Draupadi Asks

01 June, 2014

ABOUT THE POEMS In addressing the material of our myths and epics, Indian poetry in English has generated especially striking and imaginative recastings of these legends, often reading them against the grain, colloquialising them, or subverting their grave formality. One of the more ambiguous and poignant legends attached to Draupadi, joint wife of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata, is her relationship with her favourite sakha, or male friend, Krishna. In this poem, Nishtha Gautam supplies Draupadi with an anguished dramatic monologue that makes her marriage to her five husbands seem not so much a matter of honour and pride as of sacrifice and deception. When Draupadi asks why there should be different rules for male and female sexuality, we hear a keynote of the present dropped into the past like a stone into a pond, making the story ripple with a new rage and poignancy.

Draupadi Asks

Sakha, why did you come to my swayamvar,

When you had no intention of marrying me?

Our eyes met surrounded by the lusty gaze of princes.

(Was I the prize their manhood waited for deservingly?)

Blue-skinned with honey eyes; you were not to be missed,

Balarama was by your side, but you talked to me

With your nonchalant gestures and movement of lips,

The memory of which is both fresh and distant,

Just like a forbidden dream: cherished but not for recall.

The eye of a fish had a fate captured inside:

To be disgorged, displayed and dictated upon a woman

Who was supposed to make her choice.

Oh, that star-crossed bride!

If I really had a choice at the swayamvar,

I would have chosen you,

But you were immune to my charms.

My eyes should have decided my husband,

not the ones of that fish.

But you were immune to my charms.

Your eyes spoke to mine when Karna lifted the bow.

I jilted him, insulted him, crushed his manhood so,

(He must have sworn there to quash the confidence

That this doe-eyed princess drew from a pair of lotus eyes.)

I then wove more dreams in a blue colour

Only to be jolted out of them by a growing murmur

A Brahmin now came forward to test his prowess,

Better than the rest, I conveyed to you, with a hint of coyness

And you assumed I was smitten by the fair-skinned.

But when he hit the fish’s eye, tell me, were you chagrined?

Arjun was second only to you, Sakha, in form and in speech

But did I deserve a mere consolation? Tell me, I beseech!

You pronounced that I had been won rightfully

To stop the princes who began to resemble a mob.

Arjun was comely, and I was consoled, for you had chosen him.

He was your kin, thought I, and the pain suddenly grew dim.

With you in my heart, Sakha, I allowed Arjun to claim me,

And what did your Arjun do?

He surrendered me to the whims of an aging mother

And unmistakable lust of his elder brother.

Hold my hand, Sakha! Are my five fingers the same?

No, and how can they be?

They are but a reminder of my husbands,

Who turned into a robust fist, united by me.

Five pairs of arms have been known to this body,

But the memory of those blue-skinned ones is still not foggy.

On some days I wondered,

Would it have been better to be one of the thousands?

A princess would then have steered clear of the woodlands.

But tell me, Sakha, how do you distinguish them in dreams?

In mine, even five become faceless, formless, bereft of seams.

Also, what if you cried a wrong name in the throes of passion?

Did the consort forgive, or decide to chasten?

But most importantly, Sakha, tell me why I invite blame and violence,

While you enjoy devotion, love, awe and obeisance?

I’m ridiculed for my five husbands who were thrust upon me

And your thousands of women become a matter of glory?

You are worshipped despite stealing women and inaugurating battles

And I save my husbands’ honour yet am blamed for their troubles.

I stay hungry to feed the clan, and you eat to do the same

What’s more ironical than this: we both share a name.