War is all consuming – every minute of your time, every corner of your mind, is filled with the enemy who comes at you in endless waves. The days pass by not in minutes and hours but in the blood of the enemy you just killed so you can move beyond him to the enemy you must kill next.
It was as I took position at the head of our formation on the morning of the 17th day that I realized just what all those many moments added up to. Sixteen days ago when I had stood in this identical position and looked ahead, it had seemed as if we were confronting an enemy without end. The Kaurava forces had stretched out in front of us, as far as the eye could see and then beyond.
I realized with a start that today, from that identical position, I could see where the Kaurava troops began – and where it ended; beyond the last enemy I could see the expanse of the Kurukshetra battlefield, now shorn of so many of the soldiers that had once covered it.
The view brought home to me with great clarity that the war was effectively over — we had the greater troop numbers left standing, and there was no question that we would prevail if only through sheer numbers. Yet the killing would not stop — not until Karna, Duryodhana and Dushasana lay dead on the field.
Those deaths had to happen, and of them I would regret only Karna’s – but that wasn’t something I could tell my brothers, even during that endless night I had just spent with Yudhishtira and Arjuna.
Of the two, Yudhishtira was the easier to convince – when I left Krishna and went to his lodge, I found him already regretting his ill-considered words.
“I wish I could take it all back,” he told me even before I could sit down. “I don’t know why I said what I did – the humiliation of defeat at that suta putra’s hands, added to finding Arjuna here in the lodge and not on the battlefield facing Karna – I must have hurt our brother grievously…
“Ask Arjuna to come,” Yudhishtira told me. “I must tell him how sorry I am, I must take back my words….”
“Why?” Arjuna demanded when I went to his lodge with the message.
“He insulted me, abused me without cause — and now because he has had a change of heart, I have to go to him so he can be magnanimous and tell me how sorry he is?”
“Go to him, don’t go – I’m beyond caring,” I said and stormed out of the lodge, knowing even as I put on that display of calculated anger that it was the one thing most likely to force my brother, in his present mood, to listen to me.
I wasn’t wrong — Arjuna came running up as I strode through the empty lane. “Brother, if it had been you who said those things I would not have reacted as I did – but this man who hides behind our army, behind the strength of your arms – he had no right to accuse me of cowardice. How can I now go to him?”
“Because he is your elder brother,” I told him. “Because he is your king – and the reason you are fighting this war. You could die tomorrow and so could I – and it won’t matter because as long as Yudhishtira lives, the throne of Hastinapura remains at stake.”
Words tumbled out of him then – hot, bitter, angry. So many years had passed, so much blood had been shed since the day he had, in Drupada’s court, bent his bow and hit the target – yet even today, it was the one thing that rankled above all others.
“Yudhishtira lusted after Draupadi from the moment he set eyes on her, yet he didn’t lift a finger to try and win her; instead he tricked our mother, he manipulated us all just so he could enjoy her… What kind of elder brother is he that he could do that, what kind of king is this we are hell bent on making, who can subvert justice for his own pleasure?!”
I listened in silence, fighting down my rising impatience – an impatience exacerbated by the fact that I felt the justice in some at least of his criticism. This was my kid brother, the one person closest to me. Clearly he needed to vent; as clearly, I was the only one he could say all this to – knowing him as I did, I knew that loyalty to family would prevent him from speaking in such terms even to Krishna, his dearest friend.
I had no choice but to stand and to listen as years of accumulated angst poured out of him in a tidal rush.
And then he stopped, all talked out and looking drained, spent. He had nothing more to say, and now he did not know what to do.
What could I say to him? It was not, I realized, in me to suggest that he should seek out our brother – while I understood the deference due to the eldest, I couldn’t help thinking that as the older brother, it was Yudhishtira’s responsibility to care for the feelings of his brothers — and besides, he was clearly the one at fault.
“Brother, I agree with much that you say; times without number during these last few years I have felt that our brother was wrong to do what he did or to say what he had. I cannot ask you to go to him now, to make peace when the quarrel was not of your seeking.
“But this much I know – I cannot now abandon this war. Before it began, I made two promises. I promised mother that I would see our brother on the throne of Hastinapura or die in the attempt. And I promised myself that I would kill every one of those who that day insulted Draupadi in open assembly. I will not live with the knowledge that I went back on my promises – so if you withdraw and I have to face Karna at dawn, to kill him before I can get to Duryodhana, then so be it — I will kill Karna, or die trying.”
I walked away.
When I reached my lodge, I glanced back over my shoulder – and saw Arjuna walking slowly, painfully, in the direction of our brother’s lodge.
Filled with a sense of portent, we moved into formation even before dawn. As they passed my position, Krishna stopped the chariot. “Brother,” Arjuna said to me, “today only one of us, Karna or I, will leave the field alive.” He jumped onto the deck of my chariot, hugged me with a sudden fierceness, and was back in his chariot before I could react.
The heralds sounded their trumpets. Arjuna’s chariot darted forward, heading straight to the focal point of the Kaurava formation where Karna had taken position, with Dushasana protecting his left flank and Ashwathama his right.
With the field denuded as it was, I found it easier to sense what was going on across the two formations. I saw Satyaki dashing up to challenge Dushasana and ordered Visokan to drive at an angle, cutting across his path. “Help Dhristadyumna against Ashwathama,” I yelled as we crossed. “Dushasana is mine.”
Visokan was at his best – weaving the chariot deftly through the Kaurava lines, he cut in at an angle that separated Dushasana from Karna.
Finally, I exulted as I roared out my own challenge – finally, a chance to fulfil a vow I had made so many years ago.
There is something impersonal about fighting from a chariot – you fire your arrows, the enemy fires his, the charioteers manipulate the horses, and all you can do is wait for the enemy to make a false move, to expose some chink you can exploit.
The rage I had nursed deep inside of me for close to 14 years needed more – I needed the immediacy, the physicality of hand to hand combat.
Dushasana had a weakness he was not aware of – he was always just that little bit jealous of his elder brother. The world acclaimed Duryodhana as peerless with the mace; deep inside, Dushasana always thought he was as good or better.
I threw aside my bow and quiver, picked up my mace and vaulted onto the ground, roaring a challenge I knew he would be unable to resist.
I knew I could defeat him – he was not half the fighter he thought he was. But I wanted more – I had to humiliate him, I needed to confront him with the fact of his own death before I dealt the killing blow.
He swung his mace, a powerful overhead swing at my head, trusting to his strength to somehow smash through. It was a blow of anger, not sense, and easy enough to block. But instead of blocking his blow overhead, I skipped out of line and, as the mace whistled past me, swung my own mace in a short, hard stroke powered by every ounce of muscle in my shoulders and arms. My mace smashed into his. He fought to control it and swung at my ribs; again I hit him with the double strike, the first one a defensive tap to push his mace out of line and the second a powerful crash of my mace on his, forcing him to exert all his strength to keep the mace from being wrenched from his grasp.
I saw the sweat break out on his brow as Dushasana backed up, looking bewildered. He charged headlong, mace held in front of him. Exulting in my knowledge that he was finished, I sidestepped and again, smashed his mace with mine; this time, I followed up that blow by pressing my attack, aiming not for his body but for his mace, which I bludgeoned in short, hard strikes.
Dushasana backed away, gasping for breath; I noticed him flexing his arms, where the strain had begun to tell. I threw my mace away. “Bare hands, Dushasana,” I roared. “Your hands were strong enough to drag Draupadi to the assembly – now show me what you can do to me!”
He ran at me, more desperation than skill in the charge. It was a lesson I had learnt a long time ago – when fear swamps your senses, the techniques you had learnt are always the first casualty. With clenched fists, he struck at me – blows that were badly timed, lacking in any real power.
I absorbed his blows, taking them on the body and on my shoulders – and laughed loudly, deliberately, in his face. I saw the first hint of fear dawn in his eyes – and switched from defense to attack.
In continuation of a block, I smashed the heel of my palm up under his chin, jolting his head back in time for my left elbow to crash into his exposed throat. As he fought desperately for breath and balance, I hammered my open palms into his ears. He reeled back; I turned sideways and drove the heel of my foot hard into his stomach.
He stumbled, staggered backwards – and fell. In an instant I was on him, my knee on his throat, bearing down while my hands hammered down at his ribs. My hands splayed, fingers curved to hook into his ribcage, I gradually brought all my strength to bear on his lower ribs.
I took my time, increasing the pressure gradually and ignoring his feeble struggles. I waited to see the realization of death in his eyes – and bore down hard.
It was as if the world around us didn’t exist anymore – my whole being was consumed with the lust for a revenge I had long dreamt of.
With a sudden crack, his ribs gave way. I pushed down harder, driving the broken bones into his lungs, his heart.
A great gout of blood gushed up from his shattered chest, drenching my face.
Involuntarily, I licked my lips.
The metallic, slightly sour taste of warm blood reminded me of that day in Hastinapura. I will drink your blood, I had vowed then as I watched Dushasana dragging Draupadi to the center of the assembly, the blood dripping down her legs.
I licked my lips again – this time slowly, deliberately, lingering on the taste of revenge.
In a daze, I walked towards my chariot, my thoughts on a woman waiting somewhere on the other side of the river – a woman with skin of gold, with hair that hung down her back like a black waterfall… a woman who loved to hear of battles, whose lips would part and breasts heave as she listened to stories of killing, of blood.
“Go,” I told Visokan. “Go to Draupadi. Tell her Dushasana is dead… tell her I’ve killed him and drunk his blood. Tell her from me that she can tie her hair up again…”