Krishna was waiting for me when I returned to my lodge that night. He needed to talk to me, he said.
In all these years of knowing him, Krishna was invariably punctilious in doing what he saw as his duty. Whenever he visited us, he made it a point to go first to see Yudhishtira and then, as inevitably, he would seek me out, touch my feet and ask after my well-being before going off to find his friend.
But never once had he sought me out for a private conversation, never once asked for my advice, my help, as he was doing now.
“You must talk to Yudhishtira,” he told me. “You are the only one who can. It is not good for him and Arjuna to quarrel.”
When Karna led the Kaurava troops out at dawn on that 16th day of the war with Shalya as his charioteer, I’d guessed there would be trouble.
My brother – ever since the day Visokan had told me who he really was, I often caught myself thinking of Karna as my brother and even feeling a momentary twinge of anger when others referred to him as the suta putra – had wanted this command; it was this desire that had led to his quarrel with Bhisma.
From the moment the heralds signaled the start of combat, Karna hit us with the force of a whirlwind. If Bhisma and Drona had deployed strategies and tactics based on the principles of war craft we had been taught since we were young, Karna’s tactics were more free-flowing, and considerably more dangerous.
He led the Kaurava troops in a series of raids, swinging from one end of the field to the other, catching us off balance and hitting us hard, causing immense losses to our foot soldiers and cavalry.
Nakula was the first among us to face the full force of his fury. Karna caught him at an unsupported moment in his defensive position on the right side of our formation and engaged him in combat. While his forces decimated the troops Nakula led, Karna toyed with my brother, destroying his weapons one by one, cutting his armor to shreds, wounding him in a dozen places and finally, in a supreme act of contempt, jumping onto Nakula’s chariot, grappling with him and throwing him out into the dust.
I spotted him as he was leaving the field to seek treatment for his many injuries. “That suta putra told me to tell mother Kunti that he remembered his promise, and would spare even the sons of Madri,” a bewildered Nakula told me. “What promise? What did he mean? And why did he let me go? When he jumped onto my chariot, I thought the end had come…”
I had no time to explain, even if I could – Ashwathama’s peculiar war cry rang out just then, and I turned to confront this challenge.
Drona’s son had a voice unlike any other – more the shrill neigh of a horse in rage than anything human. The story I heard was that when the startled wet nurses first heard his cry at birth, they gave him the name ‘Ashwathama’ – the one with a horse’s voice.
I looked to use the same tactics that had worked so well against Karna – with Visokan keeping a distance from Ashwathama’s chariot, I tried to use my remaining stock of larger arrows and my superior shoulder strength to hurt him, tire him out before closing with him.
Ashwathama’s skill as an archer was without parallel – and I was now finding out that he was considerably shrewder. Where Karna had felt insulted at being bested by me and repeatedly tried to close the distance, Ashwathama increased it and, staying just out of ideal range, effortlessly cut down the arrows I aimed at him.
My stock of special arrows was rapidly running out; the danger for me would come when they were all gone, and Ashwathama could close the distance and use his greater skill to good effect.
“Save one or two of those,” Visokan, as aware of the danger as I was, said over his shoulder. “Let him think they are all used up – when he looks to attack, you might get a chance to use them.”
It was a desperate ploy; I thought afterwards that only the skill of Visokan and the timely arrival of Satyaki saved me from humiliation or worse.
The prolonged combat had drained me; besides, I needed to replenish my stock of arrows. I signaled to Visokan to drive off the field, but we were cut off by a band of Duryodhana’s brothers attacking in formation.
For this I needed no strategies, no tactics – just the deep, burning anger that surged up within me whenever I caught sight of any of my cousins. The skill level of the younger ones in the group was rudimentary – in a few moments of furious combat, with Visokan weaving the chariot in and out of their ranks, six of them fell to a combination of my arrows and spears.
With only Chitrasena and Vikarna left standing, I vaulted out of my chariot, sword in hand. Chitrasena fancied himself as something of a swordsman – back when we all trained together, he loved to show off his skills.
It was with drawn sword that I met him. He was good, no question – fast on his feet and lightning quick at switching the angles of his attack. Against him I used my sword like a bludgeon; instead of merely deflecting his attacks, I repeatedly smashed my sword against his on the blocks, using my superior strength to drain him.
From the diminished power of his strikes and the time he took to bring his sword back in line after each thrust, I sensed that he was tiring fast. There is a trick that I had learnt during my time with the Nagas – they use it with spears, but I had practiced it with the sword whenever Arjuna and I trained together.
Instead of repelling his thrust, I caught Chitrasena’s sword on the blade of my own and rapidly twirled it around in quick circles. The pressure of holding on to the sword began to tell on Chitrasena’s already weakened wrists; I judged my moment and, when our swords were at the lowest point on the circle, suddenly disengaged and with a reverse sweep, cut deep into his neck.
Vikarna ran to where his brother lay in the dust, his life blood gushing out through the cut in his neck. I had no intention of killing this youngest of my cousins; I had never forgotten that when Duryodhana, Dushasana and others insulted Draupadi that day at Hastinapura, Vikarna was the only one in the Kaurava ranks to brave Duryodhana’s anger and to protest the wrong that was being done.
I was walking back to my chariot when his challenge stopped me in my tracks. “I don’t want to fight you,” I told him.
His answer was to rush at me with his sword raised high. I decided to finish this fast – it was the only thing I could do for him. I blocked his downward cut with my elbow against his forearm, knocking his sword out of line; before he could recover, I buried my sword in his chest all the way to the hilt.
Catching him as he fell, I lowered Vikarna gently to the ground and pulled my sword out. For a long moment I stood looking down at this most honorable of my cousins, wishing things had been different, wishing I could have befriended him, wishing his decency had prevailed with his own brothers…
I strode back to my chariot and ordered Visokan to drive me back to my lodge, wanting space, needing some time to myself. The last thing I expected was to find Krishna waiting for me.
“Yudhishtira and Arjuna had a huge quarrel today,” he told me.
Alarmed by the havoc Karna was creating, my brother had foolishly challenged him. Karna toyed with Yudhishtira, destroying his chariot and disarming him with ease. He then threw aside his own weapons and attacked Yudhishtira with his fists, battering him into submission. Yudhishtira fell; Karna stood over him, mocking, taunting, then left him lying there in the dust with a parting word and a kick.
My brother retreated to his lodge, and found Arjuna there.
“That set him off,” Krishna told me. “He called Arjuna all sorts of names, upbraided him bitterly for leaving you alone on the battlefield…”
Krishna had tried to pacify Yudhishtira, but that only goaded my brother more. “I’ve been listening to his boasts for thirteen years,” Yudhishtira said, “I’ve been hearing him talk endlessly about how he will deal with Karna – but now that the time has come, he hides here while Karna destroys our forces!
“Coward!,” he said. “If you can’t do it, give your Gandiva to Krishna – maybe, like that suta putra you are so afraid to face, driving a chariot is what suits you best!”
Seeing Arjuna’s hand tighten on the hilt of his sword, Krishna had hastily come between my brothers, looking to make peace. But Yudhishtira’s words had pushed Arjuna over the edge.
“This fellow – what has he ever done but live off the fruits of others?” Arjuna lashed out. “From the moment he saw her he wanted Draupadi, and he managed to trick mother into getting her married to all five of us!
“He talks of cowardice, this man who has always stayed a mile away from any actual fighting, hiding in the middle of our troops and letting others kill and die so he can be king. If Bhima calls me a coward, I’ll take it – but not this…”
Krishna had somehow managed to push Arjuna outside before either of them could say something irrevocable. “But now Arjuna has shut himself up in his lodge; he says if Yudhishtira wants a kingdom let him shed his own blood, win the war if he can.
“You are the only one they will listen to,” Krishna said.
As I walked over to Yudhishtira’s lodge, I couldn’t help thinking that our real problem was not the Kauravas but the bitterness each of us had accumulated over the years.