‘Brother! The twelve years of exile are almost getting over!’ Yudhishtara called his brother Arjuna as all the five Pandavas with Draupadi were inside the hut, in the forest. ‘We need to find a place to stay hidden for the next one year.’ (The rules for the dice game played for the second time were that the Pandavas had to spend 12 years in exile and the next one year in disguise. If the Kauravas found the location of the Pandavas during the 13th year, when they were in disguise, the Pandavas would have to again go for 12 years exile and spend the 13th year incognito and so on…)
Yudhishtara studied the third Pandava with quiet pride. There had always been a passion in Arjuna’s eyes which could never be masked. However after Arjuna’s visit to his father’s domain in the heavens (Arjuna’s biological father was Indra, the Lord of the Devas) Arjuna had become more mature, more restrained. Yudhishtara heard the stories of how Arjuna had fought with the three-eyed Lord Shiva with utmost wonder. Yudhishtara was stupefied when Arjuna narrated how he had vanquished the Nivatakavachas.
But probably the most amazingly impossible fact was when Yudhishtara heard Arjuna sing for them. Arjuna the peerless warrior, whose arrows had never failed him, sang with the passion which almost brought tears to Yudhishtara’s eyes. Yudhishtara realized that this brother of his was special. Whatever Arjuna did, he did it with passion and achieved excellence in it.
‘Where did you learn this?’ Draupadi asked looking amazed, after Arjuna finished singing.
‘The gandharvas and the apsaras in the heavens! They taught me how to sing and dance!’ Arjuna said looking a little embarrassed.
Draupadi misread his embarrassment. ‘Were the apsaras really beautiful?’ She asked with a hint of jealousy in her voice.
Arjuna laughed miserably shaking his head. ‘I have not yet told you the entire story!’ He said heavily.
‘What is it?’ Draupadi asked sharply.
‘In the heavens, I watched Urvashi dance in my father’s court!’ Arjuna said as Draupadi’s face grew darker. ‘I remembered thinking that this was the woman who had married Puru, our ancestor! Urvashi was like our mother!’ Arjuna said as Draupadi watched her husband perplexed.
‘However Urvashi thought that I was a very handsome man!’ Arjuna said colouring up right to his roots.
‘What happened then?’ Nakula asked his brother.
‘When I told Urvashi, I thought of her like our mother….she…she…’ Arjuna looked down faltering.
‘What happened?’ Yudhishtara demanded.
'She cursed me to be a shandha!' Arjuna finished lamely. (A Shandha is a person who is neither a male nor a female)
Draupadi watched her husband completely numb, her thoughts spiraling completely out of control. She tried talking and failed as her mouth just refused to listen to her mind.
‘WHAT?’ Bheema thundered.
Arjuna nodded. ‘My father interfered!' Arjuna said looking down. 'He said that the curse was for the best! He modified the curse and let it be in force only for a year and that it would be in force for the one year that we were in disguise!' Arjuna said looking at his brothers and his wife. 'My father Indra said otherwise, the marks on my hand as an archer would have been impossible to hide! And that people would know immediately that I was Arjuna!’
None of them could think of anything to say to it. It was not a situation which required any reply. Yudhishtara cleared his throat. ‘So what do we do now?’ He asked finally.
Arjuna nodded his head. ‘We send the sages accompanying us to Dwaravati! As a diversion!’ Arjuna started. ‘That way Suyodhana (Duryodhana) would believe that we have gone there! It would take a few months for his spies to know that we are not in Dwaravathi!’
Yudhishtara smiled as he nodded. ‘And in the meantime, the six of us go to King Virata’s kingdom!’
‘Why are we going to the Matsya kingdom?’ Bheema asked. (King Virata ruled the Matsya kingdom.)
‘He is just and firm! He is not too young to give way to his whims, nor too old!’ Yudhishtara said as the others nodded. ‘I am going under the name of Kanka! I have now mastered the art of dice!’ Yudhishtara said looking a little shamefaced. ‘I will be with the king to entertain him during his free time!’
Bheema nodded. ‘Fine! I will join the royal kitchens of Virata, as a cook! I will go by the name of Vallabha!’ Arjuna was about to shake his head when Bheema continued. ‘I will tell the king that I am a part time wrestler! Otherwise he would not believe that I am only a cook!’ Arjuna nodded satisfied.
‘I will go as Brihannila, a teacher of dance and music to the royal ladies, including Princess Uttara (King Virata's daughter)!’ Arjuna said.
Nakula and Sahadeva smiled.
‘I will go as Granthika, to look after the royal horses and Sahadeva would go as Arishtanemi, the tenderer of cows!’ Nakula said smiling. ‘We are both exceedingly good with animals!’ The other brothers nodded. All of them knew too well the truth of the words.
They all turned to Draupadi who sighed before she spoke. ‘I will go as a Sairandhri to Queen Sudeshna! (A Sairandhri is a woman who works in the employment of another) I will tell them that I worked as a Sairandhri to Satyabhama, Krishna’s favourite wife and then worked under Draupadi!’ Draupadi smiled mirthlessly. ‘I will call myself as Malini!’
It was agreed that all of them would meet the king at various times and tell them that they had worked for Yudhishtara until now and that because they could not find him now, they were coming in employment to the Matsya King.
And so it was done. The five brothers came in the court of King Virata.
Draupadi entered the Virata kingdom, but looking at how ravishing the dark beauty was, the ordinary people did not want anything to do with her. People surrounded her just looking stunned at how much beautiful she was. Queen Sudeshna who was passing by the market saw the crowd and went up to investigate.
‘Why are you…..?’ Queen Sudeshna saw the dark beauty and found that no words came readily to her. She finally cleared her throat asking sharply. ‘Who are you? What do you want?’
‘I am a Sairandhri! I am looking for work!’ Draupadi repeated the words that she had rehearsed well.
‘You are a Sairandhri?’ Queen Sudeshna asked incredulously. ‘You look like someone who has people waiting on her….Not like someone who works for another!’
Draupadi said nothing as she looked at the queen. Queen Sudeshana herself was apprehensive that if King Virata saw the beautiful dark woman, he would leave her and marry the woman. So to keep her hidden, she brought Malini to her own apartments and kept her there.
‘Who are you?’ Queen Sudeshna asked, once they were in the familiar confines of the palace.
‘I am Malini…’ Draupadi started when the queen interrupted. ‘I know that! I want to know more about you!’
Draupadi licked her lips as she continued. ‘I am a married woman! I have five gandharvas as my husbands! They would always protect me! They wanted me to work in a good household where I would be well looked after…So here I am…’
Queen Sudeshna realized that the woman before her was speaking the truth, but not the entire truth. But she could get no other answers from the Sairandhri.
‘You will be well looked after here!’ the queen said finally.
The Pandavas along with Draupadi lived there for almost three months, when in a fair, Vallabha displayed his fighting prowess and killed another powerful wrestler – Jimuta.
King Virata was pleased with his cook and made the cook a part time wrestler of his kingdom.
The year was almost going to get over when a problem arose in the form of Keechaka, the brother of Queen Sudeshna. Though Virata was the ruler of the Matsya kingdom, in reality, it was the brute force of Keechaka which helped King Virata, keep the kingdom under his control. Keechaka also knew of this fact and he was more or less a law onto himself. The people of Matsya disliked Keechaka, but were too afraid of Keechaka’s strength to openly go against him.
As Keechaka was once visiting his sister, there he laid eyes on the dark Malini. The minute he saw Malini, all hell broke loose.
He arrogantly rode up to her. ‘I am Keechaka! I am the real power behind the throne of Matsya! It is a great fortune for you that you are so beautiful! I like you very much and I desire to marry you! I know that you work for my sister! I will speak with her! Give up everything and just marry me!’ He told her.
Malini looked angrily at the strong warrior. ‘I am a married woman and I have five gandharvas as my husbands! Mind you they are not ordinary mortals! If they know that you have even come to me with such a proposal, they will kill you!’ She said with utter conviction.
Keechaka was already drunk with his own power. The words of the Sairandhri changed nothing in him.
‘I will deal with them! Just….’ He pulled Malini as she pushed him hard and ran away from there.
Getting up and dusting himself, Keechaka could not believe that anyone had the courage to defy him. He genuinely thought that Malini was refusing him out of fear of his sister. He went to the queen.
‘Sudeshna! Who is Malini?’ He asked the minute he entered her chambers.
‘She is my Sairandhri! Why?’ Sudeshna asked as she turned to look at her brother. One look at her brother, she did not need to know why he wanted to know about her.
‘She is married!’ Sudeshna said sighing. ‘She is married to five gandharvas!’
‘So?’ Keechaka asked with an almost dreamy look in his eyes.
‘Keechaka please!’ Sudeshna said pleading with her brother trying to make him see sense.
‘I cannot! Ever since I have seen her, she is all I can see everywhere! Please….’ Keechaka said haughtily.
Sudeshna realized that her brother was beyond talk and shook her head, sighing. ‘Fine! I will make up some excuse for sending her to your apartment!’ said the foolish queen, without thinking of the effect of her sentence. ‘Talk to her kindly and try to win her heart!’ Sudeshna said.
Keechaka laughed but said nothing, as he walked away from there.
As Sudeshna went inside her apartment, she summoned Malini. 'I am very thirsty! Please go to Keechaka’s apartment and get me a drink!'
‘Please queen! Do not do this! Keechaka…’ Malini started when Sudeshna interrupted her rudely. ‘I am thirsty! Go now!’ she said handing over a golden pot to her Sairandhri.
Malini went to Keechaka’s apartment and there she found the warrior waiting for her, with a gloating expression on his face.
It was that minute that Malini realized that the whole thing was a ploy and ran to the king. As she ran to the court, Keechaka followed her and there in Virata’s court, Malini was pushed and kicked by Keechaka. Malini asked for the king to help her but the king was too afraid of Keechaka himself.
Kanka who was in the court looked at Sairandhri angrily. ‘Go back to your apartment! Your gandharva husbands do not think that this is the right time to show their anger! Your act here is disturbing the game of dice being played here! Leave!’ He told her.
Malini’s eyes blazed with anger as she left the king's court. From there, she did not go to her apartment. She went to the kitchens.
Making sure she was alone with Vallabha, she embraced him tightly telling him the whole story. Not just about Keechaka but Malini spoke of her general misery at everything starting from Yudhishtara’s gambling to watching her husbands who were kings working in menial jobs.
Vallabha got ferociously angry. He told Malini to accept Keechaka’s proposal and told Malini to ask Keechaka to come to the dancing hall at midnight. Malini did not ask why, she did not need to.
At night Vallabha went to the dancing hall and waited for Keechaka to come.
Excited to hear from the Sairandhri, Keechaka entered the dancing hall at midnight.
Keechaka was enraged to find the cook in the dancing hall. And the cook was looking angry enough to raze an army.... If Keechaka had really thought at that time, he could have run from there and probably saved himself.
But then, the foolish Keechaka was extraordinarily arrogant and genuinely believed that he could best Vallabha in a fight.
Keechaka really did not have chance that night, because besides being stronger than Keechaka, Vallabha was exceptionally angry and frustrated as a result of hearing Malini's ranting....
Some time later, Vallabha left the hall and slipped back to the kitchens.
Malini watched Vallabha go back to the kitchens and then went to the hall and shouted shrilly summoning all the guards. ‘I WARNED KEECHAKA! I warned him not to come near me! See what my gandharva husband has done!’ she said pointing at the hall.
All the guards watched numbly as the great warrior Keechaka lay dead in the dancing hall....
Keechaka, the warrior had plenty of relatives who were called Keechakas. They were very angry with Malini, who had been the reason for the death of one of their own. They caught Malini and tied her and took her to the funeral pyre of Keechaka and tried to burn her along with Keechaka.
The Keechakas should have known better than to hurt Malini. Vallabha again came to graveyard and was so infuriated with the whole lot that it was said that he plucked a huge tree and threw it at them. It was said that 105 of the Keechakas died in this attack of Vallabha....Malini escaped unscathed and Vallabha went back to the palace, without anyone's knowledge....
The kingdom of Matsya was reeling under the devastating attacks, twice in two days....
King Virata was scared stiff and called his queen. ‘I do not know who Malini is! I do not wish to know either! Please just tell her to leave Matsya and never come back! Ever!’
Sudeshna was already heartbroken at the death of her brother. She realized that it was her own foolishness which had resulted in the death of Keechaka. But she also realized the wisdom of the king’s words and hastily went to the Malini. 'The king requests you to please leave the kingdom!'
Malini studied the scared face of the queen and said quietly. 'Tell the king that I would be here for 13 more days and then I would be gone!'
Unfortunately for the Pandavas, the news of the death of the Keechaka and his relatives came to the knowledge of Suyodhana. Keechaka was an outstanding wrestler and it was uncommon for people to even stand up against him. To kill such a warrior, would take someone of exceptional strength....Besides there was also the death of the wrestler - Jimuta, a few months back...
Suyodhana was more than sure that the Pandavas were in the Matsya kingdom. But then he needed proof and fast, because the thirteenth year was going to get over in a few days....
Suyodhana decided on a very good strategy to flush out the Pandavas.
He divided his army into two. The first army was led by Susharma of the Trigarthas. Susharma attacked the Matsya kingdom and led the cattle of the Matsya kingdom away. King Virata, without thinking, led his entire army, against Susharma and the Trigarthas, leaving only his son Bhuminjaya behind. (Bhuminjaya was also known as Uttar)
On the next day, after the attack of Susharma, Suyodhana himself led the second part of the army, attacking the other side of Matsya kingdom.
So against Suyodhana and the other Kurus, as the only fighting royal in the palace, Prince Uttar had to go and fight. Prince Uttar smiled a little boastfully.'If only I had a good charioteer I would personally crush all the Kurus!'
Brihannila sighed as he heard the boast of the prince. He drew Malini aside, speaking something to her.
Malini went to Prince Uttar. 'Fear not, Prince Uttar! You see, Brihannila has been a charioteer to the great Arjuna himself! Why don't you take him along as your charioteer?'
Prince Uttar put on his shining armour proudly and watched amused as Brihannila struggled with the armour. 'Here! Let me help you!' He said ignoring the giggling royal ladies behind him.
'Brihannila!' Princess Uttara called as Brihannila had properly worn the armour and was ready to drive. 'Bring back some gifts and clothes after defeating the Kurus! I will adorn my dolls with it!'
Brihannila looked at Prince Uttar. 'If he defeats the Kurus, I will bring them back, my princess!'
And so, Uttar and his charioteer went to battlefield.
However once Uttar saw the size of the Hastinapur army, Uttar realized how silly he must have sounded boasting before the ladies. Prince Uttar ran away from the battlefield, without fighting.
The Kurus of Hastinapur were more than amused to see the prince of Matsya run away from the battlefield as he was being called back by his charioteer.
Under the guidance of the charioteer, Prince Uttar drove to the outskirts of kingdom and there found a bundle tied to a Sami Tree.
'Why have you brought me here, Brihannila? What is in the bundle?' Prince Uttar asked,looking up at the tree.
'Get it down, Prince Uttar!' Brihannila insisted.
'It looks like a corpse!' Prince Uttar said disgusted. 'I am not touching it!'
'Just get it down!' The charioteer said again firmly and Prince Uttar found it impossible to resist the charioteer's orders.
Prince Uttar climbed up the tree and brought down the bundle and was shocked to see shining, celestial weapons inside the bundle....the likes of which he had never even heard about, let alone see....
'Who are you?' He asked the charioteer in amazement. Prince Uttar could see some changes in the charioteer as he spoke.
'I am Arjuna!' The charioteer said as he felt the curse of Urvashi leaving his body.
Prince Uttar watched in amazement as his hero appeared him. 'Wh....Who....' Prince Uttar was almost stuttering in disbelief.
Arjuna smiled. 'All your questions would be answered! I believe we have an army to fight!' Prince Uttar looked ashamed as Arjuna smiled. 'Would you be my charioteer, Prince Uttar?' Arjuna said as he twanged the Gandiva. A thunderous roar emerged from the bow....
The Kurus who were leading the cattle far away were shocked on hearing the sound of the Gandiva.
However Suyodhana almost jumped in joy. 'That is Arjuna!' Suyodhana said smugly. 'He has shown himself before the 13 years are up! The Pandavas have to go on an exile again!'
Bhishma looked annoyed at the young prince, as he saw the setting sun. 'The thirteenth year is over, Prince Suyodhana! Partha knows that! That was the reason he decided to show himself!'
Suyodhana huffed and was about to throw a tantrum when Bhishma heard the hooves of the coming horses. 'I believe we have a more immediate problem than that! Partha is here!'
The Kurus turned and saw Prince Uttar driving the blazing Pandava.
Arjuna looked at the entire Kuru army studying them all, missing nothing. In a deft movement, the Gandiva was in his hands.
Arjuna was more than angry when he saw Karna ready to fight him. And this time, Karna had picked the wrong fight. Arjuna more or less decimated Karna, in the duel. Thoroughly wounded, Karna fled the battlefield. Watching him run, the Kurus soldiers ran away from the attacking Pandava.
Bhishma was ready with the bow in his hands. A fierce battle took place between the two warriors. However, Arjuna besides being younger was more motivated than the older Bhishma. Bhishma really did not have a chance. Arjuna defeated him in the battle.
The Kuru army was routed. Right from Ashwattaman and Duryodhana to Kripacharya, Arjuna toyed with all of them. Nobody...not one person could even stand before the Pandava and his charioteer.
Conceding defeat, the Kuru army ran away from there. True to his principles, Arjuna never went after an enemy who was retreating. He brought back all the cows driven away by the Kurus.
However as he watched the retreating Kurus, Arjuna remembered a small promise as he drew out his arrow again.
Suyodhana looked back shocked as he heard an arrow whizzing towards him. He was so shell shocked that he could hardly move. But then the arrow was not meant for his head, it was for his crown. The arrow shattered his crown in pieces as the pieces fell on the ground. Arjuna fired another arrow as the dress worn by the warriors was torn to pieces and deposited itself near the shattered crown.
'Take those trinkets and clothes, Prince Uttar!' Arjuna said smiling. 'Princess Uttara asked for them!'
Suyodhana angrily huffed back to Hastinapur with his army.
King Virata was thrilled at defeating Susharma and the Trigarthas. (In reality, Virata had been captured by Susharma. Vallabha fought with Susharma and defeated him, thereby helping King Virata win the war)
However King Virata's surprises for the day, were not over. He was amazed when he learnt that his son had single-handed driven away the entire Kuru army lead by Suyodhana and was bringing the cattle back to the kingdom.
'Prince Uttar defeated the Kurus of Hastinapur?' King Virata asked his guard almost disbelievingly.
'Yes your majesty!' The guard replied. 'The prince will be returning shortly!'
'This calls for a double celebration!' King Virata shouted happily. 'Did you see that Kanka? My son...My son...drove away the Kurus!'
Kanka shook his head with a wry smile. 'With Brihannila as his charioteer, his victory was certain!'
Hearing the words of Kanka, King Virata became almost red with anger. Furiously King Virata threw his dice at Kanka which hurt Kanka's nose. Kanka's nose was bleeding. Malini who was nearby hastily picked up a golden vessel and placed it under Kanka's nose to make sure the blood did not fall on the ground. (It was believed that a blood of a good man spilled in a kingdom would render the kingdom barren. It was to prevent this misfortune, Draupadi and Yudhishtara acted this way)
'HOW DARE YOU COMPARE MY SON WITH A SHANDHA?' He demanded angrily.
Prince Uttar came inside at that precise time and was shocked to find Kanka bleeding. 'Who did that?' He asked sharply.
'I did!' Virata said carelessly. 'I was telling him of how you fought the Kurus and he compared you with Brihannila...'
Prince Uttar turned to Kanka. 'I apologize sir!' He said with genuine regret in his eyes. Virata saw an invisible dialogue between Kanka and his son and had no idea what it was about.
'Why are you apologizing.....?' King Virata asked his son, in a halting fashion.
'FATHER!' Uttar shouted angrily. 'You acted in anger! Apologize to the man at once!'
King Virata looked at his son's expression and for once in his life, did not argue at all. He turned to Kanka apologizing.
Prince Uttar took a deep breath when he saw Kanka looking appeased. He then turned to his father. 'Father! It was not me!' He said quietly. King Virata fell quiet as Prince Uttar continued. 'It was not me who drove away the Kurus!'
'Who was it?' King Virata asked confused, eyeing Kanka, wondering about his son's new found humility and also wondered what all this had to do with Kanka....
'A son of a Deva helped me!' Prince Uttar said as Arjuna had asked Uttar not to reveal who he, his brothers and wife, really were.
'I wish to see this warrior!' King Virata said.
Prince Uttar smiled. 'He vanished after the battle! But he would be back...in two of three days, sir!'
Brihannila gave the clothes and the jewels of the Kurus to Princess Uttara.
'Did my brother really drive away the Kurus?' Uttara asked Brihannila, with wide-eyed innocence.
Brihannila smiled saying nothing....
Princess Uttara frowned as she studied Brihannila. There was suddenly something different about her dance teacher. But Uttara was not able to see clearly because Brihannila kept her face hidden from view.
Two days later, King Virata was shocked to see Kanka, his cook, the dancer and the tenders of cows and horses and the dreaded Sairandhri dressed in royal clothes and sitting on thrones meant of royalty. For a minute King Virata wondered why the people looked so much like they belonged in the thrones....Then he became very angry. 'HOW DARE YOU....'
'Father! Meet the Pandavas and their wife Princess Draupadi!' Prince Uttar said hastily before his father could speak any further. King Virata looked at his son and the six people repeatedly...and slowly the pieces of the puzzle came together.
'I...I...' King Virata said as words failed him.
'Thank you for offering protection to me and my brothers and our wife in your kingdom!' Yudhishtara said formally.
However King Virata was too shocked. He could not believe what he had done...He turned to Arjuna. 'I cannot believe I have been so thoughtless...' King Virata was worried, because he did not want to be stop being allies of the Pandavas...
Arjuna was about to say something when King Virata held his hands. 'Please...I would feel better...if...' King Virata swallowed as he continued. 'If Princess Uttara agrees to it, will you marry her?'
Arjuna looked shocked..more shocked than King Virata himself. 'NO!' Arjuna said sharply shaking his head. 'I am her guru! I am her teacher! She is like my daughter! I cannot...'
King Virata shook his head sadly, looking crestfallen. Arjuna however smiled. 'Please ask Princess Uttara, whether she would be willing to marry my son Abhimanyu!'