The story begins in Dwaraka where Yadavas are prospering. Guru Sandipani comes to meet Krishna and brings along political tidings. The King of Panchala wants to marry his daughter to a worthy warrior and since there was none worthier than Krishna himself, he has offered her hand to him.
(Note: I haven’t so far found any reference to this in the Mahabharat tale, but the way Munshi has put it across, it makes a lot of political sense and you do start thinking that maybe this too could be true!)
Krishna doesn’t say ‘no’ immediately but is poised to reject the offer because he doesn’t want to antagonize Bishma and the Kuru empire in the process. In the meanwhile, the focus shifts to Hastinapura and we get introduced to all the main characters, the five brothers, King Dhritarashtra and his sons.
Munshi’s description of the five brothers and their interaction with each other is so engaging that you will start picturing them as vividly as he paints.
Righteous and duty conscious Yudhistra agrees to go on an exile while his uncle insists that it is merely a holiday! We also get a glimpse of Dronacharya’s political acumen as he coolly analyses where his interests lie.
The news about the exile of the brothers is carried back to Krishna by Udhava, who also learns midway that they have been killed. Krishna, leaves Dwaraka to pay a visit to Hastinapura, as the maternal relative of the Five Brothers. Depressed and worried, Krishna agonizes about the fate of Aryavarta with Duryodhana as the king.
Duryodhana’s multi-faceted character is very fascinating to read. Despite being a king’s son, a prince he had to grow under the shadow of the prowess of the Five Brothers who excel in everything. He must have been one unhappy kid!
Duryodhana’s wife Princess Bhanumati makes a charming distraction both for us and for Krishna, whose love for beauty has matured beyond years. Her innocent fascination for Krishna is beautiful to watch and will leave you feeling just as Krishna did; “What a beauty to waste on Duryodhana?”
In the meantime, we see Satyavathi the great matriarch of the kuru family entreating Krishna to save the Pandavas. And Krishna leaves on that mission to Panchala.
At Panchala, one of the most fascinating and controversial characters of Mahabharata awaits us. Princess of Panchali also named as Krishnaa is introduced here. Munshi’s description is so vivid that you cannot picture her in any other way. She is fiery, fiercely loyal and determined to marry a true warrior. Krishna rejects her hand but proposes that King Drupad arrange a true swayamwara to get her a real warrior.
After this the scene moves to the kingdom of Nagas, the place where the Pandavas were seen last disappearing into the forest. Udhava reaches there, and is trying to investigate. The Nagas have a matriarchal link to Krishna’s grandfather whose grandmother was from the same tribe. Udhava mingles with the tribe and in the process gets himself a twin naga princesses as his wives (something that he never bargained for!)
Udhava ventures into the forest along with a small asura child and finds himself as the guest of King Virochana, who is none other than Bhima. The narrative of Udhava’s and the five brothers tale in the forest make a very interesting read. The hardships of the five brothers, their dreams, their frustrations are so brought so well that you might just give up reading Mahabharata by any other author.
The political gambit of the swayamwara is very interesting to read and way Kings lobby for Draupadi’s favour brings home the fact that certain political behaviour will never be passé.
The book ends with Draupadi’s marriage to all the five brothers and the reactions of all characters to the marriage. This is the book that sets the stage for the biggest and the deadliest war in Aryawarta and this where it all begins.