Bhimsen: Episode 60

[Episode 59] [Archives]

I returned to my lodge after offering prayers at the yagna shala and found Visokan waiting for me with the kind of metal body armor I hate to wear.

People always speak of my strength but in my own mind, it was speed that was my greatest asset — and going to war in a bulky metal breastplate and arm guards was not conducive to the kind of quick movement that gave me my edge.

“What happened to my usual armor, the one of cowhide?”

“Have you heard anything of Karna’s secret weapon?” Visokan asked seemingly at a tangent. “Some say it was gifted to him by Indra, king of the gods.”

Not for the first time, I marveled internally at his ability to keep abreast of all that was going on. There was no one in the vicinity when Dhristadyumna had asked me to challenge Karna, and yet here was my charioteer discreetly hinting that he knew what was in the wind.

I shrugged. They also say Arjuna had weapons gifted by Indra, by Shiva, by Agni and Vaayu and other gods – stories that we had carefully spread through our own balladeers and spies as part of the tactic of demoralizing the enemy.

It was, I knew, perfectly possible that Karna had some kind of special weapon — the best warriors always save such for special enemies, or for those dire situations when they find themselves in trouble.

I had the iron javelins made to my specifications; Arjuna had several special arrows that I knew of. It would have been surprising if Karna, who had been preparing for this war for a long time, didn’t have some secrets up his sleeve as well.

“The story is it was actually created for him by a master engineer in Anga,” Visokan told me. “I haven’t been able to get much detail yet, but from what I hear I think it is a javelin, fired from some sort of mechanical contraption anchored in his chariot. Those who speak of it call it the Shakti.”

Possibly, I thought, a version of Arjuna’s Pasupathasthra — which, we had got the balladeers to sing, was gifted to him by Shiva himself. In actual fact, Mayan had fashioned for my brother a special arrow with a diamond tip capable of penetrating any armor. Just below the detachable tip, the wood was carved in the shape of a hollow bulge into which snake venom was filled before the head was screwed back on. The arrowhead was fashioned in such a way as to break off inside the body — you couldn’t pull it out, and the venom would do the rest.

“Very effective, but you can only prepare so many of these,” Arjuna once explained while showing off the weapons he had acquired on his travels. “The venom loses its potency within hours, so you need to fill it afresh each time – and you can’t go around with a basket of snakes in your chariot to draw venom from!”

Karna’s weapon was likely a spear, a larger weapon built on the same lines. In any case it was all speculation, and I didn’t see much sense in getting worked up about it.

“I was just thinking that maybe he will have to use that weapon today,” Visokan said. “I heard you are going to challenge Karna to battle…”

Ignoring his circuitous hints, I strapped on my favorite cowhide breastplate and arm guards and went out to supervise how my weapons were arranged on the deck of the chariot.

Dhristadyumna’s guess proved correct: Drona arrayed the Kauravas in the ultra-defensive Kamalavyuh, with each petal of the lotus formation led by a master warrior and comprising all three wings of the army. Jayadratha had been secreted in the center of the formation, the bud. The advantage was that no matter which point Arjuna attacked, the other petals would instantly close, creating a tight defensive shield around the target.

In the event I didn’t have to challenge Karna — it was he who found me as I drove diagonally across the field, heading towards where Arjuna was battling mightily to break through. An arrow flecked with peacock feathers embedded itself deep in my flagpole as a sign of his challenge; as I turned to confront him, two crescent-headed arrows pierced my breastplate.

To the acharyas, I did not rate as an archer on the same scale as Arjuna and Karna, but I had one thing going for me: power. And importantly, Visokan knew my strengths as well as I did. He needed no prompting; swiftly, he backed up the horses and drove away at a diagonal, putting distance between us.

“Coward,” Karna’s voice cut across the din. “Stand and fight!”

An instant later he was staring down at his bow, which I had cut in two. From this greater distance, the power of my arms and shoulders gave me the edge — I could shoot arrows further, and with greater force, than Karna.

I had a stock of specially prepared arrows — longer and stronger than the conventional ones, these were much harder to draw and release, but their heft gave them additional range and power the conventional arrows Karna was shooting at me did not have.

Realizing the danger, he kept trying to close the distance; with effortless skill, Visokan danced our chariot out of the way, maintaining the distance and constantly maneuvering so I had a clear view of my target.

I wanted to tire Karna out before I closed with him. My arrows thudded repeatedly into his breastplate and onto the wheels of his chariot; his armor was strong, but the repeated impact of the arrows created an additional physical hardship for him.

Thrice in succession, I cut his bow in half. As he bent to pick up a fourth, I noticed the first signs that he was tiring, and pressed my attack harder. A lucky shot took him dead center in the chest; he reeled, and grabbed hastily at his flagpole for support.

My time, I realized, had come. I picked up the arrow I had been saving — a long, extra thick one fitted with a crescent-shaped head and flecked with pigeon feathers — and carefully fitted it to the string.

Karna fired a volley at me; I shrugged them off and, as he bent to replenish his quiver, gave the word: “Now!”

I expected Visokan to spring the horses forward at speed to reduce the distance; I was poised to send the arrow straight at Karna’s throat. To my surprise, Visokan did the exact opposite — he drove diagonally away, putting even greater distance between us.

The moment was lost, and I was furious.

“You cannot kill him — it would be a huge sin,” Visokan said.

“He is your brother!”

The bow fell from my suddenly nerveless fingers; my limbs felt paralyzed. I willed myself to bend and pick up my bow again, but collapsed instead to the deck of the chariot, reeling under a shock far harder to absorb than the worst Karna had thrown at me.

“Karna is your mother’s eldest son.” Visokan’s words came to me as if from a great distance. I pulled myself back onto to my feet — and recoiled as Karna, who seemed to have gotten a second wind, drove his chariot close to mine and poked me in the chest with the tip of his bow.

“Fat fool!” he sneered. “You are only fit to wrestle in the mud with people like you — don’t ever make the mistake of thinking you are an archer.”

Words were always Karna’s sharpest weapons. He appeared to have forgotten that he had been just an instant away from death — or perhaps he hadn’t realized the extent of the danger he was in.

“I promised your mother I would kill only one of her sons, and you are not him. Get out of my sight before I change my mind.” With indescribable contempt, he flicked me in the face with the disengaged string of his bow and drove away without a backward glance.

Around me the battle surged, but my senses refused to take any of it in.

Visokan drove away to the edge of the field and, finding a quiet corner, stopped the chariot.

“It was when I was coming from Kasi to join you,” he said. “Since Queen Balandhara and your son Sarvadhan were with us, our force was travelling in slow stages and at one point, we made camp on the banks of the Ganga.

“I never meant to eavesdrop,” he said. “It was early morning and I was heading to the river for a bath. I saw your mother by the river bank and went towards her, meaning to pay my respects. It was when I got closer that I saw the man who was seated, in padmasan, before her.

‘I was unmarried, my child — what else could I do?’, Visokan heard my mother say.

“Karna laughed, and there was a wealth of bitterness in his laugh, a world of hurt,” Visokan told me.

‘I was brought up by a charioteer and his wife, and I always was, and always will be, their son,’ Karna had told my mother. ‘I will not now give up the identity I have lived under all these years, I will not give up those who were my friends when your sons taunted me as an outcast and you stood silently by, never once giving me the protection of your name.

‘But for you, I will do this — I will only kill one of your sons. Whatever happens, Queen — I wish I could call you mother but I just cannot think of you that way — whatever happens, you will have five sons.’

My mind whirled with the possibilities. Karna the eldest Pandava — rightful heir to the throne of Hastinapura?! How vastly different things could have been…

Every trick, every stratagem Duryodhana had launched against us had been with the knowledge of Karna’s backing — if Karna, Arjuna and I stood together, would our cousins ever have dared treat us the way they did?

Would they have dared deny us our due, knowing that the three of us in alliance could have annihilated them in an instant?

The fatal game of dice that had led to this disastrous war — would it have happened? Karna, not Yudhishtira, would as the eldest have received the challenge, and by no stretch of the imagination did I see him accepting, and falling into Sakuni’s trap as Yudhishtira had done.

And the Swayamvar? There was no doubt in my mind, as I recalled the events of that day, that Karna would have hit the target — I still recalled vividly the skill with which he had strung the bow, before Draupadi contemptuously rejected him as a candidate for her hand. If only my mother had spoken out, if only she had told us the truth, it would have been Karna who won her hand…

“Not now!” Visokan said, jolting me out of my reverie. “Dusk is approaching… Arjuna will need help…”

He raced the chariot across the field and through the massed Kaurava forces, the swords attached to the hubs of my chariot cutting brutally through flesh as we dashed headlong towards Arjuna. I grabbed my mace and vaulted out of the chariot, needing the bloody immediacy of hand to hand combat to overcome the demons of the mind.

Karna — the eldest Pandava. My brother and my king…

Ranging ahead of Arjuna’s chariot, I killed mindlessly, brutally, my mace mechanically rising and falling, breaking limbs, crushing skulls as I fought to clear a path for my brother. And yet, I thought, it was all going to be too late — the sky was darkening around us; any minute now the bugle would blow to signal dusk, and the end of hostilities.

Ahead of us, buffered by a massed array of archers and swordsmen, I could make out the chariots of Karna, Duryodhana, Sakuni, Dushasana and Drona. Somewhere in their midst would be Jayadratha, totally insulated from Arjuna’s revenge.

My brother would lose — there was no way we could bridge the distance in time. Arjuna would die on Abhimanyu’s funeral pyre  — and with that, our hopes of winning the war would go up in flames.

The sky went dark.

A massive roar went up from the Kaurava ranks. The rank and file threw their swords and bows and arrows up in the air; ahead of me I saw Drona, Duryodhana and Karna join the cheering throngs.

I glanced over my shoulder at Arjuna. Krishna had let the reins drop; on the deck of the chariot I saw Arjuna, head hanging in despair, slowly unbuckle his quiver and throw it down.

“Get in!” Visokan’s voice in my ear startled me out of my stupor.

“It is not over yet,” he said as I vaulted into the chariot. “Look up — it is the surya grahan, the eclipse…”

Realization hit me like a jolt — so that was why Krishna had spent the night closeted with the astrologers. Krishna bringing the chariot to a halt… Arjuna’s seeming despair… it was all part of a plan, and I didn’t need anyone to tell me it had originated in Krishna’s fertile brain.

I grabbed up my bow and quiver; even as I straightened, Visokan yelled “Now!”

I fought to balance myself as the chariot jumped ahead, smashing through the celebrating Kaurava hordes. But quick though Visokan was, Krishna was unimaginably quicker. The white horses of my brother’s chariot passed me in a blur; Krishna manipulated the team with extraordinary skill as he cut right across the field, towards the celebrating generals who were crowding around the triumphant Jayadratha.

Visokan accelerated, staying close to Arjuna’s flank. I trained my bow on the Kaurava generals — it would be cruel irony if Arjuna managed to fulfill his vow only to be cut down by the others.

The sky cleared.

Just ahead of me and to my right, Arjuna stood tall on the deck of his chariot, the light glinting off the diamond tip of his arrow. The twanggg of his release sounded above the din of the as-yet unsuspecting Kauravas; I watched the flight of the arrow as it shot across space and, with unerring aim, smashed deep into Jayadratha’s throat.

I heard the triumphant notes of Devadutt, Arjuna’s conch; an instant later, Krishna’s Panchajanya joined in.

Dusk fell. The trumpets of the heralds blared out, a high note dropping off in a diminuendo to signal the cessation of hostilities.

As the flames of Abhimanyu’s pyre burnt bright against the sky, I stood looking out across the river into the darkness beyond. Somewhere out there, in one of the lodges reserved for the womenfolk, sat my mother.

I wondered what she was doing, what she was thinking. She would, I knew, be calm, tranquil even in the face of the news of death and devastation ferried over by our messengers.

Maybe she was talking to Draupadi, or to Balandhara who she had invited to stay with her. Or maybe she was with Uttara, consoling the young princess even as the flames consumed her husband’s body on the other side of the river.

My mother — who, married when young to an impotent man, had manged to produce three children.

My mother — who, even before her marriage, had managed to have a son she had told no one about.

Who knew how many more secrets lay buried in her heart?

PostScript: A very busy weekend and a busier Monday ahead, folks — so, this episode ahead of schedule. The next one will be up Tuesday/Wednesday.

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37 thoughts on “Bhimsen: Episode 60

  1. Prem,

    Wonderful writing. And you are a gifted story teller.

    A quick question here.
    Karna says
    ‘But for you, I will do this — I will only kill one of your sons. Whatever happens, Queen — I wish I could call you mother but I just cannot think of you that way — whatever happens, you will have five sons.’


    Which means either he or Arjuna will be killed in the battle. And the other four will remain alive. Does that mean he tells Kunti that he is fighting a losing cause ? Why is that not highlighted ? Why does Bhim not react to that statement from Karna ?

    And btw, can you think of making e-book out of it and load it as an app for iPhone ? 🙂

    your fan,
    Balaji

  2. Prem

    Amazing writing. You have given a different view for my favorite epic. The story of a family’s struggle seems more authentic and real than the epic-myth we grew up with.

    Was surprised about the revelation about Karna to Bhim during the middle of the war. Never come across this version before. Also , even if the fact was known before, pretty sure Karna could never been the eldest ‘Pandava’, as the other sons were born as heirs to Pandu. Karna would just have been considered Kunti’s eldest. He was their brother, he could never have been their King. For example, Satyavati had a son (Vyasa) before she wed into the Kuru House, but Vyasa was never the heir nor considered the ‘King’ by her Kuru sons (Vichitraverya, Chitranga). Karna would have been in the same situation 🙂 He would have escaped the ridicule of ‘lower birth’ because he was a son of a Queen, thats about it!

  3. This is the first time ever I heard that Bhim almost killed Karna in their battle. But Then this also the first time i am reading Bhim telling this story.
    Just like in ‘Roshomon’ there could be following possibilities
    1. The narrator is telling the truth.
    2. The narrator is lying.
    3. The narrator internally believes that he almost killed his opponent and thinks that it is the truth. But in reality it was not even close he got beaten badly.

  4. The Karna story is always touching ! In fact Rabindranath Tagore wrote a famous poem called ‘Karna – Kunti Sangwad’ , as in “Dialogue between Karna and Kunti”. That is considered to be one of his greatest works, and it is heart wrenching the way Karna “talks” in it. The English translation are obviously not half as good, but it’s worth a read.

    • There is a marathi book called “Mrutunjay” based on purely Karna’s perspective. Must read! 🙂

      • Yup, I have heard about that book. Waiting for a English trans-literated version. Hoping Prem wud do it 😉

  5. Excellent (logical) piece – you ignored the impossible thing about sending the head to his father’s lap etc.The explanation of the Shakti and Pasupatta was great… And finally, the solar eclipse brilliant – is it your own imagination or is it already out there in some version?

    • I might want to take the 5th on that eclipse bit, boss — if it is totally in error, it is my error not MT’s. 🙂

      • Prem,
        No need for the fifth. That’s the most logical explanation and I have read about theories that went about trying to date the Mahabharat war times based on the “suryagrahan” that happened during the stories viz. Duryodhan’s birth, … , and then Jayadratha’s death etc .. Plus one extra hint is that the last suryagrahan should be exactly a couple of minutes before the regular sunset time.. Was pretty interesting read. Will try to hunt for that later..
        Keyoor

    • Okay, since there are things in here that will likely be contentious: Please note, all: The bit about how Bhim comes to know of Karna’s parentage is MT’s, I only fiddled with the dialog. The details of the weaponry and the battle are mine.

      The Arjuna incident is half and half. MT’s version is that Arjuna pretended to be disheartened, the Kauravas relaxed, and Krishna seized the opportunity to open it up for Arjuna, all part of a plan worked out ahead of time.

      I added Bhim’s presence cos it was easier to describe that way, and the bit about the eclipse. Everything else logically hangs together, but I am afraid I can’t provide any source for the eclipse bit outside of my own imagination.

      Righto — like I said, an insanely busy time beginning. All other notes, responses etc when I get back to normal life. Adios, folks

  6. Prem
    You cant do this to us-Today is only Friday and 4 more days before the next episode-Cant bear to wait that long
    your description of the battle today resembled your cricket write ups-Amazing that even in those days they practiced mental disintegration before battles,like Cricket captains do these days-Secret weapon of Karna reserved for the best warrior of the opposite camp-Just like Shoaib Akhthar said against Tendulkar before the 2003 world cup match
    For Andhraites like me it was NTR who immortalised Karna and elevated Karna to a divine status this unfortunate warrior really deserved.

  7. Prem,
    Have been an avid reader of this wonderful series. Just a pointer. It was said that prior to the war commencement, Duryodhana met Sahadeva who was supposed to be the best astrologer then according to the scripts. And Sahadeva had advised Duryodhana that if he starts the war on the No Moon day, the victory would be his. Sahadeva did this to stay true to his knowledge and though Duryodhana was his enemy, he can’t lie when asked based on astrology. The story also goes on to say that Krishna did the rituals of No Moon day, a day prior itself to fool the Kauravas (this was how Bodhayana was created i was told) and the Kauravas started the war on the same day and eventually lost. Going by this logic, if the actual No Moon day (amavasya) was on 2nd day of war, there is no way Surya Grahan can happen during the course of the war as it can happen only during Amavasya. Can you share your thoughts on this line of the story please..

    Cheers

    • Prabhu, hi — the thing is, there are so many versions of every single incident in the Mahabharat that attempting to write these episodes while staying true to every possible interpretation is totally impossible.

      *If* that version you cited were true, then *this* version could not have happened, yes, but the point is this narrative doesn’t get into any of that stuff with Sahadeva advising Duryodhana and Krishna playing a trick to mitigate the effects.

      My point is, this version has its own intrinsic logic, and all I attempt to do with these posts is to adhere to it. Not dissing the version you point to, merely suggesting that I am in this one not concerning myself overly with the many variants that are out there. Cheers, mate, and thanks for the kind words

      • Just to point out another topic, It’s possible that the episode with Duryodhana and Sahadeva did happen and the puja’s were done on Amavasya or a day before or after. However there does not seem to be an indication that the war started on a new moon day, reducing the possibility of a solar eclipse. The Puja’s or yagna’s used to be pretty elaborate (still are if you ask me :-)) and could have been done much prior to getting the armies into position.

  8. Prem

    Excellent episode as always. But I am in a quandry. I finished reading Ramesh Menon’s version of the Mahabharata and in that it is stated that the news of Karna being Kunti’s eldest born is revealed to Yudisthra only at the end of the war when they are performing the last rites for all the dead. Apparently this is when Yudisthra cursed all of womankind that they would never be able to hold a secret. Is it common to have such wide variations in different interpretations of the Mahabharata?

    • Sure, why not? The most commonly read version of the Mababharat, that is the “definitive” one, is along those lines. The early versions tended to be considerably simpler, before various voices added their bits to make the whole thing ‘grander’ and far more sweeping. If you consider Krishna Dwaipayana the most authentic source, as he was the only one of the many Vyasas alive at the time of these incidents, then his version, Jayam, has the revelation coming, on more or less the lines above, in the middle of the battle. But then, the original Vyasa’s version was that of a family embroiled by circumstance, before the myth-makers got into the act and added bits and fanciful pieces to it.

      Also, the nice thing about Hinduism and this particular epic is no one signs off on the “definitive” version, so each of us has the liberty to interpret in our own ways, within the broad framework of the story. [Actually, I suspect this same topic will recur for debate a few episodes later, when further revelations are sought, and obtained].

  9. Oh this keeps getting better and better.

    Public Service Announcement for people who have read the early episodes too long back to remember:
    Check out the end of episode 5 and the beginning of episode 6 for some delicious foreshadowing relevant to the revelation about Karna and Bhim’s reaction to it.

  10. Hi Prem,
    Isn’t it surprising that no one in the Kaurava ranks knew about the occurrence of the solar eclipse? The C-in-C of the Kaurava army, a brahmin, should have definitely known, as there are some rituals to be performed during such time.

    Strange!

    • Fair point. The best guess answer is that in the immediacy of combat and with the Kauravas increasingly getting the worst of it, they missed the ball on this. Equally, priests go about doing their thing — armies then, by all accounts, had their own battery of priests who did all sorts of daily pujas and stuff. They would have done the needful; likely that in the heat of battle the point of the eclipse slipped the collective mind. Of course, in the more accepted version, Krishna tricks the Kauravas by using his discuss to cast a shadow on the sun for a crucial moment.

      • I agree with Prahalad in the sense that how Kauravas could not know about the eclipse. Reading your episodes, there seems to be a major role for the spies… Wouldnt the Kauravas had known that Krishna had summoned a lot of priests/astrologers? That should have clearly given them a hint…

        • Thomas, the Kauravas would not logically need the spy-conveyed news of Krishna’s meeting with astrologers to realize an eclipse was coming — their astrologers and priests would have been aware of it and done all the pujas and stuff necessary.

          It is one thing to know something; it is quite another to work that into your strategy. In the heat of battle, the Kauravas focus on their one objective — keeping Jayadratha alive till dusk. Dusk falls, they celebrate, and only realize their error when it is too late.

          Don’t you see this kind of thing happen all the time? To take a silly, but obvious, example — cricket captains stuffing up when every sign, including very dark clouds overhead, indicate rain and hence the necessity to speed up or slow down the game; yet how many times have teams been caught napping?

          The skill of Krishna lay not in knowing there was an eclipse coming; it lay in realizing that it could be worked into an effective strategy, and taking pains to figure out when, then positioning his friend at the right point at the right time, to take advantage.

          All of which I am arguing on my own, mind. Would Bhima know? Would he even care?

          And finally, would it be preferable to have the version where Krishna, having promised never to touch arms, then uses his discuss to obscure the sun?

          • MPKDH

            1) Mein Prem Ki Dewaani Hun….

            2) Shah ji, tussi great ho!!

            3) Next time you come to NY, please come to my house for dinner in NJ

            4) After Mahabharat, start writing about your ancestral house

            5) How do you intoduce yourself to others??

            “Prem naam hei mera……. Prem Panicker” ala Prem in Bobby ??

          • Wow.. You are really getting “into” the character… As many others have said, give a shot at scriptwriters… We really need scripts that have been thought through and sans loopholes!!!

            • Script writing for Bollywood?!?!

              Please – we don’t have to lose yet another good writer to the film world and write inane plots.

              There was once a great Tamil writer by name Sujatha – he was very good until he started writing film scripts that is. 🙂

  11. Thanks, guys — sorry, wrote this one in the heck of a rush, hence some typos. Appreciate the quick catch

  12. Thrilling narration. I have only read about a third and could feel the excitement as Bhim goes about facing Karna.

    Thanks for the 3rd episode of the week

  13. What a treat!! Great beginning to the weekend. Excellent narration as usual. But it looks like this was put together in haste. Some uncharacteristic errors-

    “the power of my arms and shoulders and arms gave me the edge”

    “Arjuna would die on Abhimanyu’s funeral pyre of Abhimanyu “

  14. Prem,

    Have been quietly and immensely enjoying your Bhimsen posts. Couldn’t keep quiet about Visokan’s revelation to Bhima. Is this what MT wrote, or is this your transcreation?

    • That is MT’s storyline; in this bit I only added and rewrote the dialogue and interludes, and added Bhima’s reactions/thoughts as he hears the news.

  15. Prem

    Thanks for the bonus episode. I just spotted a typo :

    ‘ Arjuna would die on Abhimanyu’s funeral pyre of Abhimanyu’

    Cheers!

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