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Madri had said nothing. Was that when she had ceased to speak? And afterwards all her silences had been misinterpreted as consent?
Trigger warning: This post has graphic details of violence against women and may be triggering to survivors.
The far away mountains were a bleary –grey. Later on, perhaps towards mid-morning, the sun would melt the spectral mists, clinging to the mountains, causing them to let go of the peaks with the smooth ease of water that slipped down her long slender arms and legs as she stepped out of the ivory and marble bath tub. Its waters were tepid with the lifeless rose petals that have failed, unlike the mists (despite the careful instruction that she must let their perfume seep into her skin) to cling on to her tall form. Madri knew that there would not be another of these languid baths to wallow in. As there would not be other things: tomorrows, mists, mountains or the future not so indeterminate.
The elderly Kurus awaited her outside the chamber as perhaps the other widow probably already wrapped in white like the man she, Madri, was to die for. There had been a curse. No there would be a curse; she had foreseen it the very morning her brother Shalya, resolute like the old rocks in the faraway hills bordering their father’s kingdom, had convinced her to accede to his disastrous suggestion.
She could not understand why, of all people, the day brought to mind her brother. She ought to be thinking about her sons, the hapless twins. No. She ought to be mourning, like the keeners wailing in the courtyard, for her husband laid out on the ceremonial pyre- whiter, colder and more impassive than ever in the stillness of death. Yet the morning summoned up thoughts of her kind, but nonetheless, obstinate brother, who would not heed her counsel.
Behind her the chamber was an array of tapestries, creepers and water fountains. But neither palaces nor kingdoms- Madra or Hastinapura- even if she, as the army general of the former had caused it to expand, were her spaces. The stars and the planets, glimmering diamond- whites spattered against a blue –black expanse unveiling the future like a glass dome through which she would see beyond and further than any mortal eyes, were her true home.
She could not remember when the planets and the stars commenced their communication with her; she wished they had never. She smirked. It was not merely the planets or the stars; that meteoric mind of hers could not be absolved. Too fast for its own good! It was not for want of trying, certainly. After all she had tamed, restrained and disciplined the wildest and swiftest of steeds. And in more than a metaphorical sense, she had curbed her mind away from the skies and the celestial bodies several times. Well, only just. Because when the stars shone down there’s no staying her moth-mind from them , or reining in its astounding speed as it raced, connected, calculated and read the movement of the planets, the position of the stars and what they signified: Jupiter in the second house, Mars in the sixth, or a new moon tomorrow; hence war or peace, victory or defeat, rains this year, drought the following, life or death, and now her sacrifice because she had erred. But Shalya had never believed her astrological prowess.
“A woman cannot have such powers,” he had guffawed and coming, as it had from her, he had called it harebrained and balmy.
Yet when her son would exhibit the same proficiency, inherited from her, they would hail him as the one- fathered as he had been by the celestial twins- with the incredible power to read the stars, and hence the truthful one who would not lie about the auspiciousness of things even to their mortal enemy. However Shalya, and not Sahadeva, was Madri’s immediate preoccupation. Her brother, more than anyone else should have listened.
It was not like there had been no choices. The stars and the planets, as she had read them, had offered her an alternative, provided she could stay away from the disastrous marriage her brother was planning. There were two ways, the planets and the stars had pointed out: marriage to the ruler from Hastinapura and hence ruin or the rejection of the truce via marriage and hence conquest. Madra could thence be the largest empire. She knew every strategy used in armed conflict. They were, no doubt, outnumbered by the Kurus. But surely her brother could trust her martial acumen and horsemanship skills. As his general she could certainly promise victory. It was, she had emphasised, written in the stars.
That is when her brother had guffawed again. Did she comprehend the magnitude of what she was proposing? The very idea was preposterous. Did she even know the strength and power of the Kurus? What was she thinking, suggesting, as she did, that they attack the Kurus? If he had known her any less he would have thought she was a raving lunatic. Well he did speak to her as though she was one. Madri had said nothing. Was that when she had ceased to speak? And afterwards all her silences had been misinterpreted as consent?
Madri looked nonchalantly at the apparels laid out for her: the crimson mantle of the bride, the subtle diamonds and rubies, the yellow and red flowers, and the brittle vermillion – all the things she in the other chamber would never adorn. Madri smirked. After all she had foreseen the consequences of the ill-fated marriage her brother had rushed her into: the hunt, the supposed curse, the fading desire and then death.
When her husband had collapsed at her feet, his lifelessness seemed to have stirred the elements into electrifying life. The skies turned slate grey and lightning and thunder heralded the end of the era of the ‘great Pandu’. Yet, after the scheduled three days of state mourning, the morning when his wife was to burn in his pyre along with him, the air was cool and gentle as if it was another pleasant morning. The peepuls murmured. The Ganges rushed on heedless of what was to commence on her banks. The breeze bullied the reeds forcing them to swish and sway to its vagaries, forwards and backwards, this way and that. Everything was as it had been yesterday and the day before. The cuckoo bird continued its ‘coo-coo-once-is-not-enough-here’s-another’, coo-coo call, pleased with its own poetics, its rhythm unfaltering. So much had transpired, yet nothing had changed.
Nothing would change. Another woman would again be dishonoured in a court room and a similar apathy would receive her pleas for help. A war would ensue. More loss. More widows. And women would suffer the consequences of a war they had nothing to do with in the first place. So much would transpire and the silence would not change.
She smelt the sandalwood before she saw the heaped pile that would soon smolder her with its deathly fragrance. Her sons were clinging to each other. Either their wet dhotis or the fear was causing them to shiver. The elderly Kuru women had led her to the entrance of the crematoria grounds then departed; it was unlucky for women to enter the crematoria. Yet here she was while the other widow was in the royal chambers surrounded by teeming relatives consoling her.
Her three step sons, the eldest the future king of the Kurus, watched her ascend the steps leading to the pyre. Did they know she too would have been a queen if only her brother had listened to her? Once she had set her eyes on the Kshatriya king her brother was planning to marry her off to, she knew what it would lead to. Pale and sickly, she knew her husband’s days were numbered from the very outset.
Had there been a hunting expedition? Was he really cursed? She would never know, would she? It must have been her touch, then.
The air was heavy with smoke and hatred.
As she felt her skin peel off under the fire melting her sinews, she suddenly comprehended his need to use Kunti’s special boon. How else would his impotent self beget heirs? Her touch could not have killed him because he could have never felt that desire that would set the curse in action.
A skull exploded. The head priest of the Kurus explained that it must be the king’s. Was there another skull waiting to explode? Certainly not.
This story was shortlisted for our September 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest. Our juror for the month Manjul Bajaj says “The setting, characterization, plot all have strength. Some of the descriptions are well done but the writing needs to be clearer, more lucid. Too many sentences are getting entangled in their own length. The reader is taken away from the story, trying to untangle the sentences for the intended meaning.”
Image source: Patticake1601 from Pixabay Free for Canva
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Shows like Indian Matchmaking only further the argument that women must adhere to social norms without being allowed to follow their hearts.
When Netflix announced that Indian Matchmaking (2020-present) would be renewed for a second season, many of us hoped for the makers of the show to take all the criticism they faced seriously. That is definitely not the case because the show still continues to celebrate regressive patriarchal values.
Here are a few of the gendered notions that the show propagates.
A mediocre man can give himself a 9.5/10 and call himself ‘the world’s most eligible bachelor’, but an independent and successful woman must be happy with receiving just 60-70% of what she feels she deserves.
Darlings makes some excellent points about domestic violence . For such a movie to not follow through with a resolution that won't be problematic, is disappointing.
I watched Darlings last weekend, staying on top of its release on Netflix. It was a long-awaited respite from the recent flicks. I wanted badly to jump into its praise and will praise it, for something has to be said for the powerhouse performances it is packed with. But I will not be able to in a way that I really had wanted to.
I wanted to say that this is a must-watch on domestic violence that I stand behind and a needed and nuanced social portrayal. But unfortunately, I can’t. For I found Darlings to be deeply problematic when it comes to the portrayal of domestic violence and how that should be dealt with.
Before we rush to the ‘you must be having a problem because a man was hit’ or ‘much worse happens to women’ conclusions, that is not what my issue is. I have seen the praises and criticisms, and the criticisms of criticisms. I know, from having had close associations with non-profits and activists who fight domestic violence not just in India but globally, that much worse happens to women. I have written a book with case studies and statistics on that. Neither do I have any moral qualms around violence getting tackled with violence (that will be another post some day).