Bhimsen: Episode 55

[Episode 54] [On writing the war episodes] [The complete archives]

We are faced with a vastly superior force, Dhristadyumna pointed out when we met before dawn on the second day to decide on strategy.

The accepted strategy in war is to concentrate on the main commanders, to kill or capture them at the earliest opportunity and thus render the opposing army leaderless.

That will not work for us here, Dhristadyumna said. The first day’s fighting had given him a good idea of Bhisma’s strategy. Each of the Kaurava generals had been protected by large segments of troops; the harder we tried to get to the leaders, the more losses we sustained against the numerically superior opposing forces.

Starting today, Dhristadyumna said, we had only one goal – to kill indiscriminately, to inflict maximum casualties on the opposing army. We would exert all our energies to stop the Kaurava generals when they looked like causing havoc in our ranks, but outside of that we would ignore the generals and focus our energies on decimating the opposition troops.

Arjuna decreed an eagle in flight as our battle formation for the day.

I would, from the position of the eagle’s beak, lead the formation. Yudhishtira and Virat would be positioned at the throat; Dhristadyumna would be stationed at the left wingtip with Abhimanyu and Sarvadhan, while Arjuna controlled from the right wingtip with Satyaki and Drupada in support. At the feet of the eagle, protecting our rear from surprise attacks, would be Nakula and Sahadeva with the sons of Draupadi, and Rukmi in support.

The Vidharbha king was an unexpected addition to our army. Years ago, Rukmi had planned to marry his sister off to the Chedi king Shishupala, but Rukmini was enamored of Krishna with whom, Arjuna had once told me, she had been carrying on a clandestine correspondence through messengers and pigeons.

When time came for the marriage, Krishna arrived in Vidharbha in the guise of a guest and carried Rukmini off in his chariot. Rukmi gave chase with a band of select troops, but was routed by Krishna and Balarama.

Rukmini’s earnest pleadings saved her brother’s life then, but before letting him go Krishna forced him to shave off half his hair — the ultimate insult for a warrior. He had since made friends with Krishna and, when war was declared, offered his services. “Use him in a defensive role,” Krishna had advised us. “As a warrior, he is not good enough to be in the front rank, but he and his men will help swell our numbers.”

As our army arrayed for battle, I had reason yet again to bless Arjuna for the long years he had spent wandering the country learning strategies and tactics from different lands. The formation he had suggested was the perfect answer to our requirement: it massed our troops in the eagle’s ‘body’, giving me enough backing as I sought to batter my way through the opposition while out on the two wingtips, our leading warriors were able to range free, causing mayhem where and how they could.

This was my kind of battle. Yesterday, I had spent a good part of time and energy trying to break through and get to Duryodhana. Today I didn’t bother with any specific target; at my direction, Visokan drove my chariot straight at the center of the Kaurava army, arrayed for the day in half moon formation. Fighting occasionally from my chariot, often on foot and, when faced with massed troops, from the back of Kesavan the elephant, I gloried in the task of killing all who came before me.

At some point in the midst of my frenzy, I became aware of signs of trouble to my left. I headed in that direction and, from my vantage point on Kesavan’s back, I saw our commander engaged in a terrific struggle against Drona.

Dhristadyumna’s chariot lay shattered around him; as I watched, he rushed forward with his mace only for Drona to cut it to pieces with his arrows. Dhristadyumna continued to advance, swinging his drawn sword to clear a path through the opposing foot soldiers and get at his tormentor, but he was clearly at a disadvantage.

I jumped down onto my chariot and had Visokan charge straight at Drona. The large cutting swords attached to the axle of my chariot churned through the opposing foot soldiers as I concentrated my fury on Drona.

With my first salvo I cut down his flagpole, which is the archer’s first line of defence; even as he turned his attention towards me, I cut his bow in half with another volley of arrows.

Years ago, when we studied war craft under him in Hastinapura, he had contemptuously rejected my skills as an archer and publicly said I was only fit to wrestle for the amusement of the public – today was my opportunity to pay him back.

‘Fat fool!’

That long ago taunt rang in my ears. As Drona hurriedly strung his spare bow, I cut it into pieces; before he could re-arm himself I sent a volley of arrows between the shafts of his chariot, cutting the bindings. Freed of their traces, his horses bolted, overturning the chariot as they broke free.

As the old man tumbled out of the chariot and scrambled in the dust, I laughed out loud in triumph.

I flung aside my bow, grabbed my mace and was about to leap out of the chariot and close with him when Visokan warned of danger approaching from my right. The Kalinga king Srutayu, mounted on a mammoth tusker and leading a large force of elephants and men, was rushing to Drona’s aid.

Visokan told me later that he had never been as alarmed as when he saw me leap off the chariot and, mace in hand, run straight at Srutayu’s elephant.

Years ago, in the paddocks of Hastinapura, the old mahout who was my mentor had taught me of this one fatal weakness of the elephant: between the two masses of bone on its forehead there is a very small, unprotected gap where its nerve endings are clustered, and where it is most vulnerable to pain.

Approaching the elephant at a dead run, I timed my jump and grabbed its tusk with my left hand. In the same motion, using the momentum to augment my strength, I swung the mace at that precise spot on its forehead I had been taught so long ago.

Maddened by the pain, Srutayu’s elephant reared on its hind legs while I hung on for dear life. As his front feet hit the earth I swung again, smashing the mace repeatedly onto that spot. Squealing in pain and rage, the beast swung around in a circle, shaking its head violently to dislodge me; the other elephants panicked at the sight of the enraged tusker and stampeded straight into the midst of their own troops.

Srutayu jumped off the back of his elephant and straight into my path; before he could recover his balance, I swung my mace in a crushing blow at his skull and roared in triumph as I felt the splatter of his blood on my face and arms.

The Kalinga forces, already scattered by the berserk fury of the elephants and now leaderless, turned tail and ran; I raced back to my chariot and set off in pursuit, slaughtering at will till the sudden blare of trumpets sounded the onset of dusk and the end of the day’s battle.

Dhristadyumna hugged me as I walked into his lodge for our evening review. “We had a good day today,” he said. “The battle went exactly as I had hoped; we inflicted heavy losses on their troops and took few losses of our own. I don’t think they’ve understood what we are trying to accomplish – they kept throwing their soldiers at us, which is exactly what I hoped they would do.”

Dhristadyumna had once told me that the war would be won not by the seasoned generals and the acharyas, but by the young – and it was increasingly easy to see why. He was breaking away from established strategies and tactics, adapting to the fact that we were outnumbered and finding his own solution to the problem while Bhisma, the most experienced warrior on either side, continued to operate within the confines of convention.

To my surprise, I saw Krishna stretched out on a plank bed on the floor of Dhristadyumna’s lodge, with attendants applying herbal salves to multiple wounds on his arms and chest. Arjuna was pacing the floor furiously; Abhimanyu walked beside him, talking earnestly to his father.

Noticing my look of surprise, Dhristadyumna pulled me aside. “That is the other thing I hoped would happen today,” he said when we were out of earshot. “For all Krishna’s advice, Arjuna has been reluctant to fight. He is fine when facing the troops, but the minute he catches sight of one of the gurus he loses his will.”

My brother was ranging free on the right, slaughtering soldiers in their dozens when Bhisma charged up in his chariot to oppose him. Arjuna lost his fervor; the grandsire however held nothing back in a ferocious attack.

“Arjuna would have turned his chariot about rather than fight, but by then some of Bhisma’s arrows wounded Krishna,” Dhristadyumna told me. “The sight of Krishna bleeding drove your brother into a fury; he forgot who he was fighting, and my father tells me Arjuna fought so brilliantly, many on both sides nearby stopped to watch. The old man was forced to turn his chariot about and race away from the field, they tell me.”

Abhimanyu walked with me as I returned to my lodge that night. “Valiyacha [father’s elder brother],” he said as we walked, “your son Sarvadhan is amazing! Trigartha and his men attacked us today while uncle Dhristadyumna was battling Drona – you should have seen Sarvadhan fight, oof! He routed them all on his own, and I saw Trigartha fall wounded in his chariot. You must tell my uncle to put Sarvadhan with cheriyachan [father’s younger brother] Nakula – we are somewhat weak in that section.”

I stood still for long moments, bemused by the self-confidence of this boy who was yet to turn 16. His deeds today were, I was told, so prodigious Dhristadyumna had decided to invite him to represent the younger generation in our daily council of war.

Abhimanyu, Sarvadhan, Sutasoman, Prativindhyan… young boys of fifteen and sixteen who should by rights be enjoying their youth, basking in the attentions of the palace maids and who instead were fighting beside us as equals, and making us proud with their deeds.

They were, I realized at that moment, the real future of our race. In time to come, perhaps, our chief claim to fame would be that we were their fathers; when they spoke of me it would be as the father of Sarvadhan, as Abhimanyu’s uncle…

We sat down to our meal. Like the boy he really was, he spoke with enthusiasm of all that he had seen that day – but I noticed that even in the full flight of his excitement, he never once spoke of his own part in the day’s battle.

A terrific clamor interrupted our meal. Visokan came running in. “A new group has come to join us,” he announced, smiling broadly. “The whole army has turned out to watch the fun – soldiers in carts drawn by bulls bigger than you have ever seen… dozens and dozens of wild horses… and they’ve even brought their own food – pigs, cows… come, see, it’s a big tamasha…”

Visokan darted out again. Moments later, a tall young man stepped through the door and prostrated at my feet.

“News travels slowly to us who live in the forest,” Ghatotkachan said as I raised him to his feet and looked at him in wonder – not least because I had to look up at him.

He had grown considerably since that last time I saw him, when he had with casual indifference gifted Yudhishtira Jatan’s head wrapped in a leaf and walked off into the forest without a word. His voice, when he spoke, was that of a man full grown.

“I am here to fight on your side, father – and I have brought an army with me.”

“I’ll take our brother to the lodge where we are staying,” Abhimanyu said, touching Ghatotkachan’s feet.

“No, no one needs to worry about us – we are most at home sleeping on the ground, under the stars, and we have brought our food with us,” Ghatotkachan smiled. “Father, I’ll see you in the morning – tell me what you expect of me, and it will be done.”

He turned and strode out without a glance, while Abhimanyu and I looked at each other in bemusement.

PostScript: I am travelling this week and will not be accessing the net for the duration. The next episode, and regular blog updates on cricket and all else, resume Monday July 6. See you here then; be well, meanwhile.

PPS: For those asking, no, I am not doing a game by game round up on the India-Windies series, but will do an end-of-series post on some off the ball thoughts when I get back from my travels. Later, peoples…