I didn't bother to take one last look at Draupadi. I simply went on. Bheem, possibly the one who had cared for her the most, gasped. He went to retrieve her. I had to tear him away from the spot: he couldn't comes to terms with the fact that D wasn't going to be a part of his life anymore.
For the first time I saw him in tears. Not mercurial ones, but silent ones that really don't heal on wiping. "Your majesty", he almost begged, "why did she have to fall?"
I smiled. Your majesty, I told myself. That's the way it has always been. Unconditional respect from the four of them. When was the last time they thought me as their brother? Or childhood playmate? And speaking about my wife, when was the last time she had looked or touched me as a partner, a husband? Did she ever, actually?
Taking a deep breath I went on to console Bheem. I had to explain him that it was because our wife was partial to Arjun (as was our mother; and Krishna; and the whole of Indraprastha and Hastinapur; and everyone we knew). I really cannot blame her for that. Arjun was the star of the family: and more importantly, he had won her over at her swayamvar.
Am I being jealous? Nah. Am I brooding? Possibly not. Complaining is something that no one has ever associated me with. Complains come from emotions, and I am supposed to be devoid of them, you see. I am supposed to abide by the rules and norms, and never let my heart rule over my head.
Being Yudi has been difficult, you see: people usually assume that the leader of any pack is the strongest or the most heroic of the lot. I wasn't. I simply had the advantage of age. I had my qualities, but my USP has been good judgement and honesty - attributes most people can hardly relate to. They had maintained their distance from me - my subjects as well as my brothers.
And my wife, well, for her I was always the demon who had won the right to her virginity, once again, simply by virtue of his age: I was never as passionate as Bheem or as heroic as Arjun or, well, as cute as the twins. I was simply honest - how do you expect the most coveted woman of our times to be impressed by that? And whatever was there, well, went away that day at the Kaurav court when my passion for the game of dice went on to change the course of history of my country.
I sighed. And walked along, Bheem by my side, and a curiously anonymous dog at my footsteps that had been tailing us since Hastinapur.
I have no idea as to who had named me Yudhishthir. The word literally stands for "one who remains sthir during wars", which sounds quite cool. I am, as you all might have figured out, unbelievably cold-headed: there have been moments where I have had lost my temper, but I shall come to that later.
My family, as you might happen to know, is filled with dubious births: during my twelve years worth of leisure days in the forest I had once planned to create a three-dimensional family tree for ourselves, but when I came to know that Abhimanyu's father-in-law Virat might have been a descendant of Satyavati's brother, I gave up the whole thing altogether.
Let me make things simple: I had an impotent (official) grandfather. When he died, my great-grandmother called upon my grandfather's stepbrother to have a go at my grandmothers. Each of these women gave birth to a single son, one blind and the other pale. The pale one turned out to be my (official) father, who was cursed by a rishi (who was, for some reason, under the impression that having sex disguised as a deer in a hunting spot was the brightest and safest thing to do) against sex. My mother then informed him that he was blessed with a cool boon (have you ever constructed a sentence with two consecutive words containing an "oo"?): that she could call upon a God whenever she wanted, and, well, you know the rest.
The pale man consented. Divine intervention happened, and I was born of my mother and Dharma (Yama), the God of death. Which possibly makes this weird walk to heaven all the more ironic, I suppose.
Talking of the walk, Bheem's gasp brought me back. I knew one of the others had fallen: Bheem confirmed it was Sahadeb. Are they going to fall off in reverse chronological order of their births, I wondered. In that case I'd be stuck with the thickest of the lot, having to explain the reason for every fall.
No one, I repeat, no one has made my blood run fast in my veins the way Draupadi had. The moment I saw her I knew two things. One, she was different. And two, she was never going to be mine.
For the first time in my life I felt that my life was a wasted one. The philosophical texts and discussions didn't have any meaning in the swayamvar. It was all about archery skills: and I didn't stand a chance. That woman shall not be mine, I had uttered to myself.
She was turning heads. She was created for that. She was The Quintessential Woman that was born once in a thousand years. Not a woman, but Woman herself, Woman created to fulfill all sorts of desire Man has.
Then everything happened in a whirlwind. Arjun won the contest. The kings protested. Bheem and Arjun fought them while I, as always, stood like an imbecile: I knew I wanted to defend my brothers, but I also knew I didn't have a chance in front of the likes of Karna, Shalya, Duryodhan, Jarasandha and Shishupal. I might have challenged them in a long-drawn conversation on philosophy, but I somehow suspect that it wouldn't have been the best way to handle the situation.
The rest, as they say, is history. D had to marry all five of us. I now know that my mother had seen the same fire in our eyes. I cringe at the thought of the shameless desire that the eyes of all five of us must have given away. She knew that this woman had to be shared, otherwise the bond between the brothers shall be broken. She had lost everything - her husband, her kingdom, her stature, her wealth. This bond was her only chance of having a stab at a revival. And she wasn't going to let it go because of one woman.
When the annual sharing law was imposed, I knew I'd have the first go at her. Hurting my own brother had never seemed so perversely pleasant. I tried my hardest to conceal my elation, but I suppose many of those present saw through me. Today, as I walk up the rough, steep Himavan, I don't really feel proud of the moment. I loved Arjun. I had loved them all. But women like D can do certain things to men, you see. She ended up resulting in destroying almost the entire male population of the country.
"It's Nakul", I told Bheem, who had by now seemed to accept what was going to happen to us. I explained him the reason, and he toiled along, trailed by Arjun and, well, that ubiquitous dog.
I shouldn't have taken up playing dice. I really shouldn't have.
I wish I could apologise to my brothers and wife for that fateful day. Or rather, those fateful days when Shakuni kept on defeating me, and I betted on, losing all and sundry. It was for me that my brothers were called slaves. It was for me that my wife was stripped in public. They were sentenced to thirteen years of misery - all because of that single addiction of mine. And what hurts me the most was that even after all that, all five of them remained as loyal as before to me for the rest of their lives.
Was I worth it? At all? What have I done for them? Do they owe anything to me?
Yes, they do - a voice replied from inside me. You had saved their lives, remember? My mind raced. I ignored the stray incident of saving Bheem from Nahush, cursed into a humongous python, and thought of the bigger one.
My father had disguised himself as a yaksha, who in turn had disguised himself as a crane, who had disguised himself as a deer to steel the Brahman's arani and mantha (pieces of wood used in rituals). This is possibly the only known example of a disguise of the third order. Trust my father to come up with things like that.
I was in a strange frame of mind when I reached the brook. All four of them lay dead. Not only was I crestfallen, I also realised that the task ahead of me was an almost impossible one without Bheem and Arjun. But then, I told myself, I won't mind staying in the forest for a lifetime if I had no one to share her with...
My father, now disguised as a massive yaksha, told me that he had challenged my brothers to play Mastermind. Most people do not take quiz-crazy yakshas seriously, and I don't blame my brothers for that.
I, however, accepted the challenge. My father, peculiar individual that he is, not only asked me incredibly obscure philosophical questions, but for whatever reason, he asked them in sets of four. It was like rapidfire rounds, but I cherished the challenge.
I'm leaving the list of questions for future generations facing yakshas, dead brothers and equivalents alongside brooks in forests. I doubt whether you shall be asked questions from outside these, so prepare yourself well. And no, I am not giving the answers away.
Set 1: Who keeps the Sun so high? Who revolve round it (hint: Copernicus shall not be born in centuries)? Who helps it set every evening? Where does it exist?
Set 2: How do Brahmans become Gods? Why are Brahmans respected? Why are they humans? How do they become evil?
Set 3: How do Kshatriyas become Gods? Why are Kshatriyas respected? Why are they humans? How do they become evil?
Set 4: Who is heavier than the Earth? Who is higher than the sky? What is faster than the wind? What outnumber blades of grass?
Set 5: Who doesn't close its eyes when asleep? Who doesn't move even after being born (hint: Inzamam-ul-Haq wasn't born then)? Who doesn't have a heart? What gains prosperity through speed?
Set 6: Who are the friends of people who stay away from home (hint: not porn sites)? Who are the friends of people who stay at home? Who are the friends of the ill? Who are the friends of people those in their deathbeds?
Set 7: The sacrifice of what makes you popular? The sacrifice of what makes you at peace? The sacrifice of what makes you rich? The sacrifice of what makes you happy?
Set 8: What is The Message? What is Surprise? What is The Way? Who is genuinely happy?
Set 9 (for whatever reason, this contained only two questions - I suppose he was getting frustrated and tired): Who is Man? Who is the owner of everything?
I nailed all thirty-four questions correctly. When my father asked me which of my brothers I wanted alive, I asked for Nakul. He was taken aback - but I knew I was playing my cards right. I knew this was no random yaksha - he was someone special, and if you acted deceptively innocent, you could manage a boon or two. Besides, Nakul was the weakest competition as far as Draupadi was concerned, correct?
It turned out to be my father in the end. Exactly why he had opted for a triple-layered animagus form I'm not sure, but the boon he gave us (no one would be able to identify us in the thirteenth year) came in handy.
There was a crash behind us. Bheem had probably expected Arjun to outlast him, but he wasn't aware of the fact that gluttony doesn't rank as high as pride on the list of sins. On another day he might have kicked the dog (or maybe made a snack out of it).
How did I fare in Kurukshetra, then? I knew my limitations, and I also knew the fact that however ordinary I was as a warrior, if the Kauravs managed to capture or kill me, the war would've been over. This made me feel like a chess king: the only advantage was that my protector was not my queen.
The first Kaurav commander was Bhishma. I fought him, along with the superior ones in my army. For nine days he remained unvanquished. He killed all that crossed his path, massacring thousands of Pandavs every day.
On the ninth night we went to his camp. Yes, I know, it was in the enemy camp, which is why my prouder brothers were against it. But I, the man above all ego, led the brethren, along with Krishna, and The Great Old Man told us how to use Shikhandi to defeat him.
For the next four days, Dron showed far more ruthlessness than Bhishma ever had. Rules were broken, my nephews were brutally killed, and once again an old man proved to be the main thorn in the Pandav flesh.
Yet again, I turned out to be crucial. Everyone knows the story, so I'm not going to narrate it (though I could never fathom why would there be two creatures with the name Ashwatthama on the same battlefield at the same time). As I told the pseudo-lie, my chariot wheels hit the ground for the first time in my military career, and finally Dron was felled.
On day seventeen, I had a terrible duel with Karna. Of course, it had to be terrible, since it was an out-and-out mismatch. I tried my level best, but I was no match for him. What was worse, he had me almost at his feet and then spared my life (it took me a few more days to find out why).
Of course, I was not going to absorb this bit of ignominy just like that. As I was being nursed at the camp, Arjun came back to see the proceedings. Then something incredible happened - I lost my temper. I gave Arjun possibly the most severe verbal bashing of his lifetime - severe enough to tempt Arjun to take my life. He would have killed me (and Bheem ruled India), had Krishna not intervened.
The outcome? An infuriated Arjun killed Karna, the third Kaurav commander, within a few hours.
As for the fourth one, Shalya, I killed him with my own hands. This remains the only occasion when I had killed a really great warrior in my life, and possibly the most significant entry on my military CV. But the bottomline is possibly the fact that I was the only one to have played a part in the demise of all four Kaurav commanders. ALL. The methods were not exactly military ones, but directly or indirectly, I brought about the downfall of all four of them.
This time the crash was the loudest. Bheem's voice sounded distant as he asked me the obvious question. I slowed down enough to ensure that he heard me, then went on.
Some people, you see, die. Just like that.
Some others live on for an eternity. It possibly gets kind of boring for this clan after a while: but Bali, Parashuram, Vibhishan, Hanuman, Vyas, Kripacharya and Ashwatthama have lived on. Of course they are immortals. The seven of them still exist somewhere, arranging summit conferences at random locations to share reminiscences of the past.
Some others could opt for their death. Bhishma, who either made the greatest sacrifice in the history of mankind or was gay, was granted this wildcard. It sounds cool, but not when you wait for The Sun to change its course lying on a bed of arrows.
However lucrative they might be, being an immortal or having ichchhamrityu come with their drawbacks. None of these gallant men had the opportunity of walk to heaven, retaining their own physical existences. I shall make it, though. The same old story - of the nice boy who finished first, you see.
I wasn't a great brother, and possibly not a great husband, either. I know this is getting repetitive, but it was my folly that had made Draupadi suffer; and it was my insatiable craving for Draupadi that made me ignore Debika; neither was I a responsible father for Prativindhya or Yaudheya.
But then, relationships don't stand the test of time. This is what no one seems to understand: you have company till a certain point of time, after which you're left absolutely alone. Look at myself now: the mother and brothers and woman who had meant so much to me are no longer there. What I am left with is the legacy - of being the greatest emperor the country has ever produced - of being the only king to have performed both the rajasuya and ashwamedh rituals successfully - of being the leader of the army that won The Greatest War - of being the embodiment of truth and righteousness in an era of crime and oppression.
I'm intrigued by this dog, though. It must be my father again, who is under the perpetual impression that disguising himself is an efficient way to keep a geriatric son amused. I'm not sure of the trick he has up his sleeve this time, but I'm sure that I shall outsmart him again.
It has been a lonely path all along: but then, that holds for anyone exceptional. And being able to walk up to heaven in human flesh is being exceptional. I am special. I always have been. It was the world that could not keep up with me. It never could. Which is why I have outgrown the world in stature, and shall achieve what no one shall ever emulate. Ever.