Bhimsen: Episode 57

[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.”

20 thoughts on “Bhimsen: Episode 57

  1. Prem:

    Havent you conveniently ducked the knot at end of Episode 56? Here I was waiting to find out why a chill ran down Bheem’s spine & you have gone & swept it under the carpet!

    • Not at all. The “chill” would relate to the obvious fear of the reaction of a die hard mercenary like Shikandi to Yudhishtira’s criticism. There is a point in this episode where I mention that Krishna quickly defused that crisis.

      The little episode is merely indicative of gradually fraying tempers in the Pandava camp, and has no larger resonance.

  2. Prem,
    Conventional narratives mention that although Bheeshma’ was heavily wounded in combat on day 10, he actually succumbed to his injuries after the war was officially over. Is that going to be different in yours or MTV’s narrative ? Also, conventional Mahabharata mentions Sikhandi to be somewhat a “half-man” someone Bheeshma refuses to fight against. From your writing however I get no such hint. He seems to be a fierce warrior often engaging Bheesma at critical moments of the war.

    Eagerly waiting for Episode 58. Bheem is always my Monday lunch time reading !

    • Lunch time? I get up at 5 AM, take my blackberry with me to restroom, and I checkout Bhimsen. Sometimes, it is desperation, eventhough I know it is only a day prior Prem posted an entry, I still visit Bhim’s blog hoping that there is at least .00001 chance of him posting a bonus entry for the week. Prem, thanks for the great work. Honestly, there were times I felt narrating the epic from one character’s perspective will compromise the completeness of the great story, and it may have also been a bit unfair to the eldest brother as you do not get to hear his side of the story. But as I continue to follow the blog, and slowly detach myself from the story that I heard earlier (hey, I accepted those versions without questioning, so why not this), I started enjoying more.

      Thank you very much sir.

    • Yeah, the version accepted as final has Bhisma laid out on a bed of arrows, with an arrow-tripod supporting his head. The belief is that Bhisma had taken a vow that he would not die till he was sure Hastinapura was in safe hands, and so he postpones death till the end of the war, just to be sure. None of that is in Jayam, though — that merely says Bhisma was felled by Arjuna. In passing, on the next day when talking of the installation of Drona, it says almost off handedly that Bhisma still lay grievously injured, but hadn’t died yet.

      I haven’t had time this week to even cursorily block out the next episode. In any case, Bhima was never near where Arjuna and Bhisma fought, so a telling of that incident from his point of view would necessarily have to be short on detail on the actual combat.

      The whole Shikandi thing is again a narrative that appears in later tellings of the Mahabharat. In the early ones, he is painted as somewhat of an oddity — a man born to fight, who in times of peace wanders the earth looking for conflict elsewhere and hires himself out as a mercenary to those who need his services.

      I sometimes wonder if some of the later stories — such as the one that has Shikandi as a eunuch — are the work of storytellers who, having painted themselves into a corner, look for a way out. After all, Bhisma has been portrayed as invincible. If he is impervious to attack and can die only when he wills it, as the conventional narrative has it, then you have a stalemate — the Pandavas can’t win. So the solution has to be to have him not fight — at which point, enter a eunuch who Bhisma refuses to face. Strangely, the conventional Mahabharat has no use for Shikandi other than to be the stalking horse in Bhisma’s death — but even in this conventional narrative, he is one of the seven commanders of the Pandava forces. Seems to me a stretch to assume that such a post would be given to him if his only use was to cramp the grandsire’s style.

  3. Regular reader of Bhimsen, but first post.

    Thanks for your accounts, this episode is of supreme quality. However, it is a slight letdown compared previous two, 55 and 56; which were quite simply awesome. Each word/sentence in the war reporting, seems to be at the right place and complete. I understand that it must take quite some time for writing/review/proof-check; thanks for the effort.


    • Thanks, Vijay. I’d think you will find these fluctuations in “quality” recurring as we move along.

      Before doing an episode, I spend some little time trying to figure out what it can and should contain. That in turn dictates where it begins and ends.

      I’m yet to even begin thinking of the next episode, but off the top of my head I would think it would be impossible to describe the Arjuna-Bhisma battle through Bhim’s pov — he wasn’t there. Equally, both the original and conventional narratives are that on day ten, just as the Pandavas were focussed on bringing down Bhisma, the Kauravas had planned to attack Bhim in force, because they reckoned he was the single biggest obstacle to their breaking through. So while Arjuna was battling the grandsire, Bhim was involved in a life or death struggle of his own.

      I don’t know yet how I’ll write this one, but I’d think those who anticipate a clinical description of the Arjuna duel will end up disappointed. I could pander, by figuring out a way of having Bhim watch that battle, but I don’t see the need to depart that far from the actual narrative.

      Another reason for the fluctuation is that I don’t pack every episode with extended descriptions of battle. This latest one for instance has more “off the ball” stuff, as in Bhim’s ambivalence about Arjuna, than actual fighting — so to use a cricket analogy, it likely feels a bit like watching a low-scoring ODI on a bad pitch, in the middle of an otherwise exciting series 🙂

      • Thanks for the reply. We should not expect a detailed description of Arjuna-Bhim battle. This is a POV version as you had said earlier, and Bhim as much as he respects Arjun, he cannot just pause and watch the battle when has a job to do. The same should apply for some other battles of Arjuna killing Karna and Jayatrada. Though I hope we get to see the feelings/rage of Bhim, when he kills the Kauravas.

        I realize that your writing is very much adhoc, and for that reason some of the new dimensions of Bhim seen in war section or earlier is very refreshing.

  4. Smooth, Prem, real smooth.

    My thinking is that with rediff and cricket coverage et al, you missed your true calling — writing screenplays for the silver screen!


  5. One thing I must say – It is going to be gut wrenching reading about the deaths of Abhimanyu and Ghatotkacha. You have shaped these two so well, I actually now hate their earlier generation for forcing a war on them.

  6. Very well written Prem. I really look forward to each episode – especially now when it’s getting so exciting with the battle scenes, etc.

  7. This episode was very close to what I have read before. Some of the events are exactly the same – the difference here is that they are narrated from Bhim’s POV. It adds a lot of colour when you read this from the POV of a person involved in the war. You feel the emotional ups and downs that the character goes through – something that cannot be brought out by the ‘fly on the wall’ narration. Brilliantly written as well.

    I was wondering how you will be bringing out Arjuna’s hesitation to take on Bhishma and the other acharyas. That part has come out well by having Abhimanyu narrate the incident to Bhim. Instead of making it appear as Bhim hearing it from the messengers, bringing in Abhimanyu into the it paints a better picture – it brings out the relationship between Bhim and Abhimanyu; brings out what a brilliant fighter and strategist the young man is, etc.

    Tomorrow is the d-day – Bhishma’s death at the hands of Arjuna. Looking forward to yet another interesting episode.

  8. I’m gonna find a way to print these to a single pdf file & keep it for posterity.

    Unless, of course, you promise to release a book version of these when you are done!

    Beautiful! Thanks ever so much for making the old epic come alive again.

    • Not to worry. The book version I’ll think about once I have some mental space to assess the work required, but I’ve been collecting the text versions of these and tightening/proofing/editing on the fly; will put the whole thing up on Scribd or some such as soon as the series comes to an end.

      • Brilliant. I had already started collating the initial episodes with a view of combining the series in the form of an ebook. Looks like I don’t need to anymore. 🙂
        Also, superb description of the war. Specially, the tactics and strategy involved. For a generation grown up on the Chopra’s overdramatised version of the epic, it’s like a breath of fresh air. Great going!

        • 🙂 Hey, if you have the know how to create e-books, I’ll send you when done the finished version, and let you handle the tech end. Strictly a volunteer job — but creating an e-book out of the whole narrative, and putting it out there for whoever wants to download, read and save, is an idea I’ve been toying with.

        • Agree. But when I compare Chopra’s Mahabharata with Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana or Krishna – the former is miles ahead in terms of screenplay and direction. 🙂

          Also, the BR Chopra version was the first attempt in bringing the epic into some kind of visual form – barring some of the mythology based Telugu movies – and you must give him credit for making it a fairly engaging series.

  9. Wonderful as usual !. My first comment here. Your war descriptions are fantastic. The flow is so smooth, that I stop only when I realise I have to wait for one more post for more.

  10. Brilliant again! Interesting to read about Abhimanyu and Ghatotkacha in such detail. Most of the other versions seem only to say that they were great warriors but dont explain too much about their feats.
    Now, I cant wait until Monday for the next episode.

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