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Author Ashutosh Nadkar's retelling of the Mahabharata puts the limelight on a perhaps misunderstood Shakuni

Threatened by the formidable Kuru dynasty, the kingdom of Gandhara is forced to marry off its princess to the blind king of Kuru, Dhritarashtra. Enraged by this defeat, Shakuni, the heir to the Gandhara kingdom, vows to seek revenge. He uses the Kauravas and Pandavas as pawns in a cleverly crafted game of deceit and destruction and watches as the mighty Kuru kingdom crumbles.

Told through the perspective of Shakuni, this retelling of the Mahabharata asks the burning question – was Shakuni really the vilest of all villains or the victim of a grave injustice?

Ashutosh Nadkar, originally from Madhya Pradesh, has been active in print, television and web journalism for the past two decades. He is currently working with the Network18 group as an associate editor.

The following is a excerpt from his book, Shakuni : Master Of The Game.

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The kingdom of Gandhara was situated in north-western Aryavarta, or what you today call the Indian subcontinent. My land was surrounded by mighty mountains, and we had very little interaction with the rest of Aryavarta. Gandhara never found it necessary to reach out to its neighbours. The cold winds blowing in our land all year round made agriculture next to impossible. Yet we could always produce enough to feed our own people. Although ours was a small kingdom, the talent and tenacity of our men had earned us a good reputation in Aryavarta. Woollen garments, made from the fur of the finest sheep of our land, were popular in all parts of the world. People wanted Gandhara’s strong, sinewy horses and camels in their armies. Gandhara had also made a name for itself in medicine. We hardly had any vegetation in our dry mountains and arid deserts, but the herbs that were found in Gandhara were perhaps as potent as the cure-all, death-reversing sanjeevani. Our herbs had magical properties that could enhance beauty and heal incurable diseases. Our mountains and mines were storehouses of gems and stones so precious that even the grand Chakravarty kings coveted them. Ours was a small but prosperous kingdom.

 Author Ashutosh Nadkars retelling of the Mahabharata puts the limelight on a perhaps misunderstood Shakuni

Shakuni : Master Of The Game, by Ashutosh Nadkar

My father, Subala, ruled over this kingdom. He was well loved by his people because he always thought about their welfare. Even though I was the crown prince of Gandhara, I was less popular than he. I thought very differently from the way he did. For the king of Gandhara the wealth, comfort, affluence and opulence of his subjects meant everything. He did not worry too much about the military strength of the kingdom. But I firmly believed that fortifying our land was necessary to ensure that we lived with pride and dignity. I often had heated discussions on this issue with my father. He always argued that Gandhara had no enemies in all of Aryavarta and that no king would ever gain anything by invading this land of vast deserts and formidable mountains. Therefore he never established a strong army. We did, of course, have an official regiment, but it only had to combat criminals and bandits in the surrounding areas. In fact, the king was so confident about the security of his land that I, the crown prince, received only the most basic training in the use of arms and weapons.

I knew how to handle the bow and arrow, the sword, the javelin and the mace, but I was no expert in the use of weaponry. I was not particularly skilled or strong, but I was definitely attractive. Born in Gandhara, my body had a natural radiance, and even though I did not think too highly of my complexion, my mother was extremely proud of my fair skin. When I was a child she would put a black mark on my cheek after bathing me. I remember her saying, ‘There can be no boy as handsome and fair as my Shaku in all of Aryavarta.’ Of course, every mother considers her child beautiful. Though I must confess I was very fond of my eyes. They were light brown, like my mother’s, and I thought they made me look as beautiful as her. Little did I know that one day light eyes would come to be regarded as windows to a world of fraud and trickery.

I had a physical disability, which I was often told was the reason I was not trained in the martial arts. History remembers Shakuni as a crippled man, but I have never considered myself disabled. What people thought was a limp, to me was my natural gait. For I never had any trouble walking or running for miles on end. I could even scale high mountains. Why, then, would I consider myself a man with a handicap?

We had very hot summers and very cold winters in Gandhara. Back in those days, indoor games were as popular as outdoor sports. One such board game that I really enjoyed was backgammon. This game of dice was a test of a player’s dexterity and luck. I had no equal when it came to rolling the die deftly and then strategically moving the pieces on the board. But I was still drawn to the martial arts and weapons. I often begged my father to allow me to gain expertise in archery, but he never did.

It was my duty to obey my king and my father, even when I did not agree with him, and so Gandhara continued to be governed according to his principles. The kingdom was flourishing, and I soon began to believe that my father’s stance on its military needs was probably right. Gandhara with its vast deserts and towering mountains probably did not require a large army for its defence. It was then that the unforeseen happened one day, and it changed not just my life but also the history of Aryavarta.

It was spring in Gandhara after a long, bitter winter. Spring was an important season for commerce in our kingdom. People who traded in cattle, clothes and jewels had either already headed south for business or were preparing to leave. That was when we were informed by our subjects in the eastern fringes that they had seen a massive army approaching the kingdom, loaded with arms and ammunition.

I immediately went to King Subala with the missives brought by the messenger, worried and impatient. ‘Sir, my worst fears have come true.’ The king looked calm even though he could see the pained expression on my face. ‘What’s wrong, Shakuni? Why are you so agitated?’ The question left me stunned. There were alien soldiers at our borders. Was the king entirely unaware of the situation? What kind of a king was he? How could he not be concerned about the safety of his land? The king was also my father. I could not argue with the monarch, but as his son I took the liberty to express my dissatisfaction with him. I asked him, ‘Father, are you completely unaware of the threat to our kingdom? Or do you now find secret messengers as unnecessary as large armies?’ My father smiled to see how angry I was, and said, ‘Prince Shakuni, I have already heard the news that you have brought me. So you need not worry about my network of secret messengers. As far as the situation at our borders is concerned, my experience leads me to assume that the people threatening us belong to a group of bandits who want to steal our cattle. I might not have invested in a large regiment, Shakuni, but I do think that the army we have is quite capable of tackling a fringe group of miscreants. All necessary information has been sent to the commander of the eastern regiment. The monarchs of Takshashila and Purushpura have also been notified to be on their guard. Do not fret, Shakuni. The commander, I suppose, will arrive any minute now with news of the complete extermination of the bandits.’

The king’s words got me thinking. Was I worrying needlessly? He was probably right: a few bandits ganging up was not a big problem, after all. Soon we saw a messenger on horseback galloping towards the palace. He had been sent by the commander of the eastern regiment with a letter. King Subala began to read the letter calmly. As he did so his confidence appeared to fade and his expression started to change. Clearly, then, the letter did not bear the information the king had been expecting. The men at our borders were not lowly criminals. They were decorated officers of a well-trained, well-equipped army. I was furious. I barked at my father, ‘Sir, do you still think Gandhara does not need soldiers to defend its borders?’ The creases on his forehead indicated he was indeed worried. He tried to regain his composure and said, ‘Prince Shakuni, this is not the time for disagreement. Instead, we need to find out where the army has come from. Which king wants to invade Gandhara.’

The messenger said, ‘The leader of our eastern troops sent a few spies to gather information on the enemy as soon as he received your word, and then started readying for battle. After some time, he set out with a cavalry of five hundred armed men to fight the bandits. However, along the way, he realized that he would have to consult you before taking the next step. On the pretext of taking their cattle out to graze, our men had gone quite close to the tents and saw a large feast being prepared. It was evident from the well-stocked kitchen, the fine quality of the tents and the garments of the soldiers that they were not poor bandits but members of some organized regiment.’ I could not wait for the messenger to finish his narrative. Cutting him short, I said, ‘Which kingdom have they come from? Tell us at once! How many men could you see there? Why have they come to Gandhara?’

‘I beg your pardon, Prince Shakuni. We do not have this information yet, but the commander of the eastern regiment will be coming to this court shortly to discuss the gravity of the situation.’

King Subala was turning increasingly pale. He had initially felt confident about the men at the boundary being bandits, but he had been wrong. The situation had suddenly taken a grievous turn. To break the deathly silence that filled the courtroom, the chief minister asked the messenger to leave. The king’s councillors broke into a vigorous discussion on the situation. The minister said, ‘Sir, not only do we have amicable relations with all our neighbouring kingdoms, but it is also my firm belief that these kingdoms are not strong enough to attack Gandhara. We might not be the most powerful state in Aryavarta but we are definitely more tough than most of our neighbours. Those kingdoms depend on Gandhara for their trade and commerce. Therefore they will never launch an attack on us.’

The king agreed. He asked, ‘Whom do you think this army belongs to, then?’ No one in the hall had an answer to that question. Then the minister said, ‘Sir, from the description of the soldiers it seems to me that they have come from some mighty kingdom. Magadha, Chedi, Kashi, Kosala, Panchala, Hastinapura, Matsya and the Yadavas have the resources to possess such extensive armies.’ The king considered his minister’s words and replied, ‘Why would the kingdoms of Magadha, Panchala or Hastinapura be interested in Gandhara? I have not received news of any king performing the grand horse-sacrifice ritual, either. This armed campaign makes no sense to me at all.’ Before the discussion could go any further, the leader of our eastern troops entered the royal hall, gasping for breath.

Customarily, entering the hall without proper permission was seen as a breach of decorum. However, the commander did not consider following any such code of conduct, and the king and his ministers took no exception to it either, given the situation. Everyone was hungry for the news. The commander greeted the king and said, ‘The army camping outside our kingdom is much larger than we had imagined. We could not see the end of their line. The soldiers look well trained. I presume there are a hundred thousand men in their cavalry. The goods carriages parked near their makeshift kitchen have more grain than all of Gandhara’s granaries can ever hold.’ I sensed fear and impatience well up in King Subala. He told the commander angrily, ‘Chief, are you here to give me their details or to sing their praises in my court?’ The commander, unperturbed by the harsh words of the king, usually known for his calm temperament, said, ‘I beg your pardon, my lord. It is my duty to ensure that my king receives the information that he needs. Everything that I have said so far is true and there is no bit of exaggeration in those details.’

I was beginning to lose my cool. It was evident that the army standing outside our walls was not there to extend a hand of friendship. That our own army was not prepared to fight was the consequence of King Subala’s strange administrative policies. Ever since I became an adolescent and was crowned prince of Gandhara I have emphasized the need for our kingdom’s military expansion and the importance of the use of modern technologies of warfare. But the king, who had always considered me naive and foolish, would laugh my suggestions off. And this king was now needlessly losing his patience with the commander. I intervened and said, ‘Sir, it is natural for our commander to be impressed by the might of a massive army since you have always prevented the growth and development of our own army. Do you still stand by your rigid principles?’ My words were dripping with disdain.

‘This is not the time, Shakuni, to discuss my principles and policies regarding our armed forces.’ When my father spoke to me, I did not hear the earlier bitterness of the king’s words.

‘Well, sir, this is not the time to chastise the commander either. I can clearly see who is responsible for the situation that we are in today. However, I do not want to waste time discussing such matters now. Our primary concern should be to find out which kingdom the army belongs to. Who is their ruler? Chief, you may continue . . .’ My words were so harsh they might have sounded indecent and arrogant, and could well have been misconstrued as animosity towards the king. However, I could not be bothered about impressions then. I had spontaneously, most naturally, taken charge of the reins of the kingdom in that hour of need. The commander addressed me and not the king this time. ‘Prince Shakuni, thousands of tents have been set up by that army. There is a small white flag flying high on each tent. While these flags have no symbols, the large flag atop the largest tent has the insignia of the Kuru kingdom. I could clearly identify the royal flag of Hastinapura.’

The king was completely overwhelmed. Cutting the commander short, he said, ‘What rubbish is this? Why on earth will Hastinapura attack Gandhara?’ The commander, seemingly encouraged by my behaviour towards the king, responded rather sharply. ‘Sir, I am not qualified to remark on how kings behave and which king will choose to attack which kingdom. I am only describing what I have seen. I am requesting you to pay heed to this information and to arrive at some decision as soon as possible.’ While the commander was not disrespectful towards his monarch, I was heartened to see that he had taken my words seriously. I was used to summary rejection of most of my suggestions and proposals in my father’s court. The commander addressed me again. ‘Prince Shakuni, the person leading those troops is an elderly man. His hair is white as snow, but he is tall and agile, and his movements are as swift as those of a young man. For a person his age, he can lift bows, arrows, spears and javelins with so much ease that these heavy weapons of destruction appear as though they are bouquets of flowers. The old warrior is clad in white and is wearing a crown on his head.’

Hastinapura was one of the strongest kingdoms in Aryavarta, and though it took time for news to travel from there to Gandhara, we knew everything about the Kuru clan. From the description the commander of our eastern troops had given it was clear that the army from Hastinapura was being led by the unparalleled Bhishma, son of Goddess Ganga.

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Updated Date: Apr 20, 2019 10:00:17 IST