Flames. Heat. The stench of burning flesh surrounds me; one name echoes. AMBA.
Sweat trickles down my forehead; my heart pounds against the chest wall, and my throat is parched. Why is this nightmare ingrained in my psyche since the day I put on the blue lotus garland? Amma was horrified when I walked in, caressing the soft petals of the flowers around my neck.
"Shikhandini, what have you done." My grandmother screamed before drowning the room in wails. Four-year-old me was terrified. Later that night, my father, King Drupad of Panchal, narrated the story of Princess Amba's struggles. The nightmares began. Father would come rushing in at my screams, holding me in his arms, rocking me back to sleep. His efforts to make me speak drowned in the flood of my tears. I never talked about the images in my sleep.
All through the years, the dreams kindled a fire. The torment of Amba acted as the fuel to push me through the aches and bruises of my military training. Thank heavens I was born in Panchal; otherwise, who would have allowed a girl to learn the art of warfare. However, in my twelfth year, things changed.
The day is etched in my memory. The day the mighty Bhisma walked into my father's court. Father was teaching the intricacies of archery to me, my brother Dhristadyumna, and little sister Draupadi.
"Who is this girl?" The mighty Bhisma dressed in white robes thundered.
"My daughter, your highness." Father rose and pushed us behind him.
I refused to hide. The rest of the world may fear Bhisma, but I would not cower before him. Head held high, back straight, I had retorted. "I am Shinkhandini, the eldest daughter of the King of Panchal." Something had passed in Bhisma's eyes. A torment, a regret, or an inevitability, I am not sure.
"What use will a girl have of such knowledge. Her place is not on the battlefield." Bhisma had admonished. My father stayed silent. Who would have the courage to counter the immortal Bhisma?
King Drupad, my hero, my father, sent me away. I was livid. The fire inside turned into an inferno. Over the next ten years, I spent learning under my Yaksha guru. He guided me through my penance. Years of sacrifice led to my successful transition. I returned to my Kingdom as Prince Shikhandi. My days were spent honing archery skills against the mightiest warriors of Panchal because I had a mission- to avenge Amba and myself.
The vengeance was gnawing at me, but It became an inferno after my sister Draupadi's humiliation at the hands of the devil sons of Kuru King Dhrishrashtra. The self-righteous Bhisma stood silent as a pregnant Draupadi was dragged into court and disrobed. The wife of the mighty Pandav's was called a whore.
A gut-wrenching cry pierces the air. A metallic taste floods my mouth. Blood sputters from my mouth through fits of cough as my body shakes ."Wake up, brother. Rise, for Bhisma still stands." Dhristadyumna's words shake me out of my stupor.
"What happened?" I question Dhristadyumna.
"They are after you. Shakuni, the King of Gandhar, attacked you."
The mention of Shakuni curdles my blood. The source of this depravity is Shakuni, the man who cheated the Pandav's in the dice game. War was inevitable because the evil Kuru's would never play fair and return the Pandav's Kingdom and honor. Even if they did, what happened with Draupadi would never be undone. Four million warriors gathered on the Kurukshetra battlefield.
For ten days, I waited my turn to enter the battle. Almost losing hope, I worried that my transitioning would come to nothing. Even in Panchal, there was disquiet. A huge debate had happened during the war preparations, but Krishna had intervened. He counseled me to bid my time.
In the battles that followed, the Pandav's tried every military formation to break the Kuru armies but were unsuccessful. The immortality and skills of Bhisma thwarted our best plans. My hands itched every day. The nights were restless. However, yesterday, my father came into my tent and informed me of the decision. I spent the night preparing my armor.
Today would be my day—decades of preparation for acceptance and revenge. One after the other, Kuru warrior's attacked me. We fought back waves of attack from the Kuru hordes. I wince at the memory of my confrontation with Shakuni. I had pinned him in a corner before the wheel of my chariot capsized.
"I need a chariot, Dhristadyumna." The sight of my broken chariot reminds me of an unfinished mission.
Panchjanya's call echoing in the air answers my prayer. The sound emanating from Krishna's conch shatters any remaining confusion.
"Rise, O' Shikhandi, the hour has arrived," Krishna calls from Arjun's chariot. "You ride beside Arjun. Bhisma will not see today's sunset."
Arjun, who is now beside me, fastens the quiver on my back. He bows before me, hands clasped in a namaskar. "O mighty Shikhandi, grant me the honor of your company to go into this battle with Bhisma."
Tears flood my eyes at the sight of my brother-in-law. The mightiest archer of the world seeks me as his partner in battle. "Arjun, the honor is all mine. Let us not waste a minute to rid this earth from the scourge of these demons."
I hug Dhristadyuman and climb onto the chariot beside Arjun. He blows his conch, followed by Krishna and me. A signal to go into battle. The chariot moves with the speed of light, skimming above the ground. In no time, Krishna steers us to our destiny.
Bhisma stops aligning his bow at our sight. He acknowledges Krishna and Arjun but smirks at me. "Has the mighty Arjun no confidence in his abilities to fight me, that he brings a woman into battle."
"O Bhisma, raise your bow, not your excuses. Fight with arrows, not with words. I call you to war." Channeling years of anger, I nock an arrow and aim. Ready to fulfill my destiny. The reason for my birth.
Context and background: This work is a fanfic based on Shinkhandini or Shikhandi, an iconic figure from the great Indian epic 'The Mahabharata.' Whether one considers the epic a mere story, a legend, or mythology, Shikhandi is the most prominent representation of gender fluidity from ancient India. The earliest texts from Mahabharata are attributed to around the 3rd Century BCE. The battle itself is said to have taken place between the 8th and 9th centuries BCE.
Sources for further reading:
3. Shikhandi- by Devdutt Patnaik
Illustrations: By Author