Duryodhana picked his way deeper into the jungle. He had received a message from his mother, Empress Gandhari. She waited alone in a small tent. A tight group of trusted maid servants and a detachment of the royal bodyguard stood outside the tent.

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The Kaurava heir entered the tent and fell to his mother’s feet; and she blessed him with her touch. There was much grief and unbearable anguish; and both had no words to express them. He stood up, and they embraced; and remained so for a long time.

“I’m here to protect your life, my son,” said Gandhari. “Go to the stream, purify yourself and return to me as a child; naked and innocent.”

His mother had chosen the tent site well. There was a secluded stream about a hundred paces away, and a seldom used path that only a hunter would discern.

Duryodhana bathed in the refreshing water. Body cleansed and mind cleared, and stark naked, he retraced the hundred paces.

A woman’s laugh reached him. In a snatch, he covered his crotch with his hands.

“Who’s there?”

There was no reply; only a rustle of leaves. The soft jingle of anklets caught his attention.

“Who’s there? Reveal yourself.”

Giggles and the sound of ankle rings circled him. The Kaurava prince turned on the spot and scrutinised the dense forest.

“Is this how you visit your mother?” said the voice. “Do you hope to impress her with your manhood; as you impressed your queens?”

“Test me not, demoness, for though I’m weary and wounded, I remain a lion.”

“Shame on you, Kaurava,” said the voice. “Your mother asked you to return to her as a child; naked and innocent. And you took her words in their literal sense. Is that your level of wisdom?”

A soft white cloth fluttered and floated in the air. The linen moved slowly, as if filled with a life of its own, and came towards Duryodhana. It fell on his head and draped his face; covered his eyes. He grabbed and pulled the cloth; and again, heard laughter.

“Cover your shame, Duryodhana; and return to your mother. She waits.”

The Kaurava wore the cloth around his waist. A monkey chattered. Birds twittered; and here and there butterflies appeared. Only then did he realise the jungle had fallen silent.

“You there! Reveal yourself! Hello?” There was no reply. The voice, the laughter, and the jingle of ankle rings were no more.

Back in the Pandava camp, Mohini, who had given Aravan a wedding night’s bliss, manifested before Krishna. He smiled and his she-avatar merged into him.

*** Copyright @ 2022, Eric Alagan ***

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