The Kaurava Daughter

And what can I say about my life that was a footnote in history? Was it any different from Satyavati or Kunti? Were my hardships less than Draupadi or my mother, Gandhari?

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It was said that I was born by the desire of my mother in a world where daughters were considered a source of distress. The great poet was composing a war song in which I was of no consequence, but he too didn’t forget to mention my mother’s wish to beget a daughter. I was like the calm that came to her after the storm of losing a mad race to give birth to the eldest heir, which led her to attempt to abort her fetus out of desperation. I was the sweet breeze that came after a bitter voyage. I was named Duhsala, the youngest daughter born after a hundred sons, the only sister to a hundred brothers, the Kauravas. 

The poet, as I said, didn’t bother much about me, and having skipped my childhood and youth straightaway, he mentioned my marriage to the Sindhu King Jayadratha. My childhood was in the Hastina palace, ruled by kings descended from the Lunar dynasty, but in my time, it was the center of a deadly political intrigue that escalated day by day between my brothers, led by the eldest Duryodhana, and my cousins, the Pandavas. Anyway, as a woman, a girl, a daughter, and a sister, I was on the sidelines of history, of war poetry, so to say, helpless to bring any change but only to suffer the consequences. The forces of history that caused the terrible war began long ago, after the grandsire Bhisma had given up the throne. It was a long saga and a sad one, but the most important crux was that if one man was to be king, it was difficult to ascertain whether it would be Dhritarashtra, my father, who was the eldest but blind, or Pandu, my uncle, who was the youngest yet impotent and gave up his throne.

In the next generation, my father made Yudhishthira, the eldest Pandava, the crown prince. Till then, it was alright, but the expectation on the Pandava side that my father should give up his throne to Yudhishthira brought calamity. It was frankly an ambivalent situation where no one could definitely take one side impartially, at least when the conflict came between my father and Yudhishthira. I suppose the only morality that a King had was to ensure his survival first. And so came Varanavrat’s conspiracy to kill the Pandavas accidentally by fire, but they escaped. The subsequent marriage of the Pandavas to the princess of the powerful kingdom of Panchala frightened my father, and ultimately made him give up the uninhabited part of the kingdom on which the Pandavas built the city of Indraprastha. Perhaps then any military conflict was averted for some time at least.

In the above circumstances, my marriage to the King of Sindhu was approved by my father, and my mother gave her consent. My husband had two more wives, one from Kamboja and one from Sauvira, and a host of concubines. He also believed that any beautiful woman he desired was his possession. As my mother had come from Gandhara to Hastina and blindfolded herself, I went to Sindhu and turned a blind eye to my husband’s dalliances. 

In effect, my marriage was a political alliance that ultimately got the support of the Sindhu King in the war, just as the Draupadi and Subhadra had brought the Panchala and Yadava support. In that world, there was one rule for women: Stridharma; obedience to the father, the husband, and the son. In that world, perhaps a woman without a man was lost or so they said. And as I said, Sindhu was on the border of Aryavarta, and I too was like Sindhu, waiting on the fringes, and the course of my life determined by powerful men of powerful kingdoms.

My mother came from the hills to the plains, from the fringes to the center of power, and resisted in her own unique way, and I went from the center to the sidelines and adjusted to a different culture and people. My co-wives reminded me of my grandmothers Ambika and Ambalika but unlike them they didn’t even have a name. The eldest from Kamboj was called Kambojini and the one from Sauvira was Sauvirini. The rivalry between co-wives comes for the husband’s affection, but when the King himself was never present for his womanizing ways, in the end, the three of us had only each other. 

From the fringes, I heard the goings on in Hastina, and I understood the position of the smaller kingdoms in the shadow of the powerful kingdom. I was the thread that tied Sindhu to Hastina, the bait sent by the powerful kingdom to keep a kingdom on its fringes obedient to its military needs. I was like the thread of doom that brought the devastation of the war to Sindhu, but I did not know it or have any hand in it. And that doom was nearing in the guise of the Rajasuya, the appointment of an all-powerful emperor to whom all the kingdoms of Aryavarta would pledge their suzerainty. The Rajasuya, it was said, led to the infamous dice game, but I don’t want to talk about the politics of it all, for it always gets murkier and exhausting.

I was present that day when Draupadi was staked and dragged to court, the position of a woman dependent on the men in her life, queen or slave. Her husband shamelessly staked her, and the Kauravas humiliated her by dragging her to the open court and attempting to disrobe. Not only Duryodhana Dushasana, Shakuni, and Karna, but even the Elders and the King, my father, the present Kings, and the Brahmins, none except Vidura and Vikarna seemed to try to stop the humiliation of a woman. 

And yet, when Draupadi repeatedly defended Yudhishthira for having been misled and cheated and only cursed my sister in law to widowhood, I realized the limits of a woman and a queen, something I had always known. A woman can never question her husband’s staking her, even if she prophesies the suffering of the woman of a whole clan, for the insult that follows her husband’s staking, the ideal of the Pativrata.

The dicing game was followed by a second dicing game that led to the thirteen-year exile of the Pandavas. According to the poet, the exile was a testing time for Draupadi, as sages from all over the land were counseling her to bear the ouster of the Pandavas from royal life, some quoting the trials of ancient women Damayanti and Sita. And yet, after the Pandavas left for exile, it was also a testing time for me as well as for the other Kauravas women.

My co- wives were childless, and after a lot of prayers offered to the gods, my only son, Suratha, was born sometime earlier. He was to be the future king, but he was rather weak in health, and yet he was the apple of the eye of Kambojini and Sauvirini; he was more their son than mine. And yet, when my son was merely a teenager, my husband rode off on his chariot to bring another wife. Kambojini and Sauvirini were used to this, but I felt completely shaken as it came to me like a shock betrayal. It later came to us that while he was crossing the forest, he attempted to abduct Draupadi and was consequently humiliated by the Pandavas.

Again, it was said that I was the invisible thread that saved him. ‘Arjuna, Bhima, don’t kill the King of Sindhu Jayadratha, for he is the husband of Duhsala, the only sister of the Kauravas and Pandavas,’ Yudhishthira was said to have commanded his brothers. When my husband returned humiliated, his head shaven, his life an act of kindness of the Pandavas, he decided to forsake everything and leave the kingdom in my custody. If the god Shiva could be pleased, he’d return, or else not. It was he who had committed an act of moral turpitude, and yet with me, it was he who was taking the high moral ground. Kambojini and Sauvirini begged to follow him to the forest or the mountains, where he’d go, but I did not stop him, nor did I make a prayer to follow him. “I leave my kingdom to you, my queen,” was all that was said between us. With a teenager son, I ruled the kingdom as a regent in his name all by myself, a lone woman who was until a few years ago regarded as a foreigner in Sindhu. At the end of thirteen years, when I had given up hope, my husband returned as a changed man.

My husband was the King of Sindhu and Sauvira and always ruled well, but now instead of womanizing, he spends more time in prayers and then in the armory practicing for hours. It was this that made me nervous. Why was he practicing the craft of warfare for hours? And then, as news wafted from Hastina, it was thus that Duryodhana had taken the mace for thirteen years. Arjuna had gone in search of the divine weapons to counter Karna, in whose fear Yudhisthira could not sleep for thirteen years. I didn’t want to admit it, but it seemed like the war was inevitable.

Each of these men fought the war for a different reason, and yet for the Kauravas, it wasn’t hatred and jealousy for the Pandavas anymore; it wasn’t even about Hastina; it was ideological. If Kunti gave the ideology of fighting the war to Yudhishthira for the Kauravas, it was my brother Duryodhana. Yet Kunti and Duryodhana’s ideology were identical, the ideology of Kshatriya Dharma. The only ideological opponent to them was not Yudhishthira, but my mother Gandhari, for Yudhishthira, like my father Dhritarashtra, ultimately had no ideology; they both were realists. And yet I think now do men put the ideology to justify a war or is it the other way round they fight a war for an ideology? 

The war came, and it is not up to me to speak of unjust or just killing, but I cannot help but speak of Arjuna’s if I may say a cowardly oath to kill my husband. The fact that the poet skipped was that my husband may not have been a good man, but he was a better warrior. The Pandavas were neither fearless nor equipped; their only weapon was to blame the Kauravas, be it the disaster that befell Abhimanyu or Draupadi. If an oath had to be taken to avenge Abhimanyu’s death, it had to be Drona or the other Maharathis, and yet Arjuna took the easiest target. But let bygones be bygones; what does one gain from this bitterness anyway? And now I don’t want to go into whether Arjuna arrived on time before sunset or whether it was the solar eclipse that brought my husband’s death. I will skip it because the facts are confusing, but the reality was that I was then a widow.

My husband, when he had heard of Arjuna’s oath, wanted to return to Sindhu, but my brother Duryodhana assured him of protection, a fact that my brother regretted till his death. Yet I don’t blame my brother, for I was the symbol of the promise of Sindhu to Hastina and my husband had to let his sense of honor prevail to not break that oath. Yet I did not know why, that day, I found myself shaking at the thought of my impending widowhood.

After the war, I had lost not only my husband but all of my hundred brothers; the battle field was strewn with corpses, fallen weapons and chariots, dead horses and elephants  and animals preying on the dead. I saw my mother, who had opened her blindfold, cursing Krishna and again like Draupadi instead of finding fault with her own men, cursing the women of the Yadavas. I saw my sister-in-law of my hundred brothers maddened with grief. I saw my co -wives trying to find the head of the headless body of the Sindhu King, and I went with them. And then came the reign of Dharma, or so they said.

Even when I hear the war song now, it doesn’t seem that the poet blames my brother Duryodhana for the war. I find him lamenting everything as the force of Kala- time that even the gods cannot control. Duryodhana, my brother, I have not spoken of him till now.  All my life I stood on the sidelines watching men fight and die and yet it is he who still brings tears to my eyes. The man who naturally commanded loyalty and devotion and for whom the Kshatriyas were ready to die in battle. The man who spoke of me first even when his thighs lay smashed by Bhima unjustly breaking the rules of battle a ghastly cowardly act. He and Yudhisthira, and ultimately Karna, were the set pieces of a long conflict between the firstborn, the second born, and the youngest son that began with Yayati, Yadu and Puru. Each man strangled under the clasp of the throne, some weary struggling to be free while others envious and besotted. What was my brother up against I wonder. Who was his real enemy, the Pandavas or he himself?  Was he the aggressor or defender? But everything gets too blurry now. 

And in Sindhu, at last, my son was crowned, and yet again came the drums of war, the armies of Arjuna. And, Yudhisthira, had instructed Arjuna to basically emerge victorious over Kings who had not accepted his suzerainty for the Aswamedha, sparing their lives.  But that did not mean that it was not another invasion. Anyways it wasn’t over for me yet, for under the weight of another imminent attack my son suddenly collapsed and died of shock.  

Like Satyavati I never got the time to grieve for my son, even when my son lay dead, I rushed to take my grandson in my arms, assured of the line of my husband. Holding my grandson in my arms, I came before Arjuna, ‘The heir of the Sindhus is still alive,’ I said, overlooking the affliction of my only son’s death. I remember the greatest tragedy of the war, of Kunti who had pursued the installation of her husband’s name and line and yet after the war looked more devastated than my mother having lost her eldest born Karna. Arjuna was distraught hearing the death of my son, Suratha. Ultimately, he proclaimed my infant grandson as the heir and so in the name of my grandson, I remained tied to Sindhu as regent. 

And so, I come to the end of my journey, as my grandson is now the crowned king and I am the Rajmata still. Now I don’t think of my husband or son any more, or of my brothers, but only of my mother. With her death in the fire in the forest, she was left with no sons to perform her last rites, yet she had wished openly to the poet that my son perform her rites, and yet he too was dead. And what can I say about my life that was a footnote in history? I think perhaps, unlike my mother, I did not put on a blindfold, yet I inherited the destiny of the women of the lunar dynasty given to me like an heirloom. But was it not what the scriptures expected of me as a woman? I followed my father’s command in marriage. True, my husband hadn’t gambled me away, but I was a part of his infamy too when he tried to abduct Draupadi. Yet I ruled a kingdom as regent without my husband, then again without my son, and in my own way, for the continuation of the name of my husband. Was it any different from Satyavati or Kunti? Were my hardships less than Draupadi or my mother, Gandhari?

I don’t complain that the poet kept me on the sidelines but were we all only mother, daughter, wife and queen? Or were we pawns caught against the force of time that was churning the end of Dwapara. Even though I cannot hear nor see much now I still hear of the Yadava women being violated and I hear the Pandavas rushing in their last journey to the Himalayas. And at the end of it all, like I was born as the last piece of flesh amongst my brothers, still I remain remembered as only a Kaurava daughter.

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Tapti Bose

Tapti is a writer based in Kolkata, India. Her articles and short fiction have been published at Feminism in India, Women’s Web, Gulmohur Quarterly and Kitaab International .


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