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The dust cloud approached rapidly, but at this distance it was impossible to tell if it was friend or foe. I halted the Matsya troops and quickly organized them into a defensive formation.
“It is the Matsya banner — this must be Prince Uttara returning,” my charioteer, who was standing up in the chariot and peering into the distance, announced suddenly; at my signal, he whipped the horses and raced the chariot forward towards the advancing troops.
I was apprehensive – had been ever since I had learnt from King Virat that while we were off recovering out cattle from Trigarthan’s raiders, Prince Uttara had led a section of the Matsya army against the attacking Kauravas.
“He has never fought a battle — he is just a boy,” King Virat lamented, while ordering me to take our troops and rush to help. “And they tell me he has taken that eunuch, Brihannala, as his charioteer!”
That was at the insistence of Draupadi, who in her guise as Malini told Queen Sudeshna that Brihannala had served for a time as charioteer to no less than Arjuna himself.
I couldn’t help laughing out loud at the sight: holding the reins of the lead chariot sat Arjuna, still dressed in the garb of a woman. The flowers braided into his hair, and the soft colors of his robe, presented an incongruous sight in tandem with the breastplate and arm protectors of the warrior. I noticed he had Gandiva, his favorite bow, slung across his shoulder.
“I have told them not to breathe a word of my part in the battle,” Arjuna said, as my charioteer took over Prince Uttara’s reins and Arjuna jumped into my chariot. “The Kauravas will have known it was me even with this disguise, but I thought it best for now to let Uttara pretend he had won the battle.”
It was, Arjuna told me as we drove at a leisurely pace back towards the palace, a surprisingly easy affair. “Uttara was brash and boastful when we set out, but once we left the palace he panicked, like I thought he would.”
Arjuna had driven the chariot to the grove in the forest where, before entering Matsya, we had hidden our weapons. They were tied neatly in individual bundles; I had climbed the tallest tree I could find and stashed them in the forks of branches.
I found a skeleton in the forest and with a rope, tied it to one of the lower branches so passers-by would see it. I learned later that locals had spread the story that the tree was haunted by the ghost of the person who had committed suicide – the story spread and so did the fear, to the point where no one would go near the place.
Armed with his favorite bow, and with his quiver packed with the weapons he had acquired during his travels, Arjuna handed over the reins to the young prince and directed him to drive towards the enemy.
“It wasn’t a very large army,” Arjuna told me. “Some 400 soldiers – they must have planned a quick raid to try and uncover us. But all the main warriors were there — Duryodhana leading, Karna, Kripa, Drona…” Bhisma was there too but he stayed in his chariot off to one side, watching but taking no active part in the battle.
“I wasn’t sure about the quality of the Matsya army and whether they would take orders from me, so I decided to take the Kauravas by surprise. They were drawn up in battle array, clearly waiting for us to get within arrow range. I stopped just short, and shot a stream of fire arrows, the Agneyastra, and built a wall of fire just ahead of the Kaurava army. Their horses panicked; there was much confusion.”
Under cover of the flames Arjuna attacked the leaders, cutting down Duryodhana’s horses, then Drona’s. “The one who gave me the most trouble was Kripa,” Arjuna said. “The others proved easy to handle, but Kripa fought back and he was good – I had to kill his horses and charioteer with poisoned arrows, the Nagastras, and render him helpless before he gave up.”
It was the first opportunity my brother had to try out his newly acquired skills and weapons, and he was ecstatic at the outcome. “The Nagastra is okay, but the Agneyastra is key – just fantastic,” Arjuna said with the enthusiasm he reserves for talk of war.
“I hadn’t realized it before, but it’s not the fire alone that makes the arrows so deadly, it’s the accompanying smoke. The powder you coat on the arrowheads produces clouds of thick black smoke – it hangs over the opposing army, confusing them, and lets you get closer and attack.”
But it was his newly developed ambidextrous skill, Arjuna said, that paid the richest dividends. “You know how when skilled archers face each other, we organize our own defenses to counter the style of the opponent. All those hours of practice I put in during my wanderings paid off – I kept switching the bow from right hand to left, changing the angles of attack and breaching their defenses with ease. Duryodhana and Drona had no clue how to handle my attacks; they were among the first to retreat.”
His duel with Karna, brief but intense, was what pleased Arjuna the most. “The suta putra ran from the field, bleeding,” my brother laughed. “I was battling Kripa when he attacked me. I shot an Agneyastra between his horses. They panicked and before they could recover, I cut down the lead horses with poisoned arrows. He jumped off the chariot and fought on foot; I switched hands, cut down his bow, pierced his armor, wounded him high on the shoulder with that other arrow I showed you, remember, the one with a crescent head? I was getting ready to kill him with a Nagastra, when he turned and ran, like the coward he is.”
We drove through the gates of Matsya and went our separate ways. Arjuna, who had removed his breastplate and armguards and given me his bow and quiver to hide, went back to his room in the ladies’ quarters and I, suddenly assailed by the hunger pangs I had been denying in course of a very long day, slipped into the kitchens to see what I could find to eat.
Over the next three days, Matsya celebrated the triumph of its young prince. The king and courtiers fawned over Uttara and made him repeat endlessly the details of the battle; the ladies in waiting dimpled at him and fought each other for his favors.
To his credit, Uttara seemed embarrassed by all the unmerited attention. Arjuna later told me that the prince had sought him out, protested that he didn’t deserve the honors being heaped on him and said he was going to tell the king the truth. At my brother’s urging, the young prince reluctantly agreed to keep up the pretense for a few more days, and personally ensured that none of the soldiers who had gone with him to fight the Kauravas spoke of what had actually happened.
On the afternoon of the fifth day, I was part of group serving a sumptuous celebratory lunch for the royal family and close retainers, when a messenger came rushing up with news that a half dozen chariots flying unfamiliar insignia had been spotted racing towards Matsya.
“Be ready to meet whoever it is with force, if need be,” the king said to me.
“O King, I suspect you won’t need force –if my guess is right, you will accord these visitors royal honors and make them welcome,” Kanka, who was seated among the favored courtiers, said.
Minutes later, the royal herald entered the chamber to announce the arrival of Krishna of Dwaraka and his retinue. King Virat hastily rose to do the honors; to his surprise, Krishna went straight to Kanka and bent to touch his feet. He then accepted Virat’s obeisance, and said, “Where is Brihannala?” Krishna asked. “Have your herald lead me to him!”
Satyaki, meanwhile, had also paid his respects to Kanka. Perfunctorily saluting King Virat, he ran up to where I stood among the other cooks and helpers. We embraced.
PostScript: Traveling back to Bombay today; no other updates till tomorrow, folks.