[Episode 56] [Archives]
“I came to check if you are well, Valiyachcha,” Abhimanyu said as he walked into my lodge. “When you didn’t come for our meeting, I wondered if you were injured.”
I took another long swig from the goatskin of sura a disapproving Visokan had procured at my insistence. The fiery liquor, part of a stock Ghatotkachan’s band had brought with them, burnt a furrow down my throat but did nothing to erase the frustrations of the past two days.
Day eight had for all practical purposes been a stalemate. The cremation pyres on either side burnt bright with the bodies of countless dead, but neither side had achieved any quantifiable advantage. And that was prelude to today, when I watched another of our children die and missed yet another chance to kill Duryodhana and end this seemingly endless carnage.
Iravan, Arjuna’s son by the Naga princess Ulupi, had been our sole bright spot on the eighth day. A messenger had come to me with word that the youngster, who was protecting our left flank, was being hard-pressed by a band led by Shakuni’s brothers.
By the time Visokan maneuvered the chariot over to the left quadrant of the field, I had nothing to do but admire the youngster’s skill with the sword – at his feet lay the bodies of Gaya, Gavaksha, Chamavat and Arjava; even as we approached, I saw him send Suka’s sword flying and, in a reverse stroke almost too quick for the eye to follow, behead this last of Shakuni’s brothers.
Iravan was beside me as, on the ninth morning, we crashed headlong into the Kalinga army that had been deputed to protect Duryodhana. Seeing that the boy was more than holding his own, I concentrated on cutting a path through the opposing forces.
The first hint I had of trouble was a roar of rage from my right. Ghatotkacha, bloodied sword cutting ruthlessly through flesh, was racing in our direction. I spun around to see what had attracted his attention and, to my left, saw that Alambusha, the renegade tribal who was fighting on the Kaurava side, had jumped onto Iravan’s chariot and attacked him from behind, in violation of the conventions of warfare.
Before I could do anything to stop him, the son of Rishyasringa had thrust his sword deep into Iravan’s side; as the Naga prince staggered under the unexpected assault, Alambusha’s sword cut deep into Iravan’s neck.
The boy died as I watched; an instant later, Ghatotkacha had leapt onto Iravan’s chariot and engaged Alambusha in direct combat. The two were seemingly well-matched, but Alambusha wilted before my son’s berserk fury; a brisk flurry of swordplay ended with Ghatotkacha slamming into his enemy’s body with his shoulder and tumbling him off the chariot. Before Alambusha could recover, Ghatokacha had jumped down, grabbed him by the hair and with one stroke, cut off his head.
Roaring in rage and triumph and holding the bloody head aloft, he marched through the field. The Kalinga forces, paralyzed by the spectacle, made way before him and I drove through the breach, heading straight for Duryodhana.
Mayan had made for me a set of special javelins. Unlike the conventional spear with its triangular point and wooden haft, these were extremely heavy and made entirely of iron, with a thick stock that tapered seamlessly to an elongated point. I had conceived it as the perfect weapon against an elephant; it was Visokan who had once suggested an alternate use.
Grabbing up one of the javelins, I tensed for the effort and hurled it as hard as I could at the near wheel of Duryodhana’s chariot. I had looked to shatter the hub, but by sheer luck it slipped between the spokes; the tip embedded in the ground and the haft smashed the spokes of the moving chariot, bringing it to an abrupt halt.
I vaulted onto the ground and raced towards Duryodhana, mace held in front to ward off his arrows. Even so, one pierced the leather guard on my chest; I felt its tip pierce the flesh between my ribs. Shrugging off the pain, I crashed the mace into the damaged chariot wheel; the wood splintered, the chariot listed to one side as Duryodhana fought for balance.
He grabbed his mace one handed and tried to block my swing; I shifted aim and slammed my mace onto the handle of his, very near his fingers. The shock of the blow tore the mace out of his hand; he was at my mercy and my mace was raised for the killing blow when a sudden searing pain forced me to drop it.
I spun around, and found Bhisma confronting me with arrow poised on drawn bow string. His first arrow had ripped across the back of my hand; I was now unarmed and convention dictated that he could not fire on me. Having effected the rescue, he turned to deal with Shikandi who was driving up on his left; I looked for Duryodhana, meaning to finish what we had started, and found him riding hastily off the field of battle on a horse he had apparently commandeered from one of his troops.
It was not these cumulative frustrations that kept me from the meeting, but the fear that I might end up voicing a thought that loomed larger with each passing day: our real problem was Arjuna.
There was no question that my favorite brother was, more than any of us, responsible for the fearsome carnage in the Kaurava rank and file – the fire arrows, the poisoned darts and other weapons he had taken such pains to acquire and master were proving to be irresistible.
But it was not to kill common foot soldiers that we needed him – and in any event, ever since Ghatotkacha had joined us with his little band of tribals, he had proved to be a one-man scourge among the Kaurava armies.
When during our long years in exile we anticipated the war to follow, it was always with the comforting thought that in Arjuna we had our trump card against the master warriors who would be ranged against us. That feeling had been reinforced when he single-handedly routed the Kaurava raiding party that had attacked Matsya in an attempt to flush us out of hiding.
Now that the time had come, our presumptive strength was proving to be our biggest weakness. It was not that he was refusing to meet Bhisma, Drona and Kripa in combat – but when he did find himself confronting one of the gurus he tended to pull his punches, fighting at less than his best and allowing the senior warriors considerable freedom of movement.
His hesitation was beginning to cost us. The Kauravas, who had taken considerable losses in the early days of the fighting, had begun over the last two or three days to turn our own tactics against us. Bhisma and Drona had launched a wave of attacks that was rapidly eroding our own numbers.
We were an increasingly tense lot as a result; tempers were fraying, and Yudhishtira’s snapping at Shikandi and me the other day had gone from being the exception to being the rule when we met for our strategy sessions. Krishna had on that occasion narrowly averted a showdown; he backed Shikandi down just when it seemed the Panchala was on the verge of stuffing my brother’s ill-judged criticism down his throat.
Krishna had a point when he said we needed to rediscover our unity of purpose – but for that to happen, we needed a major breakthrough. Brilliantly though Dhristadyumna was leading us, we seemed to have hit an impasse, and the longer this went on the more certain it was that we would lose.
To blame Arjuna in open meeting was not going to serve any purpose other than to heighten tensions; there was also no way I could discuss all this with a young man who idolized his father.
“I’m tired, that is all,” I told Abhimanyu. “I just thought I’d get some rest.”
“It is about my father, isn’t it?”
I looked at him, startled yet again by perspicacity unusual in one so young.
Abhimanyu smiled. He had Subhadra’s eyes – large, limpid, fringed with the long, delicate lashes of a young maiden. In repose he looked absurdly young, like a boy playing with his father’s weapons. In battle, though, he had already earned a reputation as one of the most brilliant warriors of our time; even the balladeers on the Kaurava side were singing his praises.
“Something happened today that is good for our cause,” Abhimanyu said. Arjuna, with Abhimanyu, Sarvagan, Suthasoman and others in support, had clashed with a large segment of the Kaurava forces led by Bhagadatta and Shakuni.
Yet again, it was Bhisma who had come to the rescue just when it seemed the Kaurava commanders would be overwhelmed and killed. Arjuna fought back, but his efforts were defensive, aimed at limiting the damage Bhisma could do rather than directly attacking the grandsire.
Angered beyond measure by his friend’s actions, Krishna had tossed aside the reins and confronted Bhisma, armed only with a horsewhip. Arjuna had pleaded with him, reminding Krishna of his promise that he wouldn’t take up arms in this war.
“A horsewhip is not a weapon, my uncle told father.”
Krishna had bitterly upbraided Arjuna for neglecting his duty, and swore that the next time he backed off when confronted by one of the acharyas, Krishna would renege on his promise and take up arms.
“This evening for the first time, I saw determination in my father’s eyes as we were discussing strategy,” Abhimanyu told me. “One of our spies told us that Duryodhana is worried the grandsire could tire and be overwhelmed; he has deputed Dushasana to guard Bhisma at all times.
“Tomorrow, my father and Shikandi will fight together. Shikandi will confront Bhisma and my father will target Dushasana. Then, at the opportune moment, they’ll switch targets; my father will attack Bhisma when he is most vulnerable.
“Valiyachcha, mark my words – tomorrow, Bhisma will die at my father’s hands.”