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.