The night before homecoming

Keerthik Sasidharan | Updated on January 24, 2020

Labyrinth: “Their love had discovered strategems to survive the cobweb of fraternal seductions and private jealousies”   -  ISTOCK.COM

Late at night, when Arjuna was asleep in the stable, amid weapons, shimmering moon rays and the omnipresent fumes of brine and sweat, Draupadi walked past the sleeping farmhands to find him once again after 12 long years of separation. The horses that stood nearby watched her carefully, like monks under the vows of silence, as she shuffled past them. Beyond the outer halls of that cavernous stable, there, in a corner, she found Arjuna curled up, alone, bearded, with his eyes shut. In the years he was away from Indraprastha, he had been making amends for breaking a covenant among the five Pandava brothers by inflicting suffering upon himself. He walked from Kaveri to Kedarnath, visiting places of pilgrimage across Jambudwipa on feet. But even during this journey, when reflection and quiet ought to have been his companions, fate imposed its demands upon him. Thus, he found himself in the middle of wars against demons, commandeered rebellions to overthrow oppressive tyrants and prosecuted campaigns against the armies of the underworld. Meanwhile Draupadi, who had kept track of him from afar thanks to an extensive network of spies, learnt that Arjuna had fathered children with the princess of Manipur, the queen of the Nagas and the daughter of the Pandya overlord. There were also whispers about his marriage to Subhadra, Krishna’s sister, but she refused to believe in these rumors, lest they turn out to be true and rob her rightful anger of its sting.

Earlier that morning, when she heard that Arjuna had walked past the city doors, she was filled with anticipation. But it was well known he would only formally enter the residential quarters of her family after the full moon, at which hour offerings would be made unto the ancient gods called Nirutti and Varuna, beseeching them to keep the evil eye away so that their lives could be made whole once again. Till then, Arjuna would have to spend his time on the outskirts of the city, amidst stable boys and elephant riders, surrounded by animals awaiting reincarnation, and the sweet and sour smell of their dried shit. But, she reasoned, the converse however needn’t be true. Malefactors in the heavens or not, she who was called by different names, Draupadi, Panchali, Krishnaa, Agnijyotsna, Parshathi — five names for the five brothers — would do what felt right. It had been years since somebody had called her Krishnaa, the dark one. That name reminded her of the early days of their marriage, when she led him to see the dark night skies of Ekachakra, where the horizons were always awash in bottle-blue as if some god had spilt a vat of ink. That was many years ago, when they were young, still struggling to reconcile the infinity of their desires for each other within the finitude of their bodies. Since then, their love — tender, absorbent and zealous — had discovered stratagems to survive the cobweb of fraternal seductions and private jealousies.

Remembrances: “Despite these years of separation, during which he lay in the arms of other generous women elsewhere, his thoughts had tiptoed past the circumstances he found himself in, only to reimagine her warmth”   -  ISTOCK.COM


Yet, for all these sweet recollections, the fact remained that, upon his return to the city Arjuna hadn’t reached out to Draupadi. This silence from him stung, despite his repeated assertions during their years together — when they were lovers and then friends — that he longed for her presence more than all else. But on this day, all that ensued was his silence. This natural reluctance that simmered within had troubled him too; these years of separation, when he lay in the arms of other generous women elsewhere, his thoughts had tiptoed past the circumstances he found himself in, only to reimagine her warmth. Yet, despite this longing that sprung from the grounds of his being, for reasons he could no longer put in words, he was unable to summon a messenger to let her know — I have returned for you. Perhaps, he consoled himself, he had become addicted to the pleasures of loneliness. So, on that night in the month of Mrgashirsha — as the great ascetic deity of gnosis, Shiva Dakshinamurthy, presided over southern skies, wrapped in his meditative stupor which saw everything — when the warmth of Draupadi’s breath stirred Arjuna into wakefulness, he was suddenly filled with gratitude.

He noticed that her breath had a tincture of fermented sugarcane, of inebriation, and her words barely concealed her anger at his silence. He awoke to feel the fullness of her stare and smiled weakly. During the night that followed, not a kind word emerged from her. She was raging against his foolish decision to leave her for 12 years out of some misbegotten sense of righteousness. Every so often when she felt the hair on his arms rise up in anticipation, her fingers pressed into him. How dare he feel aroused by her? His forearms were soon marked with by her nails, as if this violence were her only means to release accreted humiliations of the years past when he was unfaithful to her. She whispered taunts and abuses softly into his ears: Were those women he left behind going to be faithful to him, won’t they find stronger men with stronger hips and bigger organs than his, how could he call himself a man knowing all this?

In the past, anger and irritation would have burst forth in Arjuna. But now, afters years of reflection, he had learnt to see past the shape of her words and arrive at the wellspring of sentiments from which her rage emerged. All he saw then was a flood of her love — anxious, grieving, uncertain of what was to come next between them when he returned to the palaces, where he would be a brother among the five siblings and she as the wife to one of them. For now, however, all he could do was watch her closely, the ebb and swell of her being in his presence. How easily, without guile, she declared her hates and loves; how reluctantly she reached for his bruised and calloused palms that had touched other women; how breathless was he in her luminous presence; how quickly her enthusiasms flagged when he professed doubts about the tales she told; how self-assuredly she spoke letting tiny burps mid-sentence, barely stopping and continuing to list the many reasons she resented him.

Then she caught him watching her, and before he could smile, she covered his face with her palms. Not out of shyness, but as if to assert that this moment wasn’t for him, these invectives were hers alone to let loose and at no moment should he have the pleasure of seeing her despair. Let me speak, she added, to interrupt his silences. How could he have not seen all this? This lustrous being and her love for him which she insisted was all hate.

They lay there the whole night, staring and talking as the golden patina of dawn wandered in.

Then, she bestrode him, her nakedness sought to swallow and dissolve all his coiled up ferocity within her. He breathed into the whorls of hair between her thighs and suddenly, as if reliving some past life, he remembered her perfumed sweat that he had longed for but forgotten, during those years as he wandered this vast quadrilateral shaped land. When they were done, she guided his hands to a fading cicatrice below her waist — the remains of a fall from a horse, she told him. As she described that wound, he realised, the loneliness of all those years had eroded within him the capacities to feel another’s love, to desire somebody — despite the women who had kindly come his way. Like a gardener who worked her ferrous soil, that once had bloom but was now wretched, she had begun to water the grounds of his heart. To replant all that had withered under the harsh sun of solitude. But any real rapprochement will take time — though neither of them spoke about it. This was not the night to talk of those things.

At dawn, she let him be and without a goodbye, simply walked away. His world suddenly became quiet, like a harbour without its prized ship.

When she vanished, he felt free. A freedom to be on his own, to feed horses, to sharpen arrows, to wander amidst soldiers and killers — all were embodiments of his instincts to dominate and destroy. In the company of brutes and beasts, contentment arose in him easily. “You wear around yourself, a garland of nothingness,” she had told him before leaving. But after this night with her, he realised that while her absence brought a sense of freedom, he was simply tired of being free. He wanted to be tied down.

Later that morning, he walked around the sesame fields, past the stables and back, swam in the river and rested in the afternoon. Her taste was still on his tongue, the sweat from her armpits lingered on his lips. Reliving her spectral presences from the previous night, he told himself it was time to finally head home.

And with that burst of epiphany, he began to count the phases of the moon so that he could return to her, where she awaited him as a wife to one of his brothers.


Keerthik Sasidharan


Keerthik Sasidharan is a New York-based writer. His novel The Dharma Forest is forthcoming from Penguin India in 2020

Published on January 23, 2020

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