Still off

Sorry folks, still busy playing nursemaid — off till Monday therefore, and thanks for the wishes for the wife’s recovery. Have a good weekend.

Off blog till tomorrow

Thanks for asking, guys [this for those who mailed/posted on Twitter] — the wife is recovering from a very bad attack of something viral but still not where she should be. Preoccupied, therefore, and apt to be off this thing for today — getting the Bhim episode up on time was about all I’ve had time for. See you tomorrow.

PS: Will look back in here much later in the day for any discussion on the Bhim post, btw, and respond then.

Bhimsen: Episode 64

[Episode 63] [Archives] [Complete PDF]

War is all consuming – every minute of your time, every corner of your mind, is filled with the enemy who comes at you in endless waves. The days pass by not in minutes and hours but in the blood of the enemy you just killed so you can move beyond him to the enemy you must kill next.

It was as I took position at the head of our formation on the morning of the 17th day that I realized just what all those many moments added up to. Sixteen days ago when I had stood in this identical position and looked ahead, it had seemed as if we were confronting an enemy without end. The Kaurava forces had stretched out in front of us, as far as the eye could see and then beyond.

I realized with a start that today, from that identical position, I could see where the Kaurava troops began – and where it ended; beyond the last enemy I could see the expanse of the Kurukshetra battlefield, now shorn of so many of the soldiers that had once covered it.

The view brought home to me with great clarity that the war was effectively over — we had the greater troop numbers left standing, and there was no question that we would prevail if only through sheer numbers. Yet the killing would not stop — not until Karna, Duryodhana and Dushasana lay dead on the field.

Those deaths had to happen, and of them I would regret only Karna’s – but that wasn’t something I could tell my brothers, even during that endless night I had just spent with Yudhishtira and Arjuna.

Of the two, Yudhishtira was the easier to convince – when I left Krishna and went to his lodge, I found him already regretting his ill-considered words.

“I wish I could take it all back,” he told me even before I could sit down. “I don’t know why I said what I did – the humiliation of defeat at that suta putra’s hands, added to finding Arjuna here in the lodge and not on the battlefield facing Karna – I must have hurt our brother grievously…

“Ask Arjuna to come,” Yudhishtira told me. “I must tell him how sorry I am, I must take back my words….”

“Why?” Arjuna demanded when I went to his lodge with the message.

“He insulted me, abused me without cause — and now because he has had a change of heart, I have to go to him so he can be magnanimous and tell me how sorry he is?”

“Go to him, don’t go – I’m beyond caring,” I said and stormed out of the lodge, knowing even as I put on that display of calculated anger that it was the one thing most likely to force my brother, in his present mood, to listen to me.

I wasn’t wrong — Arjuna came running up as I strode through the empty lane. “Brother, if it had been you who said those things I would not have reacted as I did – but this man who hides behind our army, behind the strength of your arms – he had no right to accuse me of cowardice. How can I now go to him?”

“Because he is your elder brother,” I told him. “Because he is your king – and the reason you are fighting this war. You could die tomorrow and so could I – and it won’t matter because as long as Yudhishtira lives, the throne of Hastinapura remains at stake.”

Words tumbled out of him then – hot, bitter, angry. So many years had passed, so much blood had been shed since the day he had, in Drupada’s court, bent his bow and hit the target – yet even today, it was the one thing that rankled above all others.

“Yudhishtira lusted after Draupadi from the moment he set eyes on her, yet he didn’t lift a finger to try and win her; instead he tricked our mother, he manipulated us all just so he could enjoy her… What kind of elder brother is he that he could do that, what kind of king is this we are hell bent on making, who can subvert justice for his own pleasure?!”

I listened in silence, fighting down my rising impatience – an impatience exacerbated by the fact that I felt the justice in some at least of his criticism. This was my kid brother, the one person closest to me. Clearly he needed to vent; as clearly, I was the only one he could say all this to – knowing him as I did, I knew that loyalty to family would prevent him from speaking in such terms even to Krishna, his dearest friend.

I had no choice but to stand and to listen as years of accumulated angst poured out of him in a tidal rush.

And then he stopped, all talked out and looking drained, spent. He had nothing more to say, and now he did not know what to do.

What could I say to him? It was not, I realized, in me to suggest that he should seek out our brother – while I understood the deference due to the eldest, I couldn’t help thinking that as the older brother, it was Yudhishtira’s responsibility to care for the feelings of his brothers — and besides, he was clearly the one at fault.

“Brother, I agree with much that you say; times without number during these last few years I have felt that our brother was wrong to do what he did or to say what he had. I cannot ask you to go to him now, to make peace when the quarrel was not of your seeking.

“But this much I know – I cannot now abandon this war. Before it began, I made two promises. I promised mother that I would see our brother on the throne of Hastinapura or die in the attempt. And I promised myself that I would kill every one of those who that day insulted Draupadi in open assembly. I will not live with the knowledge that I went back on my promises – so if you withdraw and I have to face Karna at dawn, to kill him before I can get to Duryodhana, then so be it — I will kill Karna, or die trying.”

I walked away.

When I reached my lodge, I glanced back over my shoulder – and saw Arjuna walking slowly, painfully, in the direction of our brother’s lodge.

Filled with a sense of portent, we moved into formation even before dawn. As they passed my position, Krishna stopped the chariot. “Brother,” Arjuna said to me, “today only one of us, Karna or I, will leave the field alive.” He jumped onto the deck of my chariot, hugged me with a sudden fierceness, and was back in his chariot before I could react.

The heralds sounded their trumpets. Arjuna’s chariot darted forward, heading straight to the focal point of the Kaurava formation where Karna had taken position, with Dushasana protecting his left flank and Ashwathama his right.

With the field denuded as it was, I found it easier to sense what was going on across the two formations. I saw Satyaki dashing up to challenge Dushasana and ordered Visokan to drive at an angle, cutting across his path. “Help Dhristadyumna against Ashwathama,” I yelled as we crossed. “Dushasana is mine.”

Visokan was at his best – weaving the chariot deftly through the Kaurava lines, he cut in at an angle that separated Dushasana from Karna.

Finally, I exulted as I roared out my own challenge – finally, a chance to fulfil a vow I had made so many years ago.

There is something impersonal about fighting from a chariot – you fire your arrows, the enemy fires his, the charioteers manipulate the horses, and all you can do is wait for the enemy to make a false move, to expose some chink you can exploit.

The rage I had nursed deep inside of me for close to 14 years needed more – I needed the immediacy, the physicality of hand to hand combat.

Dushasana had a weakness he was not aware of – he was always just that little bit jealous of his elder brother. The world acclaimed Duryodhana as peerless with the mace; deep inside, Dushasana always thought he was as good or better.

I threw aside my bow and quiver, picked up my mace and vaulted onto the ground, roaring a challenge I knew he would be unable to resist.

I knew I could defeat him – he was not half the fighter he thought he was. But I wanted more – I had to humiliate him, I needed to confront him with the fact of his own death before I dealt the killing blow.

He swung his mace, a powerful overhead swing at my head, trusting to his strength to somehow smash through. It was a blow of anger, not sense, and easy enough to block. But instead of blocking his blow overhead, I skipped out of line and, as the mace whistled past me, swung my own mace in a short, hard stroke powered by every ounce of muscle in my shoulders and arms. My mace smashed into his. He fought to control it and swung at my ribs; again I hit him with the double strike, the first one a defensive tap to push his mace out of line and the second a powerful crash of my mace on his, forcing him to exert all his strength to keep the mace from being wrenched from his grasp.

I saw the sweat break out on his brow as Dushasana backed up, looking bewildered. He charged headlong, mace held in front of him. Exulting in my knowledge that he was finished, I sidestepped and again, smashed his mace with mine; this time, I followed up that blow by pressing my attack, aiming not for his body but for his mace, which I bludgeoned in short, hard strikes.

Dushasana backed away, gasping for breath; I noticed him flexing his arms, where the strain had begun to tell. I threw my mace away. “Bare hands, Dushasana,” I roared. “Your hands were strong enough to drag Draupadi to the assembly – now show me what you can do to me!”

He ran at me, more desperation than skill in the charge. It was a lesson I had learnt a long time ago – when fear swamps your senses, the techniques you had learnt are always the first casualty. With clenched fists, he struck at me – blows that were badly timed, lacking in any real power.

I absorbed his blows, taking them on the body and on my shoulders – and laughed loudly, deliberately, in his face. I saw the first hint of fear dawn in his eyes – and switched from defense to attack.

In continuation of a block, I smashed the heel of my palm up under his chin, jolting his head back in time for my left elbow to crash into his exposed throat. As he fought desperately for breath and balance, I hammered my open palms into his ears. He reeled back; I turned sideways and drove the heel of my foot hard into his stomach.

He stumbled, staggered backwards – and fell. In an instant I was on him, my knee on his throat, bearing down while my hands hammered down at his ribs. My hands splayed, fingers curved to hook into his ribcage, I gradually brought all my strength to bear on his lower ribs.

I took my time, increasing the pressure gradually and ignoring his feeble struggles. I waited to see the realization of death in his eyes – and bore down hard.

It was as if the world around us didn’t exist anymore – my whole being was consumed with the lust for a revenge I had long dreamt of.

With a sudden crack, his ribs gave way. I pushed down harder, driving the broken bones into his lungs, his heart.

A great gout of blood gushed up from his shattered chest, drenching my face.

Involuntarily, I licked my lips.

The metallic, slightly sour taste of warm blood reminded me of that day in Hastinapura. I will drink your blood, I had vowed then as I watched Dushasana dragging Draupadi to the center of the assembly, the blood dripping down her legs.

I licked my lips again – this time slowly, deliberately, lingering on the taste of revenge.

In a daze, I walked towards my chariot, my thoughts on a woman waiting somewhere on the other side of the river – a woman with skin of gold, with hair that hung down her back like a black waterfall… a woman who loved to hear of battles, whose lips would part and breasts heave as she listened to stories of killing, of blood.

“Go,” I told Visokan. “Go to Draupadi. Tell her Dushasana is dead… tell her I’ve killed him and drunk his blood. Tell her from me that she can tie her hair up again…”

Ad nauseum

This year’s edition of the IPL, though, breached my security cover. Armed with the security of a telecast bereft of product pitches towards my face and ears, I had settled in to enjoy the spectacle, but it wasn’t long before I realised that commercial free isn’t really commercial free anymore. The geniuses at the IPL had ensured that the DLF Maximums and Citi Moments of Success that had made their appearance last year were now adhered to with supreme diligence by the commentators. Even the breathless bellowings of Ravi Shastri and the serpentine verbal meanderings of Ramiz Raja were broken up by the mandated chanting of the sponsors’ names repeatedly, and especially during tense moments in the game. The organic raw feed turned out to be processed after all.

Cricket is unlike football, the continuity of which makes sure the live telecast is not intruded on by commercials. Cricket with its inherent rhythm of stops and starts permits the unobtrusive injection of marketing nuggets into the gaps. But the efficacy and feverishness with which these gaps have been filled are akin to the diligence of a concerned denizen furiously plugging holes in a leaking dyke, lest the game seep out.

First, we used to have commercial breaks. Now we have cricket breaks — and even there, the money men are managing to find ways to insert commerce into the action. Sriram Dayanand is unamused.

On an unrelated note, a bit of a medical contretemps involving the wife, so will likely be off blog for much/all of the day. Be well, all.

Increased sex drive causes breast cancer

Okay, I skipped a couple of steps in there. It goes thusly:

Red wine increases a woman’s sex drive.

Drinking wine increases the risk of breast cancer.

Drinking wine also helps prevent cancer.

Very helpful, all this reasearch is.

And while on research: Why do monkeys shout during sex? Do pregnant women walk sexier than their not-knocked up peers? Are ordinary bras enough to support breasts? If I communicate through smoke signals, do herrings communicate by farting passing wind? Are non-human primates attracted to women wearing red? Do women with curvy hips have a greater IQ? All this and more ‘research’ here.

The Wall Street Journal looks at the phenomenon of ridiculous ‘research’.

Given the current push for “evidence-based medicine,” we may well see more studies attempting to confirm the previously only suspected, providing ongoing fodder for Duh! (As editor-in-chief, I’m thinking of tapping Gordon C.S. Smith, a University of Cambridge obstetrician, who wrote a classic paper in the British Medical Journal in 2003 noting that he could find no randomized controlled trials testing whether parachutes prevent death and injuries in response to “gravitational challenge” —i.e., jumping out of aircraft.)

Like Dr. Smith, a few academic researchers are having a bit of fun, which we will certainly encourage in Huh? Georg Steinhauser, a chemist at the Vienna University of Technology, said it was the surprise of his career that the journal Medical Hypotheses accepted his study entitled “The Nature of Navel Fluff.” Inspired by a question posed in the 2005 book, “Why Do Men Have Nipples?” Dr. Steinhauser theorized that belly-button lint is largely the result of abdominal hair channeling loose shirt fibers. To test his hypothesis, he collected 503 pieces of his own belly-button lint over three years, wearing different shirts. Then he shaved his abdominal hair and found that no more lint collected.

Bhimsen: Episode 63

[Episode 62] [Web archives] [PDF of Bhim 1-62, courtesy Karun]

Krishna was waiting for me when I returned to my lodge that night. He needed to talk to me, he said.

In all these years of knowing him, Krishna was invariably punctilious in doing what he saw as his duty. Whenever he visited us, he made it a point to go first to see Yudhishtira and then, as inevitably, he would seek me out, touch my feet and ask after my well-being before going off to find his friend.

But never once had he sought me out for a private conversation, never once asked for my advice, my help, as he was doing now.

“You must talk to Yudhishtira,” he told me. “You are the only one who can. It is not good for him and Arjuna to quarrel.”

When Karna led the Kaurava troops out at dawn on that 16th day of the war with Shalya as his charioteer, I’d guessed there would be trouble.

My brother – ever since the day Visokan had told me who he really was, I often caught myself thinking of Karna as my brother and even feeling a momentary twinge of anger when others referred to him as the suta putra – had wanted this command; it was this desire that had led to his quarrel with Bhisma.

From the moment the heralds signaled the start of combat, Karna hit us with the force of a whirlwind. If Bhisma and Drona had deployed strategies and tactics based on the principles of war craft we had been taught since we were young, Karna’s tactics were more free-flowing, and considerably more dangerous.

He led the Kaurava troops in a series of raids, swinging from one end of the field to the other, catching us off balance and hitting us hard, causing immense losses to our foot soldiers and cavalry.

Nakula was the first among us to face the full force of his fury. Karna caught him at an unsupported moment in his defensive position on the right side of our formation and engaged him in combat. While his forces decimated the troops Nakula led, Karna toyed with my brother, destroying his weapons one by one, cutting his armor to shreds, wounding him in a dozen places and finally, in a supreme act of contempt, jumping onto Nakula’s chariot, grappling with him and throwing him out into the dust.

I spotted him as he was leaving the field to seek treatment for his many injuries. “That suta putra told me to tell mother Kunti that he remembered his promise, and would spare even the sons of Madri,” a bewildered Nakula told me. “What promise? What did he mean? And why did he let me go? When he jumped onto my chariot, I thought the end had come…”

I had no time to explain, even if I could – Ashwathama’s peculiar war cry rang out just then, and I turned to confront this challenge.

Drona’s son had a voice unlike any other – more the shrill neigh of a horse in rage than anything human. The story I heard was that when the startled wet nurses first heard his cry at birth, they gave him the name ‘Ashwathama’ – the one with a horse’s voice.

I looked to use the same tactics that had worked so well against Karna – with Visokan keeping a distance from Ashwathama’s chariot, I tried to use my remaining stock of larger arrows and my superior shoulder strength to hurt him, tire him out before closing with him.

Ashwathama’s skill as an archer was without parallel – and I was now finding out that he was considerably shrewder. Where Karna had felt insulted at being bested by me and repeatedly tried to close the distance, Ashwathama increased it and, staying just out of ideal range, effortlessly cut down the arrows I aimed at him.

My stock of special arrows was rapidly running out; the danger for me would come when they were all gone, and Ashwathama could close the distance and use his greater skill to good effect.

“Save one or two of those,” Visokan, as aware of the danger as I was, said over his shoulder. “Let him think they are all used up – when he looks to attack, you might get a chance to use them.”

It was a desperate ploy; I thought afterwards that only the skill of Visokan and the timely arrival of Satyaki saved me from humiliation or worse.

The prolonged combat had drained me; besides, I needed to replenish my stock of arrows. I signaled to Visokan to drive off the field, but we were cut off by a band of Duryodhana’s brothers attacking in formation.

For this I needed no strategies, no tactics – just the deep, burning anger that surged up within me whenever I caught sight of any of my cousins. The skill level of the younger ones in the group was rudimentary – in a few moments of furious combat, with Visokan weaving the chariot in and out of their ranks, six of them fell to a combination of my arrows and spears.

With only Chitrasena and Vikarna left standing, I vaulted out of my chariot, sword in hand. Chitrasena fancied himself as something of a swordsman – back when we all trained together, he loved to show off his skills.

It was with drawn sword that I met him. He was good, no question – fast on his feet and lightning quick at switching the angles of his attack. Against him I used my sword like a bludgeon; instead of merely deflecting his attacks, I repeatedly smashed my sword against his on the blocks, using my superior strength to drain him.

From the diminished power of his strikes and the time he took to bring his sword back in line after each thrust, I sensed that he was tiring fast. There is a trick that I had learnt during my time with the Nagas – they use it with spears, but I had practiced it with the sword whenever Arjuna and I trained together.

Instead of repelling his thrust, I caught Chitrasena’s sword on the blade of my own and rapidly twirled it around in quick circles. The pressure of holding on to the sword began to tell on Chitrasena’s already weakened wrists; I judged my moment and, when our swords were at the lowest point on the circle, suddenly disengaged and with a reverse sweep, cut deep into his neck.

Vikarna ran to where his brother lay in the dust, his life blood gushing out through the cut in his neck. I had no intention of killing this youngest of my cousins; I had never forgotten that when Duryodhana, Dushasana and others insulted Draupadi that day at Hastinapura, Vikarna was the only one in the Kaurava ranks to brave Duryodhana’s anger and to protest the wrong that was being done.

I was walking back to my chariot when his challenge stopped me in my tracks. “I don’t want to fight you,” I told him.

His answer was to rush at me with his sword raised high. I decided to finish this fast – it was the only thing I could do for him. I blocked his downward cut with my elbow against his forearm, knocking his sword out of line; before he could recover, I buried my sword in his chest all the way to the hilt.

Catching him as he fell, I lowered Vikarna gently to the ground and pulled my sword out. For a long moment I stood looking down at this most honorable of my cousins, wishing things had been different, wishing I could have befriended him, wishing his decency had prevailed with his own brothers…

I strode back to my chariot and ordered Visokan to drive me back to my lodge, wanting space, needing some time to myself. The last thing I expected was to find Krishna waiting for me.

“Yudhishtira and Arjuna had a huge quarrel today,” he told me.

Alarmed by the havoc Karna was creating, my brother had foolishly challenged him. Karna toyed with Yudhishtira, destroying his chariot and disarming him with ease. He then threw aside his own weapons and attacked Yudhishtira with his fists, battering him into submission. Yudhishtira fell; Karna stood over him, mocking, taunting, then left him lying there in the dust with a parting word and a kick.

My brother retreated to his lodge, and found Arjuna there.

“That set him off,” Krishna told me. “He called Arjuna all sorts of names, upbraided him bitterly for leaving you alone on the battlefield…”

Krishna had tried to pacify Yudhishtira, but that only goaded my brother more. “I’ve been listening to his boasts for thirteen years,” Yudhishtira said, “I’ve been hearing him talk endlessly about how he will deal with Karna – but now that the time has come, he hides here while Karna destroys our forces!

“Coward!,” he said. “If you can’t do it, give your Gandiva to Krishna – maybe, like that suta putra you are so afraid to face, driving a chariot is what suits you best!”

Seeing Arjuna’s hand tighten on the hilt of his sword, Krishna had hastily come between my brothers, looking to make peace. But Yudhishtira’s words had pushed Arjuna over the edge.

“This fellow – what has he ever done but live off the fruits of others?” Arjuna lashed out. “From the moment he saw her he wanted Draupadi, and he managed to trick mother into getting her married to all five of us!

“He talks of cowardice, this man who has always stayed a mile away from any actual fighting, hiding in the middle of our troops and letting others kill and die so he can be king. If Bhima calls me a coward, I’ll take it – but not this…”

Krishna had somehow managed to push Arjuna outside before either of them could say something irrevocable. “But now Arjuna has shut himself up in his lodge; he says if Yudhishtira wants a kingdom let him shed his own blood, win the war if he can.

“You are the only one they will listen to,” Krishna said.

As I walked over to Yudhishtira’s lodge, I couldn’t help thinking that our real problem was not the Kauravas but the bitterness each of us had accumulated over the years.