Epicretold – the Mahabharata on Twitter

Chindu Sreedharan, a lecturer at Bournemouth University in the UK, is writing a version of the Mahabharata post by post on Twitter.  Below are the first 94 tweets of his epicretold.

For more background on Chindu’s version of the epic, see the interview with him here

I can’t help staring at the lady with the black cloth over her eyes. I feel disturbed, scared — but I can’t look away.

Pale, beautiful face. Black strip wound tight. Beneath it, the eyes – the eyes with which she wouldn’t see. Gandhari. Our aunt. The queen.

She hugs Mother. Then us five children. Yudhistira first, then me, Arjuna, the twins, Nakula and Sahadeva. Why is she sobbing?

“Come,” Aunt Gandhari says. “The king is waiting.” She turns. I see the knot of blindfold black against her gray hair. I stare.

I follow with Yudhistira, Mother and the young ones behind. The palace doors close behind us. So it is all true? We are really princes?

We had all lived in the forest. Us five, Mother, father Pandu and aunt Madri. The rishis there called Father king. I didn’t understand that.

I didn’t understand many things. Yudhistira said I was slow and stupid. But if father was king, why were we living in a forest lodge?

I never got answers. Still, life was fun. Yudhistira sat with rishis, Arjuna played at archery; I wandered, hunted rabbits with my toy mace.

And I swam. Sometimes when Yudhistira joined me, I would hold him under water. Maybe I was slow and stupid, but I was strong. Very strong.

That day Father had wandered off with aunt Madri, laughing. Mother sat by the window, still, silent. Then I heard the wailing.

I rushed out, Mother behind me. Aunt Madri fell into her arms sobbing. Father had slipped, she said, hit his head on a rock. He was dead.

I ran along the forest path to where Father lay, under the trees. There was blood on his face. I hadn’t known him well; now I wouldn’t.

Later they built a pyre. As the flames sprang up I saw Aunt Madri come out in her best robes. She hugged us each tight, walked to the pyre.

She circled it three times, head bent, lips moving. Then she turned, looked at us once — and walked into the flames.

I wanted to look away, but could not. Aunt Madri — she didn’t make a sound as the flames engulfed her.

Next day, men came in chariots. Mother spoke to them at length. After they left, she said, “We are going to Hastinapur, our kingdom.”

And now we’re walking through the palace — our palace? — with Aunt Gandhari. She walks alone, ahead, her blindfold black against her gray.

I know the story of that blindfold. A balladeer sang about it on our last night in the forest, the first time she ever sang about our clan.

Our aunt had vowed to cover her eyes, not see again, when she learnt she was to wed Dhritarashtra, blind prince of Hastinapur. Years ago.

She leads us to a doorway where two giant warriors cross spear points. They step aside. We walk into a huge hall, lit by dozens of lamps.

My feet, used to rough forest ground, slip on the polished marble. At the far end, on a golden throne, sits King Dhritarashtra. Our uncle.

He is huge — huge head, enormous chest, bulging arms — but not as huge as some of the woodcutters I have seen in the forest.

Our uncle is stronger than a thousand mad elephants, the balladeer had sung, the strongest man in the world. Is he — really?

He rises. The sightless eyes stare straight at Mother as she says, voice breaking, “I, Kunti, widow of your brother, bow before you.”

He blesses her, hugs her tight. Yudhistira steps forward and prostrates. Then it is my turn. I hesitate; someone pushes me forward.

He bends to touch my face, my shoulders, hands surprisingly soft. “Bhima has grown,” he says. “Only six, but so tall! He’ll make a warrior!”

His eyes are frightening — flat, cold, dead. They devour me. “I am glad you came,” he says finally, to Mother. “Now I have five more sons.”

I know the king has many sons — a hundred, the songs said. Why aren’t they here to greet us? I look around. And I see him.

He is my age, swathed in yellow silk robes. A gold necklace of many strands covers his chest. He stares at me fixedly from behind a pillar.

I smile. He keeps staring. Then abruptly he turns and walks away. I stand there feeling foolish, angry at the boy, angrier at myself.

I do not see him the next day. Or the next. But late one evening the next week, I find myself facing him in one of the smaller courtyards.

I am returning from another wander. Yudhistira has taken well to palace life — to the silk robes, the maids, the sleeping chambers. Not me.

I miss the forests, my old carefree life; I spend much of my time outdoors. This time when I get back the boy is standing in the shadows.

I have guessed who he is. Duryodhana, uncle Dhritarashtra’s son, eldest of the Kaurava brothers. My cousin, who turned his back on my smile.

He steps forward. I stop. I do not smile. “So you are the one,” he says. “The Pandava born to destroy my clan!”

That is one of those things I have heard the maids whispering. That, and I was son of Vaayu, the God of Wind. I do not understand that.

I do not understand either why they say Yudhistira is the son of Lord Yama Dharma, Arjuna the son of Lord Indra. Was not Pandu our father?

Now I hear it, from the tongue of this haughty boy. “Nothing to say, fool?” he taunts. “They say you are stupid!” I feel my anger rising.

I step towards him. “Aside!” I say. Duryodhana’s eyes widen, the angry surprise of a palace prince unused to challenge. Then I see rage.

I do not wait. I push, my forehand against his gold-strung chest. I feel him resist, we strain for a split second. He stumbles sideways.

Duryodhana is taller, bigger. But I am stronger – born to the forest, not to palace maids. I leave him against the wall. I do not look back.

I wait for Mother to chastise me the next day. She has not heard. Even the maids, who hear everything about everyone, have not heard.

I am relieved — or am I? There is so much I want to ask Mother. Why do they say I am born to kill my own cousins? Why the tales about me?

The palace has changed our lives. Mother is rarely alone here; so it is days before I speak to her. She frowns at my questions. Sighs.

“Maids’ tales!” she says, sitting me down. “Do not pay heed. You are the son of Pandu, the second in line to the throne of Hastinapur.

“Someday your brother Yudhistira will be king. You are strong, very strong. It is your duty to support him, to protect him — always.

“It will not be easy… Pray to Vaayu, seek His blessings — be strong like the wind.”

That night standing by my window I close my eyes, I whisper: O, Vaayu, God of Wind, bless me, protect me from harm, make me strong like you.

And I feel the touch of a gentle breeze, a caress, an embrace, soothing me, wiping my fears away… my God is listening.

From then on every night I pray to Vaayu — and every night he responds, with the softest of touches, making me feel strong, protected.

The next weeks bring a sense of rhythm into my life. Mornings, I wake up early, to the sounds of conch and music from the palace courtyard.

The maids would be waiting, with hot water and fragrant oils for my bath. Then it is time for Vedic school, for which I am inevitably late.

The bath makes me hungry, and though forbidden to eat before school, I always stop to gulp down the meat dishes the maids smuggle to me.

Grandfather Bhishma and Uncle Vidura, the most revered of our relatives, say our studies have suffered and we need to make up quickly.

Grandfather has engaged a teacher, just for the five of us. Uncle Vidura’s sons were to join our class, but for some reason they never do.

Yudhistira is happy about that. Uncle Vidura, he says, is our father’s half-brother, born to a maid, his sons not of royal lineage.

“They are sudhras, lower caste,” he tells me. “They should not be allowed to sit with us kshatriyas anyway.”

That is the thing about my elder brother. So very conscious about who is inferior to him, who his peer, what is right, what wrong.

He loves the Vedic sessions. As for me, my favourite part of the day begins when we troop to Shukacharya to learn the crafts of war.

Our cousins are taught by Kripacharya. Grandfather says we have a lot to catch up. How good is Duryodhana then, I sometimes wonder.

Duryodhana pretends to ignore me, though I see him watching me at practice often. I love the sessions, but hate the way everyone treats me.

My teacher, my cousins, even my brothers, they all see me as fat, slow — and stupid. Kripacharya even says so, when he gets angry.

In his eyes Yudhistira excels with chariots, Arjuna with the bow and arrow. Me, I am good only to wrestle or fight with the mace.

Even there he sees Duryodhana as my better. He is wrong. They all are. Or maybe they just find it more amusing to laugh at the fat fool.

Let them laugh. Perhaps it is better they are blind to my strengths, blind to the extra hours I put in after lessons in quiet corners.

I am growing strong, powerful. And more agile, fast on my feet, swift of arm and eye — swift like Vaayu, the God I pray to every night.

In a chariot I am more fluid than Yudhistira. With the bow and arrow, though not blessed like Arjuna, I am more effective than most.

Where I am more deliberate, Arjuna finds the target with no conscious effort. He says he’ll be the greatest archer on earth. I believe him.

He believes the court singers’ tale that Indra, king of all gods, is his father. He prays to him constantly, practices relentlessly.

If Arjuna is not with me, I usually slip into the elephant paddock as I return. The mahouts indulge me; I am the only prince to visit them.

On one such occasion, as I finish grooming the little tusker the mahouts have ‘given’ me, I sense someone behind me. I turn around.

Duryodhana is watching me from the massive doorway silently. He is not alone. With him are two others I recognise. Dushasana and Karna.

Dushasana is the second eldest of my cousins, a sad shadow of Duryodhana. Karna, I know of as the son of Adhirtatha, the king’s charioteer.

From afar the son of the charioteer looks a bit like Yudhistira. But my brother would never have the scoff of scorn Karna is wearing now.

I do not want trouble. I step away from the elephant, move towards a side entrance. Footsteps rapidly close behind me. I stop.

“He is running away.” Duryodhana is laughing. “The fat fool is afraid!” Dushasana joins in, an unconvincing echo of his elder brother.

“Look at him shaking,” Karna says. “Is this the one they say will destroy your clan and drink your blood, Duryodhana? This fat fool?”

Fat fool. I am used to that. But somehow those words from Karna anger me more. What right does this charioteer’s son have to call me that?

I will pay him back — but not with words. Duryodhana has taken a fighting stance; I see Dushasana edging sideways. I take a deep breath.

I know what to expect. Duryodhana will lunge, try to grab me in a dueling lock as we have been taught. Dushasana will attack my flank.

I pretend to watch Dushasana, turning slightly. As I see Duryodhana tensing, preparing to rush me, I pivot, kicking out hard at his knees.

Duryodhana falls heavily, yowling in pain. I turn quickly, allowing Dushasana to run into my elbow at the end of his clumsy rush.

As he staggers, I shove him hard, sending him towards Duryodhana. He trips, falls over. I do not let them recover; I cannot afford to.

Slipping behind, I grab their hair. Their heads are slick with oil, but I get a good grip, tug hard. Their heads clash together. I repeat.

Again and again, I tug. They squirm, yell, but I do not stop. Karna has disappeared. Shouts. Running feet. Rough hands wrench me away.

The mahouts surround Duryodhana and Dushasana. There is blood on their heads, on Dushasana’s face. I walk away; I will pay Karna back later.

Much later I approach Mother’s chambers. Yudhistira is there. To my surprise, he embraces me. I embrace him, then touch Mother’s feet.

“Son, why did you attack your cousins?” she asks quietly. I didn’t, I say. She looks at me for a long moment, without a word.

“That charioteer’s son came to complain about you to Grandfather Bhishma,” Yudhistira says. “He said you jumped them from behind.”

They listen to me in silence. “I understand why you fought,” Mother says finally, “but did you have to hurt them so bad?” I have no answer.

Mother pulls me close. “Keep away from those boys, Bhima,” she tells me. “They will try to harm you — and people will always blame you.”

Yudhistira walks me to the door. “Child, Duryodhana will want revenge,” he says, embracing me again. “Be careful. Don’t go out after dark.”

I nod. Fat fool I may be, but I have already figured that out.

To follow the rest of the story on Twitter, click here.

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