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Amba (with her sisters Ambika and Ambalika) is among the most fascinating characters of the Mahabharata, reborn as Shikhandi to take her revenge on the Kurus. Author Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan reimagines their story in The One Who Had Two Lives.
Once upon a time, in a rich and fertile kingdom, there lived three princesses who were as beautiful as the day.
When I was far younger, I used to love the stories about the three princesses. Sometimes they would be birds, and the handsome princes had to break the curse and turn them back into humans again. Sometimes, they would have to work together to defeat the evil witch. Sometimes, all three would be abducted by an evil asura, and noble princes would have to charge to their rescue. It was only when I was much older that I learned that these stories were usually about one princess, if there were three, the older two were mean and rude, and the youngest had to work alone and win all the rewards. Our ayah used to change the story to suit us, and as time went on, the other maids learnt from her, and so all our stories were about three princesses, and those are my earliest memories: the three of us on a bed, fresh from our baths, listening with open mouths to the stories.
Truth be told, we are nothing like those princesses. I am not kind, like the eldest princess always was. Ambika, the sister next in line to me, is not fair and just. And Ambalika, our baby, is more spoiled than either of us, certainly not clever with her words or her needle. But she is more beautiful than either of us, so when the line ‘as beautiful as the day’ would appear, she’d smile down at her hands, like she was so modest, but we all knew she was thinking about herself. My own eyes are too close-set, giving my face a crafty and sly look, even though scheming is beyond me. And Ambika’s eyes wander too far apart, giving her the open, innocent expression of a babe-in-arms, and she is far from that. In Ambalika however, it was as though fate finally decided what would look right on a child of our parents, after making two mistakes. Her hair is long and lush and ripples down past her shoulders, all the way to her slender waist, her eyes – at the perfect distance from her nose – are large like lotus petals, her mouth is always set as though she is holding a treasure within it, and about to start laughing and spit it out. Even her body, as young as it is, looks like a miniature version of a woman’s body already, dipping in and out. Next to her, I feel as large and clumsy as one of my father’s camels, knockkneed and unable to walk in a straight line.
Our sister’s beauty is part of the reason Ambika and I are not married already. We both became women two rains ago, a little late for me, a little early for her. We should have already been married and sent off to our husbands’ homes as soon as we began to ripen. Fruit spoils if you store it too long, our maids whisper, and even though we are not supposed to pay attention to them, I can’t help thinking it’s true. But our father, faced with three daughters and no son, decided that all of us would go at one time to avoid losing his kingdom in dowries, the pageantry of the swayamvara will distract our future husbands from looking too closely at what riches they haven’t received. And we would wait till Ambalika was on the cusp of womanhood, when her nurses, who have been with us since we were born and know our bodies better than we do, would report back to him. Because Ambalika is his duck that lays the golden eggs, stories of her beauty were carefully composed and sent to neighbouring kingdoms from when she was barely out of her cradle, and marriage proposals came in for her by the time she was walking. It is because of her that kings sent their heirs forward to meet us: we’ll marry the older two sisters if we can have the youngest one.
At the moment, the youngest one is having rice gruel spooned into her mouth as though she was an infant, and Ambika is ready with her eyes narrowed into slits, to have a word with me.
‘Where have you been?’
‘How is it your concern?’ I reply, and yank on her plait as I walk by for good measure. It is not something a queen apparent would do, but I doubt if any other queens have had to deal with such aggravating young sisters. Ambika opens her mouth to complain but a crafty look comes over her face and I know she’s about to say something that will spoil everything, so I quickly apologize and sit next to her so that the maid can begin to oil and comb my hair as well.
‘Mother wants us to meet in her rooms after we’re dressed,’ says Ambika, as the gruel is whisked away and another maid wipes her mouth carefully.
‘I’m going riding with Ashvat,’ I say, ‘I’ll go see to our mother later.’
‘She said we should all go,’ says Ambalika. The maids finish her braid and are hanging her emerald necklace around her throat. Her eyes dart at me and then to the mirror, where she smiles contentedly at her appearance.
‘It’s true, Highness,’ says Bhaaravi, our personal maid, as she comes up behind me. She undoes my braid and combs out my hair with an ivory comb shaped like a fish. It’s beautiful, but it snags on the knots in my hair. Why are so many beautiful things so painful? As I’m thinking that, she gestures to the other maid who comes forward with a head ornament for me: diamonds and emeralds hanging from a little chain which will hook into my hair, making it impossible for me to shake my head, with it on. I will be a little bit like one of our horses, able to look pretty, but fettered so that I can do nothing but acquiesce.
‘Did she say what she wanted?’ I ask Bhaaravi, knowing it’s a foolish question as soon as it leaves my mouth. Obviously, my mother will not trust a maid with her message, but I’d rather ask Bhaaravi, who has grown up with us, than ask Ambika, whose mouth is primming up in self-satisfaction.
Bhaaravi shakes her head slowly, while she sections my hair to be braided again. Heavy with child, because of the marriage my mother arranged for her with a loyal foot soldier, she will be riding with me to my new home, once Salva is ready to take over his father’s kingdom. I wonder how she feels about it, this uncertain future for her and her child. She might not much miss her husband, who is old and brutish, I hear, but nevertheless, this is the only home she knows. Bhaaravi is not that much older than us, but looks about ten rains our elder because of her lined face and her swollen belly.
‘I think it’s to do with the swayamvara,’ says Ambalika.
It has to be. We’re choosing our husbands as soon as the moon changes, as soon as it hangs full and proud in the sky. We’ve spoken of nothing else since the last cold season, and now it’s finally here. I look across at my sisters. Even Ambika wears a slightly crestfallen look, and Ambalika’s pretty forehead is creased with lines.
‘It probably is,’ I say, and then adopt my Older Sister tone, ‘Don’t worry. Father has only called the best princes, the finest grooms in the land.’
‘Yes, but…,’ says Ambika, and we’re all silent, knowing what she means. Father is a good king, and good kings are ruthless. He’d trade us all off for farmland if he could, and an occasion like a marriage is a good time to choose your allies. It is a mother’s role to make sure her daughters will be well taken care of in their marriages, but our mother is pale and cannot stand up to people, so it is just us, on our own. And after we are wed, it will no longer even be the three of us, the Three Princesses of Kashi, but each one sent to separate ends of the earth, and we will probably not see each other again for as long as we live.
‘Sister has Salva,’ says Ambalika, going back to preen at herself. ‘And Father will make sure I have a young and handsome husband as well.’
‘And what of me?’ asks Ambika, her voice sour. I know what she means. As the oldest, I was betrothed to our father’s ward before I even left my wet nurse. As the most beautiful, Ambalika will have a choice of kings and princes laid at her feet. As for Ambika, not particularly comely, and with a sullen demeanour, not many men will come forward for her hand. She is allowed to choose her husband before Ambalika, of course, we will go in order of our ages, but no one wants to marry someone who doesn’t want them. They will all be waiting for Ambalika’s dainty hands to pass a garland across their necks, and I imagine the princes will not be quiet if they are fobbed off with less than the biggest spoils.
‘Are we all ready?’ I ask, changing the subject. My sisters nod at me, and I rise, leading the way to our mother’s chambers.
Book One of The Girls Of The Mahabharata series, The One Who Swam with the Fishes, told the tale of Satyavati on the cusp of womanhood. In book two, The One Who Had Two Lives, the story moves forward to Kashi, where Princess Amba is growing up with her sisters, Ambika and Ambalika. A swayamvara is arranged for them, where Amba plans to wed Prince Salva, the love of her life. However, an unexpected figure walks into the ceremony and thwarts all plans of a happy ending. Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan draws out the lesser-known characters of the Mahabharata from the margins and tells their stories with compassion and grit.
This excerpt has been used with permission from publishers Harper Collins.
Top image is a still from the 2013 TV series Mahabharat
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