SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Blending in

SAHADEVA'S STORY II

KESAVA MENON

Blending in

This is the second excerpt from a novel in progress; the first was published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine of May 29. The novel is yet another interpretation of the Mahabharatha, in which the epic is treated as a political story. The narrator is Sahadeva, the youngest and perhaps the most insignificant of the Pandavas. Although he is relatively obscure, we know from the epic he has intimate knowledge of the people whose actions, triumphs, and defeats live on in the legends. In the novel he is ascribed a role as the Pandava's chief of intelligence. As such, he is depicted as the man who runs an espionage network when the Pandavas are a political force.

However, the two excerpts relate to the period when the Pandavas are not a political force. They have just finished their 12-year exile in the forest after losing the game of dice and are about to enter the phase of having to live in disguise. Sahadeva's role changes accordingly. He becomes the spy-catcher, the man who must track down and eliminate Duryodhana's spies before they can expose the Pandavas. The first excerpt dealt with the manner in which Sahadeva developed and used his skills as a spy. In this episode, Sahadeva attempts to teach his brothers how they must blend into the society of Matsya where the Pandavas are to spend a year in disguise. Read on:

I HAPPILY sat back to await further questions. The Eldest was in deep thought, so Bhima it was who asked:

"Draupadi you say has found work in the house of an old Kshatriya widow who mixes herbs and perfumes. Perhaps she should stay there. Palaces have their dangers."

One of our uneasy, though unspoken, thoughts was beginning to creep out.

"Krishna told us that the King of Matsya does not sleep with his wife's servant maids," Arjuna moved swiftly to put us at ease.

"He also said that the wife, Sudheshna isn't she, is likely to cut off his thing and feed it to the hounds if she ever caught him trying it," Nakula chortled in continuation. He choked off and the smiles faded on the faces of Arjuna and Bhima as they saw the frown on Yudhishtira's brow. The Eldest did not approve of our simpler pleasures.

"I think it might be a good idea to let her stay in that village." The image of Sudheshna and her knife had obviously not stayed in Bhima's mind for very long.

"No! We should be somewhere close to each other. We can't ensure each other's safety if we are apart." Arjuna stressed the tactical principle and I butted in to remind Bhima that the Kshatriya widow lived in an outlying village quite far from the central town of Matsya.

"So how are you going to move her from this village and into the palace?"

This required a bit of elaboration.

The widow was half-senile about everything other than her herbs and concoctions, her accounts, and the work she got out of her servants. I had taken Draupadi to the widow's house claiming she was my brother's wife and we wanted her to stay there while we moved our herds to new pastures. I had already ascertained that the widow needed a new maid and she did not ask many questions. To what she had asked I had slipped in some passing remarks about Panchala and the Yadava lands and herbs and spices and sundry wanderings. I would let this brew cook in the cauldron of her senility for three or four weeks. By then she would have got everything mixed up and the villagers, sympathetic to the toil the widow extracted out of Draupadi, would be under the impression that she had worked there for much longer than she had.

"I'll try to visit that village as much as I can. Nakula could also look after the horse herds near that village for a while," I suggested.

They were not too happy.

"There is no other way this thing can be done," I reasoned. "We can only drift into Virata's town over intervals of time and we have to enter from different directions. There is no help for it. We have to be separated for a short while so that we can each merge into the scene. In a short while we will all be in place and then we can set up our links with each other."

They reluctantly accepted my argument. The situation was clear enough. While Matsya lay athwart the route from the northern lands to the ports on the western coast, it was not a place of great enterprise. Some of those who drifted along this route would stay in Virata's town for a few years, sometimes more. We would need to create the impression that we were itinerants of this sort. Itinerants who apparently had nothing in common did not turn up in one place at the same time.

Everyone lapsed into his own thoughts. Bhima went to the fire and turned the spit. Fat sizzled as the chunks of meat turned over. The smell of roasting boar meat quickened my hunger. After days without respite from the coarse gruel and dairy produce that was the usual fare of a herdsman, I was more than ready for some good meat. But the cooking was not done and to stop myself from thinking too much on it, I turned and scanned the area. We were safe on this grassy, rock-strewn hilltop. There was a good view all around, good cover close by, and Bhima had masked the fire so that the smoke trickled away slowly through the rocks.

"Didn't they ask you about cattle?" Nakula's question came floating on a current of innocence.

"Of course they did. But what do these desert people know about cattle? Why I could... "

I almost walked into the trap. Bhima turned from the fire and he, like the rest, had an anticipatory gleam in his eyes. For my other passion is cattle. Ask me a question about cattle and I could be off for hours. They could never get enough of teasing me by asking silly questions about cattle.

I threw a piece of wood at Nakula's head.

Yudhishtira called us to order although he too did not seem averse to a spell of jesting. In a way we were all feeling a little buoyant. Understandable. We were re-entering a civilised community after 12 years and this was, after all, a new adventure.

"Bhima's cooking is good enough for people not to ask too many questions about his origins and Nakula has a way with horses though he does not talk as much about it as some people do about cattle." Yudhishtira's smile took the edge off his words.

"And it would be good if they went in together. With Nakula standing besides him, Bhima's height will not be so noticeable except at close quarters. It is also not unusual for cooks and grooms to travel together."

"How about you Arjuna?" Bhima asked. "Think you can make it work?"

Arjuna tossed his hair he had grown long and, striking the grotesquely coquettish air of a eunuch, archly affirmed he could. His was a beautifully proportioned lithe figure. With some padding in the right places, in the manner of all eunuchs, he would be able to pull it off. His ambidextrous skills and his devotion to the bow from as far as anyone could remember were also helpful to his disguise. His body did not carry the telltale signs of the great bowman. Both forearms were equally developed and unmarred by the marks of the bowstring. All of us had worn sheaths of kid-leather on the arm that held the bow when we began to learn archery in our childhood; otherwise, the string would have horribly chafed our delicate skins. Most of us discarded the sheaths to show our toughness as our bodies hardened. Arjuna could not afford this vanity. The man practised with his bow so arduously that his arms would have been a raw mess if he had left them uncovered. He had never discarded the sheaths and so the greatest archer in Aryavarta did not bear marks that showed him for what he was.

If any other than Bhima had asked the question, there would have been an edge of frost in Arjuna's reply. His pride could be a little prickly if there was even a hint of a suggestion that he would do something less than perfectly. But not when the question came from Bhima. These two were among the greatest warriors of the age, perhaps of all ages, but they had squelched any sense of rivalry long ago. Instead, each had learnt to complement the other's strengths like the two escorting bulls of a herd that stand with their haunches touching and their tusks out-thrust in a menacing crescent.

"Well," Bhima advised, "don't shake your hips too much when you are around Virata. His wife might not have that sort of objection to his fooling around with his house-boys."

To my surprise even Yudhishtira joined in the laughter.

"It would be best if you and Arjuna went for that mela in Virata's town," I suggested to the Eldest. "Not together of course but if this scheme collapses at least Arjuna would be nearby to give you protection. Learned people are usually found in towns and where else would a eunuch look for employment?"

The others agreed. Yudhishtira's air of dignity and his look of intelligence would not be misplaced in the role of scholar and courtier that he was to assume. I was a little uneasy because, unlike the rest of us, the character he had decided to assume was very close to what he actually was. But Yudhishtira had little talent for subterfuge and I could only advise him to wrap a cloak around his head and shoulders and show himself in public as little as possible.

"It is also not unknown for scholars to keep peculiar company." I let that one slide through Yudhishtira's guard unnoticed by any other than Arjuna. He gave me a wicked grin

"All right. It's all settled then. The meat's ready. Let's eat."

The others rose but Yudhishtira stopped me with a gesture.

"Spies?" he asked.

"They are here. I don't know how many, or who they are or even where they are."

Yudhishtira's look was hard. He might have gambled away a kingdom in an addicted frenzy, but he had been raised to be a king. My answer had to be very straight and very responsible.

"I will find them before they find us."

As the words slipped out of me, I was overcome by an unaccustomed feeling. I was not unused to the sense of responsibility, but now the determination not to let down my brothers was over-layered by new awareness. I realised that for the first and possibly only time in my life I had the most important role to play. My brothers would be dependant on me. I felt not trepidation but a surge of power.

Recommended for you