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Book excerpt: Until The Lions

Poetry that explores the Mahabharata from a female perspective

Drupada’s wife
Queen of Panchala
Mother of Shikhandi, Draupadi & Dhrishtadhyumna
woman without a name

SUSTENANCE

Anger. We eat anger at each
meal, night and noon—mostly Dhrupad,
monarch of Panchaal, and our three
children, though I have to swallow
my share too: this is a staple.

Anger. The shoots burgeon; it grows,
unfurling fibrous, sightless roots
through castle walls, through words, veins
and arteries. The leaves cover
rooftops and thoughts, they colour tongues.

For Dhrupad has raised our children—
Shikhandi, Bheeshma’s nemesis;
Dhristadhyumna and Draupadi,
fire-born twins, seraphs, slayers—as
battlements, as lethal weapons.

Words transform flesh, marrow and bone
into granite, iron. Words forged
our children: not words like love, hope,
laughter, desire—no, those belong
to foreign lands, to alien tongues.

The words that alloyed them, smelted
heroes, now dwell in granite bones:
honour, rage, revenge and purpose—
polite, unfailing—that estrange
even my aching, mother’s heart.

For they were never mine, these brands
from Dhrupad’s inferno—fury
that first engulfed his soul, now all
of Panchaal. Not mine: even young,
they had suckled paternal dreams.

For dreams seep into neighbouring
heads: theirs traverse my own each night.
Dhrupad’s dreams, where enemies stand
crowned in shame; where blood and breath turn
black and tidal rocks tear down skies.

While Shikhandi—whom I had borne
as a bubble beneath my breasts
through nine months of eternity—
dreams, yet again, of the horrors
of a past; of future terrors.

In these dreams, Shikhandi crushes
both breasts and unwraps sinewed legs,
casts shoulder and pelvis in male
mould then carves muscles till they shine—
bronzed, blood-soaked, a warrior’s shield.

Is that past or future? He slips
into Bheeshma’s sleep, a land he
has owned for thirty-six thousand
nights and days. Honour lies in wait,
a quivering, tongueless, wild beast.

For they who’ve never tasted love
cannot know hate, and Shikhandi
has hated longer and better
than most on earth. He borrows rage
from the sun, endurance from stars.

Hate is thus, said Shikhandi once,
I become my bane: unthinking,
uncontained flame, eager to blight.
He becomes me; he longs to die.
Till we meet, both wander twilight.

Dhrishta and Draupadi too dream,
though theirs is hate inherited:
its contours blurred, origin roiled
in the story they’ve learnt by rote.
For hate can outgrow memory.

For Dhrupad will never recall
his own youthful pride, the malice—
careless—towards Drona which spurred
abject disgrace at his playmate’s
hands (a disgrace now made blazon).

For stories half-true can unleash
much power, much more when retold.
Dhrupad erased the preamble
and part one of shared history:
childhood, oath, kingship, reunion.

He closes his eyes, wills away
that far-off day in Kampilya’s
court when he denied Drona’s words
and smashed a sacred pledge: the first
betrayal, the one that birthed war.

Betrayal, in Dhrupad’s readings,
will remain one-sided: Drona
had no cause to attack Panchaal.
Hadn’t he offered alms as kings
ought? How could a sage ask for more?

I could forgive my king even
this sad guile would he not dispatch
Dhrishta to Drona’s hermitage—
to master the divine astras,
to plan future near-patricide.

Perfidy that will tear the boy,
almond-eyed Dhrishta, who aspires
to honour and morality—
mythical beasts in our royal
household, he will learn in distress.

And Draupadi—fire-maiden, gift
of the gods that Dhrupad dared not
return (though he saw no use first
for a mere woman in his grand
ballet of vengeance). What of her?

What solace can I give her, she
who is Earth’s anthem, whose learning
rivals that of the seven seers,
whose speech is scimitar and yet
full moon, she who’ll be cast as bait?

What solace could I give her, she
who must survive? She who will face
dishonour, death, and—worse, by
far—disillusion? Who’ll learn how
difficult it becomes to die?

For Dhrupad’s designs sing vilest
around his daughter—the price, it
seems, for being born. For she must
bring home the greatest warrior
of the land as husband, as arm.

Arm that Dhrupad will turn against
his enemy, arm that will strike
its own eyes—for it is Arjun,
Drona’s prize pupil, the king seeks
as son-in-law. Honour must bleed.

Then, then alone, can Dhrupad strike
Drona in the hidden chamber
of his heart, display the fragments
as trophy to a heedless world—
his blind, recurrent fantasy.

It is written, proclaims Dhrupad—
those words his second escutcheon—
after parleys with Krishna, his
war counsel, every time the word
clemency falls from a rain-cloud.

The stranglehold of fatherhood
will prevail, mothers will weep stones.
Grey is the night, grey is this land’s
pelt, grey our blood that flows beneath.
We replay our stories, our sins.

No mother should have to set flame
to her sons. No. No mother should
outlive her blood. I will. I will.
The heart has no bones to shatter.
It will keep beating just the same.

Excerpted from Until The Lions (263 pages, 799), with permission from HarperCollins.

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