Story 1: The Triumph of Brihannala: Chapter 2: I, Arjuna

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The chariot thundered towards an unknown destination and Uttar’s heart hammered in tandem. He had NOT bargained for this. Not for the ocean of warriors who stood armed to the teeth nor for the unexpected transformation of the demure dance teacher into an astoundingly intimidating presence who commanded him to stay put in the chariot. For some reason unknown to himself, the prince did not dare question Brihannala. The woman who had scarcely been heard or seen all these months outside the ladies’ quarters seemed to have acquired a very different, very perplexing aura that seemed a terrible misfit for the dance hall. When she had stopped him, she had spoken very few words in her characteristic almost- whisper voice but in those words, Uttar had sensed a power, a confidence that he had never encountered before, not even with Uncle Keechak. Despite the sharp reprimand that Brihannala had issued, her very tone had calmed Uttar enough to keep him in the chariot, albeit still terrified out of his mind at the prospect of war with the Kauravas.

He stayed down cowering right until the chariot came to a standstill. When he looked up, they were at the cremation grounds far outside the city’s walls. Chilled to the bone at the gloomy, oppressive environment created by the numerous trees surrounding them, Uttar meekly stepped down when he saw Brihannala come around and beckon to him silently. An involuntary shudder ran through his body as he saw that she had stopped right beside the enormous Sami tree that was rumoured to be haunted. He stepped back from it, hoping that Brihannala was planning to take him elsewhere. Anywhere that was far away from this tree was good enough for him for now.

And then he heard Brihannala’s soft voice “Climb the tree, prince…”

Uttar turned around, his eyes wide with horror, the colour draining out of his face instantly.

“WHAT????!!! NOOOO! Brihannala, you have to be mad! This tree is haunted. Don’t you know?” he cried, wishing he HAD jumped out of the chariot again and made his escape.

A smile quirked Brihannala’s lips for a second before she schooled her features into a serious expression again and gently cajoled the terror stricken prince. “There is no ghost, no spirit there. Go on, climb the tree, prince. Don’t you want to defeat the Kauravas and impress the ladies at court?? Didn’t you make promises to your sister about getting brand new silken garments for her dolls?”

“NO, I don’t care about any ladies and I’ll get father to get new silk for Uttara. I am NOT going out there and battling the Kauravas. Did you SEE that army?? No, no, that’s not an army, that’s an ocean. I can’t fight them. I WON’T! I don’t care what anyone says,” Uttar cried.

Brihannala sighed in resignation. “Well, I do care, prince. I do care what people think of the prince of the kingdom that gave me shelter….,” she said, in a voice very unlike her own.

And then ‘she’ straightened up, her shoulders back, her posture going from deferential dance teacher to battle hardened warrior in a split second even as Uttar gaped. “And that’s why, we will go back to that battlefield, you and I, and we will fight and defeat the Kauravas. Only, this time, it will be you holding the reins and me giving them battle…. The battle of their lives…” The last words were whispered with a cold determination.

Uttar was so stunned with the complete transformation in the dance teacher’s persona that the deep masculine tones coming from ‘her’ did not even register for the first few seconds. When it did, he took a few steps backwards right until his back hit the dreaded sami tree.

“Who…. Who are you?” he asked querulously.

“Not important, prince,” came the brusque answer in a voice that was most un-Brihannala-like. “Your bow cannot withstand the might of my arms, your bow strings cannot take the strength with which I shall draw the arrow back. Climb that tree and get down that bundle you see right on top. It contains the weapons of the Pandava princes. Bring it down and I will do battle with you as my charioteer.”

The tone brooked no argument and Uttar did as he was instructed, bringing down a heavy bundle and laying it down at the foot of the gnarled tree, huffing and panting. The teen in him could not resist the curiosity and he pulled away the cloth only to see five of the most magnificent bows he had ever seen in his entire life. The weapons seemed to gleam and twinkle even in the dim sunlight filtering in through the heavy foliage. The prince’s gaze brushed over them all and then fixed upon the grandest of them all- a great silver bow that seemed to have a glow of its own.

Uttar’s fingers reflexively went to touch the great bow and when they made contact, his eyes widened in shock. The bow seemed to vibrate from within, some inexplicable power lying latent in the weapon, waiting to be unlocked by its master. He pulled back instantly and scuttled back. These were no ordinary weapons. Was Brihannala right?? Were these really the weapons of the Pandavas? But how did Brihannala know? No, wait, WHO was Brihannala???

Uttar was now sure that Matsya’s newest dance teacher was not quite what she seemed. A vague idea forming in his head, he stepped forward, squinting at Brihannala, now seeing what he had not noticed all these months- the lean, graceful fingers scarred heavily with the marks of the bow string, the muscled forearms, the lean, lithe figure and most of all the implacable calm of someone who has seen adversity all through life and dealt with it with consummate ease.

This time his voice held no quaver but a wonder. “Who are you?” he asked, his hands folded in respect.
Arjuna smiled. It was time. The 13th year had been completed. There was no need for the disguise any longer.

“I am the third son of Pandu. I am known as Kunti putr Arjuna. These are the bows of my brothers. And this…,” he paused, going down on one knee and reaching for the silver bow that shimmered and shone, “this is the Gandiva.” He touched the bow reverently and then folded his hands in prayer.

Silence reigned for a few moments and then Arjuna straightened and slid the conch bangles off his wrists. They had adorned Brihannala’s forearms right up to the elbows and kept the innumerable scars from the bow string hidden from sight. The dozens of bangles fell to the ground tinkling and rolled away, marking the beginning of Brihannala’s transition into Savyasachi. Leathern gloves, embroidered with gold, took their place, covering Arjuna’s wrists and hands. ‘Brihannala’s’ thick, curly tresses, dishevelled from their wild chase, were impatiently gathered back and tamed within a white cloth.

And then Arjuna reached for his bow. The moment his fingers folded over the mighty Gandiva and lifted it, a bright light seemed to suffuse both warrior and weapon for a second before it faded away. The warrior hefted the bow, a full 6 cubits long and rose to his feet in one fluid motion. Powerful muscles flexed, the bow bent and strung as Uttar watched on unblinking at the ease with which the enormous weapon melded as one into the grasp of the warrior standing tall in front of him.

For the first time since he had seen the massive numbers of the Kaurava army standing armed to teeth, the tremble in the Matsya prince’s limbs came to a stop. An absolute calm suffused his being, faith in the warrior who stood before him overwhelming the fear in its entirety.

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