[Episode 51] [Archives]
The first order of business when preparing for war is to set up the cremation ground. Its location determines so much else – you don’t want to site the army’s tents too close, nor can it be located so far that the process of mourning the day’s dead and attending to their last rites becomes too time consuming, keeping soldiers from their rest.
Our cremation area was located on the banks of a small river that branched off from the Yamuna. On the other side, adjoining the borders of Matsya, a series of wooden lodges were being constructed for the womenfolk. Draupadi, who had travelled to Kurukshetra with us, was already installed in one of Virat’s hunting lodges near the border.
On our side of the river, a huge yaga mandap had already come up, with Yudhishtira’s lodge situated right next to it. The priests, sages and hermits who would do the daily sacrifices and pujas were the first to arrive, and had already settled down in little grass cottages on the periphery of the mandap. A swarm of workers from Matsya, augmented by a contingent sent from Panchala, were engaged in putting up lodges for the main warriors and tents for the army.
A series of large warehouses had been constructed near the tree-line to stock our arsenal. Maces, swords and spears, cowhide shields, hundreds of bows and thousands of arrows were ferried on enormous ox carts from Dwaraka and Panchala where, under orders from Krishna and Drupada, metal workers had been engaged in building an armory for the entire year that we had spent in exile.
A day after our arrival at Kurukshetra, the five of us gathered at the mandap at Krishna’s behest to discuss the central question that would impact on all our preparations. Assembling to fight on our behalf were soldiers from Kasi, Kekaya, Matsya, Panchala, Chedi, Pandya and Mathura – armies that had fought under different flags and different commanders, and must now learn to fight as a unit under one single leader.
The question was, who was best fitted to lead?
Sahadeva proposed that Virat should lead us. The Matsya monarch had treated us on par with himself from the moment our identities were revealed, he pointed out, and had supported us with men and materials.
I agreed with all of that, but did not think that these constituted good reasons to name Virat as commander in chief – he was, all said and done, king of a land that lived on fairly amicable terms with its neighbors and, as a consequence, did not have much experience of large wars.
Nakula, in his deliberate fashion, thought long before advancing the name of King Drupada. The Kaurava forces, he argued, would be led by patriarchs like Bhisma and acharyas like Drona and Kripa; only Drupada among us had the stature and the gravitas to lead against such venerable men, he argued.
A good suggestion but again, I didn’t agree. From our spies we already knew we would be outnumbered by the Kaurava forces. What was needed was not measured majesty, I said with all due respect to Drupada, but a young leader schooled in the arts of war, one who would attack ferociously at every opportunity, and who was no respecter of persons and reputations.
“So who do you suggest?” Yudhishtira asked.
It was during Abhimanyu’s wedding celebrations that I had first seen this eldest son of Drupada. Our celebrations were wild, all the more unfettered for knowledge of the war to follow. Shikandi alone was unmoved, untouched by the general revelry. I found myself strangely drawn to this tall, lean, bronzed warrior who carried his weapons even in the wedding hall and who stood aloof, removed from the rest of the revelers.
In the days following the wedding, I observed him at practice and recognized him for a master of all weapons, all forms. But above all, it was his eyes that struck me: cold, dead, unblinking eyes of one to whom killing was both passion and joy. He had, Dhristadyumna told me, wandered the earth as a mercenary hiring himself out to any king who needed his services, and had returned to Panchala only because he wanted to be a part in what he knew would be the ultimate battle.
“All the three names have merit,” said Krishna. “But I have another name to propose. I agree with Bhima – against an army led by Bhisma, Drona and Kripa, we need a leader who is young, someone who has mastered the strategies of war, who knows when to hold and when to attack, and is skilled to spot opportunities and switch strategies at an instant’s notice.
“Shikandi is eminently qualified, but I have seen something of him on the field. He is a loner who is most effective when left unencumbered, to roam where he will and cause devastation as he sees fit. The person I propose is his younger brother and, to my mind, the finest warrior of us all: Dhristadyumna.”
None of us had considered the Panchala prince as a possible commander, but when Krishna named him, we broke out in spontaneous acclamation. Yudhishtira summoned the priests, an auspicious time was picked and next morning, Dhristadyumna was formally installed as commander in chief of the Pandava forces.
Soldiers continued to pour in from all corners. Nakula and Sahadeva busied themselves with the task of settling them down, organizing them in units, identifying their leaders, setting up meetings between them and Dhristadyumna.
Arjuna engaged himself with the arsenal, examining the weapons as they came in and paying particular attention to the ones he had studied on his travels, the designs for which he had passed on to Mayan before we went into hiding.
My concern was with the chariots and the elephants. A group of iron workers in Dwarka had, on my urging, been working to create hubs that would fit over the chariot wheels. These hubs were fitted with large-bladed, two-edged swords; driven at speed into the massed ranks of the enemy, the swords would churn through flesh and cause enormous havoc, but care had to be taken to make sure the hubs, when fitted, didn’t affect the maneuverability of the chariot and hinder the warrior’s ability to fight from its platform.
When I got back to my little lodge, I found an unexpected visitor waiting for me. “You look older at 35 than I do at 45,” Visokan said with his usual mixture of insolence and respect, and it did my heart good to see him. I expected to fight mostly from a chariot; even if I was mounted on elephant-back I wanted my chariot close, so I could switch at will. A skilled charioteer adds immeasurably to your ability in battle, and Visokan alone among all the charioteers I knew had the uncanny ability to anticipate the movements of the enemy and my own needs, and could operate without commands from me.
Krishna, no less, was going to drive Arjuna’s war chariot – which had already arrived from Dwaraka, yoked to six horses of a pristine, blinding whiteness.
It was during his visit to Hastinapura that Krishna by default became Arjuna’s charioteer. Duryodhana argued, cleverly I thought, that Krishna’s role as mediator implicitly suggested neutrality. It was not thus seemly for him to then take sides in the conflict, Duryodhana argued, and when Dhritarashtra and Drona both added their voice to the argument, Krishna in open assembly swore he would not take up arms in the event of war.
By then, Duryodhana had already approached Balarama and got from him a pledge that the Yadava army would fight on the Kaurava side. Balarama however wanted no personal part in the conflict, and had decided to go on a pilgrimage once the war began. When Krishna returned to Matsya and told Arjuna of what had transpired, my brother co-opted Krishna’s services as charioteer.
“There is someone waiting to see you,” Visokan said.
For some reason I couldn’t immediately pinpoint, the young man in princely raiment seemed very familiar. Even as I tried to recall where I could have seen him before, he came up to me and kneeling, touched my feet in obeisance.
“I am Sarvaga,” the young prince said as I raised him to his feet. “Your son. My mother is Balandhara.”
I hugged him to me, tight – and mentally cursed myself. Even when Visokan told me he was coming from Kasi, it had never occurred to me to ask how Balandhara was, how my son was doing. We had wandered around the world, meeting and mating with women in various kingdoms and then promptly forgotten all about them.
It was as we travelled from Matsya to Kurukshetra that I had met Suthasoman, the son I had through Draupadi, for only the second time in my life. And Arjuna had failed to recognize Abhimanyu when he arrived for his marriage to Uttara.
Sarvagan was a boy, still, and yet here he was, my son, evidently come to do battle on my behalf. Kasi was so close, yet during our time in exile and even during the one year we spent in hiding and the weeks after we revealed our identity, it had never occurred to me to go there, to see the girl who had taken me as husband, and who had let me go with a smile on her face.
She walked into my lodge now with that same gentle smile – and the sight of her pierced my heart. We kshatriyas cannot afford to be blinded by affection; that is why we are so indifferent to those who love us, I told myself – but I knew I was lying to myself. There was something about me, some quirk that did not let me see beyond my constant obsession with Draupadi, and all the excuses I made for my neglect of Hidimbi and Balandhara were just that: self-serving excuses.
“I wanted you to meet your son first,” Balandhara said as she came up to me and touched my feet. She stepped away from me, looking from me to our son and back again, and I saw those laughing eyes dim with tears.
I invited mother and son into the inner room. “No,” Balandhara said. “You cannot be bothered with me now, you are here to fight a war. Our son will stay with the Kasi army.”
“I have a place to stay, in a lodge on the other side of the river,” Balandhara said, in the gentle voice that had captivated me all those years ago. “I am staying with Vidura – and your mother.”
“Mother is here?”
“Yes. Her sons and grandchildren are going to war for the sake of the family name and honor – where else would she be?”
“I will come with you back to your lodge. I can see you safe, and also pay respects to mother,” I said, calling on Visokan to bring a chariot around.
“No,” my wife said, with the gentle firmness that was so much a part of her. “Your mother thought you would say that. She said to tell you that she would see you and your brothers the day you win the war and install Yudhishtira on the throne of Hastinapura – not before.”
She nodded at Visokan, who hurried out to bring a chariot for her. I summoned a soldier from the group that guarded our lodgings, and ordered him to take Sarvaga to the lodge where Suthasoman and the other sons of Draupadi were staying.
Sarvagan touched my feet, and went out. Balandhara stood looking after him, then unwrapped a small package she was carrying. “Before a war, we of Kasi do a yaga for Durga, offer up sacrifices,” she said. “I had a yaga done for you and for our son.”
She took a pinch of blood-stained ash and applied a tilak to my forehead. “Every morning, as you go to do battle, apply this,” she said. “Victory will be yours. And maybe, afterwards…”
Her voice broke; her face crumpled in tears. I tried to take her in my arms; she pushed me aside and hurried out without a backward glance.
Visokan helped her onto the chariot, took up the reins and cracked his whip. The horses jumped forward, but it was on my skin that I felt the sting of that lash.