By Paramita BanerjeeTime was at a loss. Satyavati did not have a heaven. Where was she to be put then, post her stipulated time in hell? Heaven is where one goes. And heaven, of course, is what you had wanted in your earthly life but could not get. Despite the best of intentions and efforts, no one could identify that one wish that would decide what Satyavati’s heaven should be.
Though a princess by lineage, Satyavati had been raised as a commoner by parents engaged in fishing and ferrying people across the Yamuna. Had a sexual encounter with a sage out of wedlock and a son out of that. But her boon in exchange of her consent to indulge the sage’s lust for her was to retain her virginity; have the fishy stink of her body replaced by a musky fragrance so strong that people would be mesmerised from miles away; and for her son to be raised by the father and emerge as a wise man revered by all.
Perhaps commoners do not have any such specific wish that could determine their heavens. Perhaps no heaven exists for commoners. Whatever. Satyavati did not have any earthly wish that remained unfulfilled. Busy with fending for herself through ferrying people on her father’s boat, perhaps she never had much spare time to wonder about what she wanted. Her life took a curious turn only when King Shantanu took a fancy to her. He was quite elderly at that point of time, and Satyavati just at the prime of her youth. But the old king was far too besotted by her to consider the age difference.
He might be, but Satyavati certainly wasn’t. Why would the musk-scented beauty be interested in a ripe old man, even if he was a king? Her fisherman father bargained, therefore, and bargained hard: she would marry the King only if her son(s) and their descendants could inherit the throne. A difficult choice for King Shantanu, for he already had a son from his previous marriage, who was—naturally—the crown prince.
But this young man was so touched by his father’s sense of dejection that he vowed to relinquish his claim to the throne and never to marry—to remain celibate, in fact—so that no descendant of his could ever claim the throne. Satyavati, thus became the queen first and then the queen mother. Where did she ever have any chance to focus on what she wanted from life? Hence, there was no wish-fulfilling heaven for her.
Unable to figure out anything else, Time sent her to a “Home for the Homeless”-type shelter, with provisions for the basic necessities. As she stepped in and looked around, Satyavati was reminded of her early years at her parents’. Life as the queen and the queen mother of a powerful kingdom had been far too luxurious in comparison, and now, in afterlife, she was to get adjusted to such basic living again!
Never being one to take anything lying low, Satyavati was about to march out and confront Time, when she got distracted by the vision of another woman sitting on the balcony of another hut, pretty similar to hers. Curious, she marched to get a better look.
“Amba! What are you doing here?” Surprised, yes, but Satyavati was too tough a nut to be stunned into silence. Amba was the eldest of the three princesses Satyavati’s stepson, the illustrious prince who had renounced his claim to the throne and pledged celibacy, had abducted for marrying off to his half-brothers—Satyavati’s sons.
That scene flashed through Satyavati’s mind as if on celluloid. Before she could even ask Devavrata, her stepson, why he had abducted three princesses when he only had two half-brothers to be married, her attention had been drawn to an outraged Amba who was cursing and screaming. Amba was in love with and betrothed to King Shalva, and Devavrata certainly had no business abducting her—even if she did not question kidnapping her two younger sisters for the moment. It was a sin to abduct another man’s fiancée! When Satyavati could finally sort out the whole story from Amba’s angry expletives, she had ordered Devavrata to immediately return Amba to King Shalva.
Satyavati’s question startled Amba out of her musings. “Oh, auntie! I hadn’t expected to meet you here, I must say. Why aren’t you in heaven?”
“My question exactly, Amba. I’m here because no heaven could be designed for me. I didn’t have any unfulfilled wish. In fact, I never had much of a chance to wish anything particular for myself. So no heaven. Poor Time had to send me here. But what about you?”
“Well, I’m here because I refused to go to the heaven designed for me.”
“Refused? What can you possibly mean by that, Amba? I’ve never heard anything like that.”
“Oh, that’s because you’ve never been dead before. How would you know anything about the afterlife? You were the oldest amongst us on Earth, but you’ve arrived here after some of the others, younger to you by a generation or more, because you had to spend such a long time in hell for your greed of the throne, and then some more in Nowhere Land while the deities tried to figure out which should be your heaven. I’m not the only one here, auntie—there are others for company as well.”
“Yippee! There she finally is. Welcome to the Home for the Heaven-less, great-grandma!”
Satyavati turned at the sound of this excited trill and was stunned into complete silence this time. Draupadi, her great-granddaughter-in-law, was beaming at her. Of course, Satyavati had never met this woman on Earth, but she had no problem recognising Draupadi. One of the advantages of the afterlife, probably. But the grand dame had no clue why Draupadi was in this shelter.
Before Satyavati could find her tongue, two other women arrived—one carrying a tea tray and the other some savouries.
“Now great-grandma, get used to life in this Home for the Heaven-less. You may not be aware how time has passed while you served your term in hell and then the unaccounted bit in Nowhere Land, but we’re in the 21st century now and we love our Darjeeling tea. You’ll love it too, I’m sure. Don’t balk at it just because it didn’t exist in our times.”
“Sit down, grandma-in-law,” invited Kunti as she spread a rug on Amba’s balcony after putting the tea tray down. Gandhari had, in the meantime, put the savouries down and started pouring the tea. Satyavati noticed that Gandhari’s eyes were no longer covered.
The mystery of all these women being there was unravelled as they sipped their tea and munched on the savouries. Satyavati kept listening in such amazement that she even forgot to mention that she did like the taste of tea, as Draupadi had predicted.
“Well, my dream was to live with only Arjuna as my husband, Draupadi said. “Little had I anticipated that I’d end up being married to all five brothers! So, obviously, that was the heaven designed for me. An afterlife with Arjuna as my only husband.”
“Why did you refuse to be there, then?” Satyavati asked. “I don’t get it at all!”
“Simple really, great-grandma. I loved Arjuna. He was the hero of my dreams. I was quite pissed off to have to play wife to all five of your great-grandsons, for I wanted Arjuna only. But as I served my term in hell for my secret preference for him, I realised the utter futility of my love. It was all one-sided—don’t you see? He had no love for me in his heart. He had competed at my groom-choosing ceremony only to prove his mettle, not because he cared for me. I was just one among his four wives. Can you think of even one occasion when he did anything special for me? Bheema at least did that time and again. Arjuna? Never! After spending my life pining for him, being in hell for that love—why would I want to spend my afterlife with this man also? No way!”
“But Amba, you and Shalva were in love with each other. Why aren’t you in heaven with him, then?”
“As I told you auntie, because I refused to. True, we were in love, or so I believed. And that is precisely why I had no thought other than returning to King Shalva when your stepson released me. But what did Shalva do? He refused to marry me under the flimsiest of excuses—because your son had defeated him and carried me off. Is that how a loving man is supposed to behave? In my earthly life, my entire rage was directed at Devavrata and I took revenge on him. It took me my time in hell to realise that Shalva was even more disgusting than your stepson, auntie. Devavrata didn’t know I was betrothed to someone else. But Shalva’s ego was far more important to him than the love he had professed for me earlier. I returned for him. To him. But he rejected me. No, I had no intention of spending my afterlife with that man, thank you!”
“But why didn’t you plead a little, Amba? Maybe he would have softened and married you then.”
“Oh great-grandma, you understand nothing about love,” quipped Draupadi. “You never managed to fall in love with anyone, did you? If you did, you’d understand why grandaunt Amba wouldn’t plead with King Shalva. She was smarting under the pain of his rejection, his callousness in not even making an attempt at understanding what she had been through. You don’t plead with someone who claims to love you and be so ruthless! It was far easier for grandaunt Amba to direct her anger against your stepson.”
“She’s right. I’ve opted out of the heaven designated for me to spend my afterlife trying to fathom the nature of love. A woman’s love at least. Why was I so blind? Why wasn’t I angry with Shalva? Was it love that blinded me, or rage?” Amba’s pensive words lingered in the silence that followed.
Kunti broke the silence. “I didn’t need to be dead and reach hell to know that I no longer wanted a life with Pandu. I was in love with my husband in earthly life, grandma-in-law, and spent my time fulfilling his every wish. Often against my own wishes. But only till he fell for Madri and married her. As if that was not enough, he died trying to make love to her, when he knew very well that such an act could be fatal for him. For all my years as his wife, there never was any lovemaking between us. I cared for him. His life was more precious to me than my own desire. I throttled my screaming emotions to have three sons sired by others—only because Pandu wanted me to. Helped Madri do the same, so that Pandu could live. What did I get in return? The imbecile—forgive me, grandma-in-law, but that’s how I feel about him—couldn’t control his lust for Madri. Agh! My love for him died at that moment. I knew already that I wanted nothing to do with him in my afterlife.”
Satyavati realised she was softly patting the agitated Kunti. The grand dame was surprised at her own action. This woman had just called her grandson an imbecile. Gandhari’s soft voice shook Satyavati out of her confused thoughts.
“Like Kunti, I knew in my earthly lifetime that I did not want your older grandson in my afterlife. And don’t get me wrong, that’s certainly not because of his congenital blindness. I’d come to terms with that after my initial shock and made a sincere attempt to learn to love him. I even covered my eyes to learn to experience the world as he did. But Dhritarashtra was blind inside. I spent my lifetime trying to get him to see some reason; value some principles—any principles. But no, his dark insides never learnt to rise above his blind affection for his firstborn. Affection so blind that it led our sons to their death. Sorry grandma-in-law, but I could never love him. Yes, at one point of time, I did desire a life with a seeing Dhritarashtra. Seeing not with his physical eyes, but his mental ones. By the time it was my turn to leave the Earth, though, I knew for sure that such a Dhritarashtra would never exist beyond my imagination. Hence my refusal to go to the heaven meant for me.”
“My, my, what complex creatures you all are!” exclaimed Satyavati. “All this talk about falling in and out of love…I’m not even sure I understand it all.”
“Oh, don’t worry, great-grandma, we have eternity on our side now. We’ll keep explaining to you about how each one of us fell in love, only to fall out of it later. Together, we’ll write this new epic. The real one—from our perspective.”
NB: This is a figment of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to any known characters from any pre-existing narrative is purely incidental. This is set in the modern times and there is no hidden intention to hurt anyone’s beliefs.
A note on the pronunciation of the names:
Satyavati: both ‘a’-s as in ‘all’; ‘i’ as in ‘inside’.
Amba: first ‘a’ as in ‘all’ and the second one as in ‘argue’.
Draupadi: both ‘a’-s as in ‘all’ and ‘i’ as in ‘inside’.
Gandhari: both ‘a’-s as in ‘argue’ and ‘i’ as in ‘inside’.
Kunti: ‘u’ as in ‘put’ and ‘i’ as in ‘inside’.
Madri: ‘a’ as in ‘argue’ and ‘i’ as in ‘inside’.
Pandu: ‘a’ as in ‘argue’ and ‘u’ as in ‘put’.
Dhritarashtra: first and last ‘a’-s as in all; middle ‘a’ as in ‘argue’.
 The bit about retaining her virginity can well be understood in current societal terms as it happens—if we read ‘virginity’ to imply ‘eligible to be married’. Here in this very country, we still have tribes where teenage girls who get pregnant out of wedlock actually become more coveted as brides, rather than losing any chance of marriage because of their fall from chastity. Simply because such a girl has already proven her ability to conceive and bear a child. The musky body fragrance spreading over miles is more difficult to explain, but the acceptance of the son, again, is pretty much like the custom among quite a few tribes in our country. A child born to an unwed mother is either adopted by that family, or by some other family in the community, for there is no moralistic shame attached to such a birth.
 Did Pandu have a severe form of orchitis, today’s medical professionals may wonder.