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Dushyanta clearly remembered everything. But he didn't have any intention to accept a poor woman from a remote hermitage as his wife and her son as theirs.
Dushyanta clearly remembered everything. But he didn’t have any intention to accept a poor woman from a remote hermitage as his wife and her son as theirs.
She sat motionless on the royal bed, her knees drawn up to her chin, staring vacantly outside the palace window.
She was sheathed in exquisite scarlet red silk, shot through with golden threads forming intricate traditional patterns. Chests of gems and jewellery were strewn all over the bed. The maids were fussing over whether a diamond-studded necklace would suit their queen or a gold choker would look better. Another younger maid was arranging her tresses in a coiffeur.
But her mind was elsewhere, far removed from the cacophony of the royal bedchamber of Hastinapur. Once again, in her memory, she was transfigured into that naïve girl in the sylvan hermitage of Rishi Kanva.
She was the brightest protégé of Rishi Kanva. Apart from theology and philosophy, she took active interest in politics, administration, diplomacy and strategies of warfare. Rishi Kanva’s chest swelled with pride whenever he looked at his foster daughter.
On that fateful day, she was poring over a book while she heard light footsteps approaching the hut, followed by an unknown gravelly voice asking, “Who is here?” Rishi Kanva was not present in the hermitage at that time, so she went out of the hut to greet the stranger. A tall, wiry man of athletic built was standing in front of her. His smooth ebony skin glistened in the sun. Clad in exquisite clothes and gems, he looked like a king.
“Who are you?” she asked in her dulcet voice.
“I am Dushyanta, the king of Hastinapur,” he replied smugly.
She welcomed him and offered him a seat. The man was thirsty and asked for water. When she bent to hand him the brass tumbler of water, she noticed him staring brazenly at her décolletage revealed unwittingly. Feeling embarrassed, she straightened up and asked hesitatingly, “O king! What else can I do for you?”
“I have come to pay my respects to the illustrious Rishi Kanva. Where has he gone?” he asked.
“Father has gone to collect fruits. Please wait for a while.”
He looked surprised. “Is Rishi Kanva your father? But I heard that he is a celibate.”
“Yes, what you heard is true. He is my foster father. My biological father is Rishi Vishwamitra and mother Menaka, the celestial apsara. My parents deserted me on the banks of the Malini river immediately after my birth. Rishi Kanva took pity on me and brought me home. He named me Shakuntala because vultures protected me from carnivores. Since then, he has been raising me single-handedly,” she quavered at the recollection of her painful past.
Dushyanta’s heart melted for the beautiful woman. Though she was attired modestly in rough cotton like an ascetic, he didn’t fail to notice her dazzling beauty. The woman in front of him was blessed with a voluptuous figure. She was a bit heavy in the bottom and her rounded hips swayed alluringly when she walked. Her firm, rounded breasts looked inviting through the diaphanous cloth. Dushyanta felt sick with desire. All he wanted was to get her in his bed.
He said hoarsely, “O beautiful one! Be my wife. Marry me according to Gandharva rites.”
Shakuntala was taken aback at this sudden proposal of marriage. She felt hot blood coursing through her veins.
She replied demurely, “O king! Please wait for my father to return. He will give me to you.”
But Dushyanta was in no mood to wait. He said ingratiatingly, “My heart now belongs to you. Please accept me yourself. The Gandharva form of marriage is sanctioned for Kshatriyas. Don’t be scared.”
The raw passion in his voice unnerved her. “If I marry you, will I become the queen of Hastinapur and rule over the kingdom like you do?” she asked.
The impudence of the woman irked Dushyanta.
There was a long, uneasy pause which Shakuntala now remembered vividly. It is a strange thing about old conversations. Sometimes, you remember the pauses in between sentences more, the sighs, even the expressions, even if you cannot see them.
Shakuntala sighed silently. Only if she had refused him that day, life could have been different.
Dushyanta curled his lips contemptuously. “Silly girl! If you marry me, you’ll merely be my consort. Ruling over a kingdom is not a woman’s business,” he said curtly.
Shakuntala was dismayed. But she quickly gathered herself together and replied, “O king! I have one condition. Promise me that the son who is born to me will succeed you. Only if you agree to this, you may unite with me.”
It didn’t take much to persuade Dushyanta to accept the condition. Soon they got married. Needless to say, Dushyanta ravished her in the nuptial bed and immediately left for the capital on the pretext of some urgent business. Before he departed, he promised to send a fourfold army to escort her to his royal palace.
Rishi Kanva was overjoyed when he heard the news of her daughter’s marriage. “I couldn’t have found a better husband for you, Shakuntala. But you are young and gullible. You have lived in my hermitage since birth and are not acquainted with the ways of the outside world. These kings can be very wily. But let’s hope for the best.”
In due time, Shakuntala gave birth to a boy. Rishi Kanva performed all necessary rites of passage. The boy grew up to be big, strong and strapping. He was amiable with a ready smile that endeared him to everybody present in the hermitage. Rishi Kanva named him Sarvadamana. The fourfold army from Hastinapur never came.
When the boy was six years old, Rishi Kanva called Shakuntala one day. “I think the time has come for you to go to your matrimonial home now. Your son is not an ordinary boy, he is the king’s son. He should be instated as the heir apparent now.”
Rishi Kanva’s other disciples escorted Shakuntala and her son to the royal palace of Hastinapur.
The opulence of the royal palace of Hastinapur dazzled Shakuntala. As the ruling king’s wife, she had expected a warm welcome, but she got none.
When she entered the royal court, the bejewelled king on the throne suddenly seemed like a distant man. The profundity of the gulf between them overwhelmed her for a moment. But she regained her composure quickly. That man on the throne was her husband, after all. And not just her husband, he was the father of her only son too. She paid homage to the king and declared, “This is your son. Can you remember the promise you made to me in Rishi Kanva’s hermitage long ago? Now the time has come to fulfill that promise. O king, instate your son as the heir apparent.”
Dushyanta clearly remembered everything. But he didn’t have any intention to accept a poor woman from a remote hermitage as his wife and her son as theirs. He had already planned to marry a princess of a neighbouring kingdom. That alliance would further his political ambition and fill the royal coffers with innumerable gold coins. He was annoyed at the sudden arrival of Shakuntala.
“I can’t remember anything. Who are you? I never had any relationship with you!” he said tartly.
Shakuntala looked incredulous. She said, “How can you lie like a common man? I am your wife Shakuntala. Treat me with due respect. And how can you disown your own son?” Her voice choked with sobs. Her parents abandoned her at birth. Now her husband was forsaking her. What was her fault? Had she committed any sin to deserve such fate? In a tear-choked voice, she pleaded, “I am ready to go back to my hermitage. But do not forsake this child. He is your own son.”
“Do you have any proof that this son born from you is mine? Who will believe you? Your mother Menaka was a courtesan. Your parents gave birth to you out of lust alone. Perhaps that’s the reason you speak like a slut. Go away from here!” Dushyanta sneered.
Shakuntala’s face tightened and her eyes turned steely. She hollered, “You can’t insult my parents in front of me. My mother is one of the thirty gods. My birth is nobler than yours. You reside on earth, while I roam in the sky. And I don’t want any relationship with you any more. I have raised my son single-handedly till now and will continue to do so. Even without you, my son shall rule over the entire earth.”
Suddenly, a magical voice roared from the sky. “O Dushyanta! Accept your son and accept your wife, Shakuntala.”
Surrounded by his ministers, Dushyanta had no other way but to accept Shakuntala and her son. He embraced his son and smilingly told Shakuntala, “Our marriage was unknown to the people here. Thats why I argued with you. If I instated my son based on your words alone, there would have been doubt among people. I forgive you for your harsh words.” His tone was conciliatory. Shakuntala was surprised at how quickly he changed colours.
She was lost in reverie when a physical touch brought her back to reality. It was her husband’s touch. Dushyanta lovingly tucked a stray curl behind her ear. It was their first night together as a couple in the royal bed-chamber of Hastinapur.
“Don’t you dare touch me!” she hissed.
“Shakuntala, my beloved wife, what happened?” he asked in genuine surprise.
“I don’t love you any more, O king! You may be magnanimous enough to ‘forgive’ me for my ‘temerity’, but I haven’t been able to forgive you for what you have done. And I can’t allow a man who I don’t love to make love to me. Pardon me.” Every word of hers dripped sarcasm.
A white-hot fury coursed through him. “But I have already accepted you as my wife. Isn’t it enough for you?” he hollered.
“You have been forced to accept me as your wife. But the moment you tried to disown your son, the moment you tried to slut-shame me, I lost all respect for you. Your very presence now precipitates an intense hatred in me. What can I do?” she answered equably. “You married me out of lust only. You saw the beauty of my body, but you failed to see the beauty of my heart or the beauty of my mind. You are such a shallow man, Dushyanta!” she added for good measure.
“Then why are you staying here? Go back to your father’s hermitage!” he fumed.
“Don’t assume that I am staying here to enjoy the royal hospitality!” Shakuntala laughed loudly. “I am staying here just because of my son. You may forget your duties as a father, but I can’t renounce my motherly responsibilities. As a mother, it’s my duty to look after him, to guide him, to protect him till he grows up. Once he turns an adult and takes charge of his own life and his own kingdom, I’ll consider my job to be finished. Then I’ll renounce this royal palace and retire to my father’s hermitage. And as far as you are concerned, I don’t think you are in any way dependent on your wife to satisfy your carnal desires. You are free to seek pleasures outside the wedlock,” her tone was flat and final.
Dushyanta was dumbstruck. He was used to women fawning over him. It was the first time that a woman showed the impertinence to humiliate him. A cold wind blowed through the palace window, sending shivers down his spine. Was it the wind of change?
Apsara– Apsaras are celestial maidens associated with Indra’s court.
Gandharva– One of the eight forms of marriage. In this form, there are no ceremonies and no relatives are present.
Vultures– The word used in the Mahabharata is shakuna.
Fourfold army– With infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots.
Acknowledgements: “The Mahabharata 1” translated by Bibek Debroy, and “The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History” by Manu S. Pillai.
This story had been shortlisted for our November 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest. The author-juror Anuradha Kumar said about this story, “A twist on the shakuntala-dushyanta love story, with a very insouciant Shakuntala and a quite horny, self-absorbed Dushyanta. A fun read.”
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An engineer by education, I am a civil servant by profession. A doting mother. An avid reader. I try my hand at writing as and when ideas tussle inside my head. read more...
Women's Web is an open platform that publishes a diversity of views, individual posts do not necessarily represent the platform's views and opinions at all times.
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