The mist rolling in off the river added a layer to the darkness of the night.
It was Drona’s decision to continue the battle beyond dusk. The Kaurava commander was under increasing pressure from Duryodhana who, our spies told us, had accused the acharya of pulling his punches, of not attacking flat out against his favorite disciples.
The heralds had signaled a cessation of hostilities when Jayadratha fell, but there was barely time to replenish our quivers and tend to our wounds before the blare of trumpets summoned us back onto the field.
A sudden, blinding ball of flame exploded in the air a little ahead of me. Close on its heels came the unmistakable sound of Ghatotkacha marking another kill – a shrill, ululating cry that pierced the ear and paralyzed the mind.
My son hadn’t exaggerated: he owned the night and already, an hour or so into the fighting, there was enough indication that Drona had blundered badly.
For once, Ghatotkacha was fighting in formation. His chariot was in the lead, flanked by two others on either side. Around them were ranged his small but highly effective band, fighting on foot the way they liked to.
I had gone up in support, but I really had very little to do. The men slipped in and out of the shadows at will, dealing death with sword and bow and spear and melting away before the enemy could react to their presence. But even this silent, deadly assault paled in comparison with what Ghatotkacha and his four companions were doing.
Every so often, one of them would toss a ball of pitch high in the air; another hit it with a flaming arrow and as the pitch exploded in flames, they went to work, brutally massacring the stunned, blinded Kaurava forces.
It was a scene straight out of hell: the screams of the dying mingled with the panic-stricken yells of their fellows who found fire raining down on them from above.
A messenger arrived from Krishna to put me on guard. Drona, Krishna warned, might use the cover of night to try to kill or capture Yudhishtira.
Visokan drove headlong towards that part of the field where my brother was stationed. We arrived just as Ashwathama launched a ferocious assault on Yudhishtira’s position. Satyaki and Nakula had already come up in support; as I slipped into a defensive position in front and covered my brother, Drona and Kritavarma drove up to join Ashwathama.
Fighting in the dark of the night was, despite the massive torches both sides had deployed, nightmarish. Without a clear view of the field, it was difficult to assess the situation tactically and deploy counter measures. We surrounded Yudhishtira on all sides in a defensive formation, but it seemed to me that we were vulnerable to a flat out assault from any one point.
Visokan brought my chariot up close beside my brother’s; amidst the din of combat I argued for discretion, and finally persuaded Yudhishtira to leave the field.
It was not that my brother was lacking in courage. Though not as skilled as Arjuna and I, he was in fact a better warrior than either Nakula or Sahadeva, especially when fighting from a chariot. But it would serve no purpose for him to be felled by a stray arrow, or to be captured, I pointed out.
With the immediate danger averted, I ranged the field looking to inflict damage where I could, and came upon Sahadeva staggering around in the dark. His armor had been shattered; he was bleeding from multiple wounds, and seemed on the verge of collapse.
“Karna!” Sahadeva told me, once I had lifted him onto the deck of my chariot and settled him down. “He destroyed my chariot, broke my bows, cut my sword to pieces… he humiliated me, he had me completely at his mercy – and when I was disarmed and defenseless, he flicked me in the face with his whip and told me to go tell our mother that he had sent her another gift. And then he drove off!
“What did he mean?”
“Who knows!” I pretended disinterest as Visokan drove back at speed towards our camp. “Never mind that – we have to get your wounds tended.”
We pulled up outside Yudhishtira’s lodge, and I carried Sahadeva inside. Visokan changed to a single-horse chariot, and drove back onto the battlefield to see what was going on. I called for some Sura and, with Yudhishtira for company, sat awaiting the reports of our messengers and spies.
“Tonight is good for us,” Yudhishtira said. “Satyaki killed Somadatta, hadn’t you heard? But it is your son who is winning us this war. Duryodhana sent the rakshasa Alayudha at the head of a large force to attack Ghatotkacha – your son and his men slaughtered them all; Ghatotkacha cut off Alayudha’s head and in the dark, drove up to Duryodhana’s chariot and threw it at him! He is fearless, that boy…”
Visokan walked in just then – and it seemed that he, too, couldn’t stop talking of Ghatotkacha’s deeds this night. “If this goes on for much longer, the war will be over tonight,” Visokan said. Drona had sent his son, supported by a force of about one thousand troops, against Ghatotkacha.
“It was something to see! Ghatotkacha had his men with him – some two hundred of them, I think. The way they fight, oof! They slip through the shadows, and the only sign of their presence is the bodies they leave behind. The Kaurava troops were slaughtered; Ashwathama has been wounded, badly I think – I saw him in headlong retreat.”
Messengers came in with fresh reports. Out on the eastern side of the field Drona and Dhristadyumna were locked in fierce combat; Karna had joined in, a messenger reported.
Krishna walked in just then with Arjuna. “Where is Ghatotkacha?” Krishna asked. “Send a messenger to him – let him go in support of Dhristadyumna. Ghatotkacha is a peerless warrior, even more so at night – if anyone can stop Karna, it is him.”
Visokan drove off to deliver the message.
I decided to return to my lodge – it was nearing midnight; the fighting wouldn’t last much longer before the trumpets called a halt and before you knew it, it would be dawn and the killing would begin all over again.
For how much longer could this war go on, I thought as I walked. Already both sides had taken grievous losses – the Kauravas far more than us. But the major warriors remained undefeated – Duryodhana, Drona, Karna and Ashwathama on the Kaurava side; Arjuna, Dhristadyumna and I on our side. And until the leaders fell, the killing would go on…
I sat on the little stoop outside my lodge, taking occasional sips of the goatskin of sura I had provided myself with.
A blaze of light caught my attention. I jumped up and looked out in the direction of the field. An enormous fireball lit the night sky; over the din of battle I heard the voice of my son — fierce, triumphant.
And then, suddenly, silence – punctured a few moments later by the trilling call of the trumpets crying truce for the day.
I stretched out on the bed, trying to ease the aches and pains of a long day. Outside, I heard the clatter of hooves. Visokan came running into the room.
“Karna almost died today,” he said. “He was forced to use the Shakti to save himself. Ghatotkacha is dead.”
I ran towards Yudhishtira’s lodge, where the lights still burnt bright. My brother rushed up and hugged me tight.
“I am overwhelmed with grief,” he said. “First Abhimanyu. Now Ghatotkacha. I still remember the respectful boy who came to our help at Gandhamadhana… the eldest of our sons… our heir… “
Nakula and Sahadeva came up to hug me, their faces, like Yudhishtira’s, etched in grief.
I slumped to the floor in a corner of the room. Moments later, Krishna rushed in.
“What is this?! Why the long faces? Karna had one weapon, one chance, against Arjuna and now that too is gone. We should be celebrating. Where are the balladeers – why are they silent, the fools? Have them strike up the music!”
Did Krishna see me in the shadows? I suppose not. I slipped out without a word, but Krishna’s voice followed me, adding fuel to the anger I felt burning deep inside of me, anger I did not know how to vent and on whom.
“He may be Bhima’s son but Ghatotkacha is a tribal, a rakshasa. Which of us kings could rule in peace, knowing he and his men were out there somewhere – a renegade band of tribals who come in out of the forests and raid us at will, and against whom all our war craft is useless? Balarama and I had long had it in mind to go after him, to find and kill him and his men — it was only because of this war that I spared him.”
I heard Yudhishtira say something, but the words were low pitched, indistinct. And then Krishna laughed – a harsh, cruel, triumphant sound.
“Do you take me for a fool? It was not for nothing that I sent that message asking him to attack Karna. I knew no one could stand up to Ghatotkacha; it followed that when faced with the prospect of his death, Karna would be forced to use his Shakti.
Now Arjuna is safe – what is the life of a tribal compared to that?!”
I fought down the surging anger that threatened to overwhelm me and headed in the direction of the field. The chandalas were hard at work, piling the bodies of the dead onto their ox-wagons. I walked towards where I had seen that last fireball, and finally I found him.
My first born – sent to die so my brother could live.
My son – born to the woman who one magical evening in the forest had stilled my doubts, who had proved to me that I was not impotent like my father.
Hidimbi — the first woman I had ever had; the first woman I had ever loved…
A sense of shame engulfed me. I had enjoyed my time with her, but when my brother decided it was time to move on and my mother said I had to leave her behind, I had turned my back on her and walked away without a backward glance. In all these years it had never occurred to me, obsessed as I was with Draupadi, to go looking for her.
Even when Ghatotkacha came to me that evening eleven days ago to tell me he had come to fight for me, I never once thought to ask after his mother…
And now he lay there at my feet, this child born to a woman I had loved and left, his chest split open by an enormous iron javelin the likes of which I had never seen before. Around us, head bowed, faces streaked with tears, stood the few dozen members of his tribe that had survived this night.
Vultures wheeled high overhead; in the shadows surrounding us I sensed the gathering presence of jackals sensing a feast.
I had thought, as I stood beside Arjuna earlier that evening, the most heart-breaking thing a man could do was perform the funeral rites for his son. I now knew a greater sorrow — here I stood, a father looking down at the slain body of his son, knowing that he did not even merit a proper funeral.
Ghatotkacha was a Nishada; a tribal. The rules that governed us prohibited cremation for such as him – rakshasas were just so much fodder for the scavenging beasts that roamed the battlefield.
A sudden revulsion swept over me – revulsion for a war that would win us a kingdom in return for the lives of our young.
I pulled the javelin from his chest and hurled it far into the night. Lifting Ghatotkacha’s lifeless body in my arms, I strode through the blood-soaked field and headed for the cremation ghat.
I would not leave my son for the jackals and vultures to prey on. He would get a proper funeral, even if I had to build his pyre with my own hands.