lit the lamps in the room early. He was aware of the chair to his right, the small ornate footstool with a cushion underneath it, the desk next to it, and the scrolls of parchment spread over it. He could see the small cupboard built into the wall, near the desk, where more scrolls were kept. There was a large map of Bharatavarsha on the opposite wall, with a large table near it. There was another map of Hastinapura next to the map of the continent. The doors were closed, and a row of weapons leaned on the wall on the right side of the door. On the left side was a shelf containing armour and helmets. The room was not his living quarters, but his office, and training room. He’d always preferred training with the men in the practice arena, though nowadays he sometimes preferred the privacy of his own room.
The breeze shifted, dropped, and for a moment there was a stillness. Bheeshma could feel the clouds massing overhead, he knew that soon thunder would rumble, and lighting streak across the sky. The door opened as an attendant made his way across the room stealthily to close the balcony doors, and all the windows, and pull the curtains closed. The heavy drapes that framed the thin wisps of silk fell across the windows in dark folds, leaving the room in semi darkness. The attendant started lighting the torches fixed to the brackets in the wall and soon, the room was bathed in the golden light from the torches. Finally, he stoked the coals in the pot on the metal stand, added some more wood to it, and lit it. The room was now as brightly lit as day, and even with his eyes closed, Bheeshma could feel the light. The specially designed vents in the room ensured that smoke would escape out, and there were air vents invisible to the eye which ensured that the breeze was circulated into the room, preventing it from becoming too warm from the fires.
The attendant left, just as stealthily as he entered, and Bheeshma opened his eyes as the skies outside opened. The rain did not come down in a patter, it was a torrent and gushed down like a waterfall, and Bheeshma could imagine the palace of Hastinapura becoming drenched in the rain, the water running in rivulets across the streets of the city, the walkways of the garden till finally it went to join the river, the holy Ganga where a twelve year old Devavrata had immersed his mother’s ashes, watched by his father and his other mother, Satyavati. King Santanu had placed his hand on his shoulder that day and said, “She’s at peace now, Devavrata.”
The sky was clear on that day, but not on the day that his father’s ashes had been immersed in the same river. That day, the skies had opened, and a grim faced Bheeshma and his two young brothers had stood in the river, soaked to the skin and in danger of being swept away as they repeated the mantras chanted by the priests. Satyavati had stood at a distance in a pavilion which had kept the rain out, but her eyes were red-rimmed as she had embraced her sons and looked him in the eye and said, “He’s at peace now, Devavrata,”
Was he? Really? For Bheeshma had seen the sorrow in his father’s eyes as he lay dying, the wistful look he gave his heir, Chitrangada who was only eleven at the time.
“Take care of him, Devavrata,” he had told his eldest. “He’ll be King too young, and he’ll need your guidance and counsel.”
His father had not wanted to die. He had wanted to watch his sons grow up, and he’d wanted to see Chitrangada as the Yuvaraja. But fate had other plans, and who was there who could fight her? Strength and will could do only so much, and in the end, King Santanu had died, leaving his young sons in the hands of his first-born, hoping that he would be the father they had lost as well as their brother.
I tried, Bheeshma thought, I really did, but they were not worthy, either of them. Chitrangada was too quick to anger, and too quick to start a fight while Vichitravirya was indolent and hedonistic.
“Pradhanamantrin Vidura,” the softly spoken words from the herald brought him out of his reverie, and he straightened to face his nephew. Vidura looked the same as ever, though Bheeshma’s trained eyes could see the fatigue, the dark shadows under his eyes and the tiny wrinkles that had begun to mar that smooth face.
“You sent for me, uncle?” Vidura’s voice remained the same, smooth, even, the timbre not varying by a hairsbreadth. It was a pleasant voice, unlike the raspy voice of Pandu and the shrill notes of Dhritarashtra. It struck Bheeshma that Vidura might have made a better King than either of his brothers, but unfortunately he had no claim on the throne.
He waved Vidura to the chair, choosing to remain standing. Vidura took the chair, relaxing into it and looking quite comfortable.
“What was it about, yesterday?” Bheeshma asked.
“Yesterday?” Vidura looked confused.
“You asked-nay, demanded- that the King abandon his first-born!”
“Yes. And you were there, you heard my reasons, and you also know that the Rajaguru agreed with me. So, what exactly is it that you want to know?”
“Bad omens? Really?” Bheeshma asked. “Those omens, as you call them, happened – weeks ago.”
“Which was presumably the day the Prince had been born,” Vidura said. “Just because the sage kept them in quarantine till now does not mean that the princes were born only now.”
“So, you had to make a scene at their naming ceremony?”
“I was thinking of Hastinapura’s best interests. I don’t see why you should harass me for that!”
“You are the Pradhanamantrin. You are not going to serve Hastinapura’s best interests by telling the King to abandon his son!”
“The King made it absolutely clear that he would not consider it anyway, So, no harm done.”
“No harm done? That child is the future King of Hastinapura. And you’ve made him sound like some kind of plague. Do you think that tongues are not going to wag over this?”
“It’ll die down. It always does,” he paused. “Anyway, there’s no saying whether Suyodhana will be the next King, is there? Not if Yudhistira was born first.”
“Is that Pandu’s son?” Bheeshma asked.
“Yes. I appear to be the only one who have seen Pandu’s children.”
“And why is that, I wonder.” Bheeshma said.
“Because I was given the duty of taking the gifts from Hastinapura?” Vidura gave him a quizzical look.
“You’re an intelligent man,” Bheeshma said. “I’ll not insult your intelligence by dropping hints. I’ll be blunt. Are you the father of Pandu’s children?”
Vidura stared before he started laughing. “Me? You honestly think that either Pandu or his wife would choose me to father their child? Pandu despises me. And as for his wife- she’d rather kill me than sleep with me. She hates me.”
“Well, you’ve loathed Pandu all your life, and you did blackmail her into choosing him at the Swayamvara, knowing full well that he was impotent.”
“Which I did at your command.”
“We did what we had to, distasteful as it was.” he paused. “Dhritarashtra has changed, hasn’t he?”
“You mean, he has developed a backbone. Yes, I’d noticed. The influence of Sakuni, no doubt.”
“Why that man can’t remain in his own Kingdom, I can never figure out. But his influence is not a good one. Dhritarashtra was ever amenable to suggestions and advice from both of us. Now, he’s resistant. Instead of punishing him for insubordination, he had made that guard into a minister. It’s unheard of, such acts!”
“Yes, he’s no longer a puppet in our hands, I admit.”
Bheeshma stared at his nephew. “I don’t want him to be a puppet. I just don’t want him to take Sakuni’s advice in all things instead of ours. Sakuni is an outsider. How can he know what’s good for the Kurus? Or for Hastinapura?”
“Perhaps we can get rid of him,” Vidura’s voice was bland, and Bheeshma shivered.
“No. We cannot depend on Dhritarashtra’s leniency should it come to light that we were behind it. Let the prince of Gandhara play adviser. Subala, his father is in failing health. Better to arrange a crisis back home that he can’t stay away from.”
“All right,” Vidura said. “I’ll send word to our spies in Gandhara.”
Bheeshma nodded. That was one reason he liked Vidura. He caught on quick.