Keechak laughed. He was watching ants go berserk as they dodged the little specks of his earwax that he was planting in their trail. It had become quite chaotic for the ants as they began moving randomly. Some of them had even wandered off a significant distance from the trail which meant certain death, statistically. But lying flat on his stomach with his head just marginally over the edge of his bed, Keechak was doing whatever would keep him distracted and amused, even if it meant harassing a few ants at ten in the night. He was the commander of the army of Viratnagar, and harassment wouldn’t even begin to describe what he had done that evening post dinner.
Keechak was a powerful man in Viratnagar, a kingdom that was dealing with ant and rodent infestation since a few years. He was also brother to the current queen, and that made him very influential. Although the ruler King Virat never admitted it in public, a few servants did recall the king cursing Keechak as he (the king) tripped over a pebble during one of his private walks in the palace garden. King Virat’s disapproval of his brother-in-law was a secret he kept to himself.
It was quarter past three in the afternoon that Keechak decided to visit his sister Sudeshna.
‘My darling little sister, I need a favor.’ said Keechak as he walked in.
Queen Sudeshna had woken up from her afternoon nap just moments ago. She sat by the large open window blowing the annoying lactoderm gently away before sipping her tea. She held the saucer on her right hand like most left-handers would. A couple of salted crackers lay untouched on the saucer.
‘No! I am not letting you borrow any more of my tea. Virat brought me these from the hills of Nilgiris in the south. I’m almost out of it.’ spoke the queen. She was paranoid and quite frankly, she had every right to be. Keechak was a heartless brute.
‘You have my word, Sudeshna. Tea is the last thing on my mind right now. This is more important. Can I speak to you privately?’
Sudeshna signaled to the doorman to leave them both alone. A gesture the doorman promptly obeyed.
‘Can you ask Malini to serve me wine after dinner? I am absolutely smitten….’ continued Keechak.
The commander had grown fond of Malini, the queen’s servant. She had joined the palace staff as part of a big local recruitment drive organized by King Virat. Several men and women had been hired in various capacities. Keechak however, was transfixed by Malini’s beauty and grace, and engaged himself in ogling at every opportunity; much to the disgust of Malini who, not surprisingly, developed a degree of disrespect towards the man. She was hidden from view as she stood beside the door jamb of the bedroom eavesdropping on the conversation. She did not approve of the direction it was taking.
‘Keechak, you know the poor girl complained about you to me. She said you keep staring at her and make her conscious. I’ll send her over only if you stop making her feel uncomfortable.’
‘Oh alright, alright. I’ll see to it that she is comfortable. Would you send her?’
Sudeshna nodded and went back to her tea. Keechak thanked her and skipped out of the room elated. But Malini was saddened and feared the worst. She would need to speak to her husband about it. But not before the palace household hit the sack.
Unknown to the kingdom of Viratnagar, Malini was in reality – Draupadi. Her husbands, the five Pandavas, had also sought employment in the palace. Yuddhishtr was one of many advisors in the court of King Virat, Arjun was a dance instructor and percussionst, Bheema worked in the kitchen and the brothers Sahdev and Nakul fed hay and shoveled horse dung at the royal stables. The challenge was to look like lowly peasants, with the exception of Yuddishtr, and avoid detection at all costs. While Nakul and Sahdev looked ordinary enough, the others had to go through some serious transformation. Yuddhishtr kept a regular Mo mustache and a grizzly beard. He looked positively dim. Bheem wore his hair long, got himself a plough and sickle tattooed on his arm, and lurched about in old dhotis. Arjun wore bangles and a nose-ring among other jewelry that he borrowed from Draupadi. He also applied lipstick and eye-liner. Their mother, Kunti, lived by herself in a hut in the village and the five of them, barring Yuddishtr, took turns visiting her every day. It took Kunti some time adjusting to Arjun’s appearance. She had many times mistaken him to be her daughter-in-law. Yuddhishtr’s position in the palace made it complicated for him to make these visits.
The dinner feast was grand. The palace was celebrating the moderately successful scheme of having incentivized the domestication of cats as a means to control the rodent population. In a matter of a few months, the results seemed promising. There was a noticeable reduction in the count of middle-of-the-night screams. It was the more convenient metric to assess the problem.
Shortly after dinner, Malini reluctantly walked to the Commander’s room. She was only following orders from her Queen, but she was tense. Keechak sat up from his reclining sofa upon seeing her and motioned for her to walk right in.
‘Malini, my angel, come over and sit beside me,’ called out Keechak and indicated towards his left.
Malini obeyed but she did not sit. She stood just close enough to be able to serve the brute his goddamn wine. She had laced the wine with a mild sedative so he wouldn’t bother her too long. What Keechak did next took her completely by surprise. He held her hand and pulled her towards himself. Malini lost her balance owing to the unexpected movement. She dropped the serving tray and everything that was on it. The clanging cutlery alerted the guards, who rushed in to make sure the commander was alright.
What they saw was a struggle – Malini’s struggle, as she tried to release herself from Keechak’s vice like grip. One of the guards summoned the conscience to rescue Malini from the drunken commander. Keechak however, was sober, and upon seeing the guard rush in his direction, he threw the wine bottle at him in a flash. The bottle landed squarely on the guard’s forehead and shattered, following which he dropped to the ground like a bag of onions. The other guard stood helpless and scared.
In picking up the bottle, Keechak had loosened his grip marginally, but enough for Malini to break free and run. She ran through the corridors crying out for help. Keechak was after her like a wolf and even tore off a small section of Malini’s clothes as he unsuccessfully attempted to catch her.
The awful din drew King Virat out of his chambers, just in time to witness the fear and helplessness in Malini’s eyes. In her eyes, he saw his own helplessness. It was disgraceful. He was filled with anger and contempt for Keechak. Something had to be done.
‘Stop this at once Keechak!!’ yelled out Virat and in one fleeting instant, everyone stopped. The unexpected crescendo shook a few paintings on the wall.
‘I want everyone to return to their duties. Keechak, please go back to your chambers. This is quite enough.’ thundered the king. Malini was thankful for the King’s actions and continued running. She was headed to the north-west corner of the palace. The kitchen.
Bheem was drying the copper and silverware with a piece of linen when he heard footsteps and the sound of light jewelry. And when the face appeared at the door, he was surprised to see Draupadi. His surprise soon turned into concern as he noticed the tears.
‘You have to help me. Please.’ said Draupadi
For ten minutes or so, Bheem listened to the entire account. In his rage, he had crushed a copper tumbler with his hands and reduced it to a crinkled, useless conduit.
‘I’m going to do to his neck what I just did to that tumbler. Where is he now? Come with me. I’ll finish him.’ declared Bheem as he stood up to face the door.
‘It is not that easy Bheem. It creates a lot of attention and you know we can’t afford that.’
‘What’s your solution then? Ignore it? I can’t. I won’t.’
‘The thought of poisoning did occur but that raises suspicion and is easy to investigate. There has to be another, a more devious plan. I will speak to Arjun about it.’
‘Let us go now. This is the best time’
It took almost seven minutes to get from the kitchen to the hobbies and recreation wing of the palace, where Arjun was just about ready to call it a day. He was getting some of the make-up off his face. Bheem couldn’t hide a chuckle upon seeing his brother – a proper circus clown.
Bheem summarized Draupadi’s story and also laid out his manslaughter plan. Arjun listened carefully. He found Bheem’s plan agreeable – it had been some time since they last killed anyone, you know, being Kshatriyas an’ all. But Draupadi was right too – we couldn’t bring that kind of attention towards ourselves.
‘Here’s what we’ll do. There is a small dance rehearsal hall next to this one. There is never anyone using it at this time or later. Draupadi can lure him here and Bheem, you can then take it from there. I’ll be here and will keep people out just in case.’ spoke Arjun. He was devious as hell and calculative.
‘That may not work Arjun,’ interjected Draupadi. ‘There will be a lot of noise and grunts and screams.’
The three of them were quiet, deep in thought until Arjun’s eyes widened.
‘You leave that to me. I’ll think of something. Now all that’s left is for Draupadi to lure him here. How about tonight? It will be ten in a few minutes. I can ready everything in twenty minutes. Let us target midnight.’
The trio exchanged looks and it was settled. They also decided not to tell Yuddhishtr about it. What was the point in him knowing anyway? There was always that possibility that he might just tell the King everything, thereby forcing him to mediate and resolve this problem amicably. Where’s the fun?
Back in his bedroom, Keechak got up from the bed and walked to the verandah. He couldn’t get Malini out of his head. If it were not for Virat, he would have had his way with her by now. His thoughts were momentarily interrupted by his doorman who had brought him a message.
‘My Commander, this just reached me. A package from the kitchen.’ said the guard as he held out a tray on which was a small bowl with a lid. A bowl they would normally serve desserts in.
Keechak picked it up and sent the doorman away. He lifted up the lid to reveal a piece of bamboo on which was a note addressed to him, in beautiful running hand. “Come meet me behind the dance hall by midnight. Malini.” He could hardly contain his excitement as he read it out twice to himself, and he wished to keep the affair as secret as circumstances would allow. The appointed hour was just an hour and a half away. He sent for his guards and asked them to take the rest of the night off.
At quarter to, he was in his night robe, devoid of any jewelry, walking briskly through the corridors. He spotted some movement in the dance hall and peeked in to see. He saw the dance instructor preparing some notes and playing the percussion. He looked busy. Keechak moved onward to the adjacent hall. It was very dimly lit and from where he was, he saw a figure lying on the floor in a saree. He made a note to himself to take the matter up with Virat about the inadequate living conditions of the palace staff. Sad that Malini had to take refuge in a dance hall and sleep on a barren floor. He moved closer and whispered.
‘Malini, it is I. I am here for you darling.’
The figure showed some signs of life as it moved slightly towards the source of the whispering. Keechak walked closer and closer until he could crouch next to his beloved. As he put his hand around her waist to turn her over towards him, the figure suddenly sprang into action. A heavy muscular arm caught Keechak by surprise as it moved viciously and grabbed his neck. It was the great Bheem. And right on cue with Keechak’s first call of distress, Arjun began thundering on the percussions. It was loud.
The two men fought hard. Keechak’s lithe body made him quicker on the attack as he struck three punches at a time. In contrast, every blow from Bheem was heavy and they left purple bruises on Keechak’s torso, weakening his core strength. Keechak began letting out squeals in pain as Arjun stretched out the membranes of the drums to create higher pitches to drown them. Draupadi watched in fear as she began to sense Bheem dominating the tussle. CRUNCH! A short-arm jab into Keechak’s chest cracked his ribs. Keechak slumped forward. That was the beginning of the end for Keechak. Bheem’s final hit was a powerful thud under the jaw that snapped Keechak’s neck backwards as he fell on his back and lay lifeless. That was the end of Keechak. The fifteen minute drumming had made Arjun’s hands bleed.
Bheem had enough life in him yet as he picked up Keechak’s corpse over his shoulder and spoke.
‘I am taking the side door straight into the forest and hide the body so deep, nobody would ever find it.’
Arjun and Draupadi nodded in acknowledgement.
The news of Keechak’s mysterious disappearance spread like wildfire in the morning. Nobody knew anything of his whereabouts after ten-thirty the previous night. There was no sign of a struggle in his rooms except for the broken bits of glass which the guards and Malini testified as those from the bottle of wine that the Commander had hurled at the guards. It was as though Keechak had vanished.
It was around lunchtime that Sudeshna, with a great amount of concern, entered Virat’s chamber. Keechak’s disappearance bothered Virat too. Although he hated the man, he still was family. Sudeshna and Virat bonded a lot more since this upsetting news.
‘Any news at all, my Queen?’
‘Nothing about my brother yet dear Virat. But I did consult many of the local Gurus and Swamys. I have learnt that we must do something about our kitchen. One notable Vaastu pundit explained to me that a north-west kitchen can be detrimental to the health of family members.’
‘You don’t say…’ trailed off the King.