Sounds of unbridled revelry came to me as I lay in my bed late that night, trying without success to shut out thoughts of all that had happened that day.
Drums thumped and trumpets pealed; balladeers – with an enthusiasm fuelled in equal parts by sura and silver coins – sang incessantly of the greatest archer the world had ever seen. And from the lane outside came the sounds of soldiers celebrating the knowledge that their war was over, that they had escaped death.
Noise is good, I thought as I lay in the dark, staring into the blackness – it anaesthetizes the senses and inhibits thought.
The prevailing mood appeared to have seized even Visokan. When he asked me for the third time in less than an hour if I needed something, I snapped at him. “Go join in the celebrations, get yourself drunk,” I told him. “I don’t need you — I don’t need anyone around me tonight.”
He gave me a strange look, and wandered off into the night. Moments later Arjuna and Dhristadyumna rushed in, and it was hard to tell which was the more boisterous, the more drunk.
“Why are you here by yourself?” Arjuna demanded, grabbing an arm and trying to pull me to my feet. “Come join the fun – Yudhishtira is actually singing and dancing, you must see this!”
What could I say? “You killed our eldest brother today – what is there to celebrate in that?”
I bit down on the thought before it found voice.
The thought had first come to me when, after Visokan left me beside Dushasana’s body, I commandeered an elephant and from its back, surveyed the field.
Off in the distance, I could see the distinctive white horses of Arjuna’s chariot and the golden chestnut ones of Karna’s, whirling in and out of a swirling dust cloud.
Either way, I thought to myself as I guided the elephant in that direction, a brother will die today. Strangely, it didn’t really matter which one it was — I knew I would feel equally devastated.
From my vantage point the duel seemed to be as much about Krishna and Shalya as it was about my brothers – the two demonstrated unbelievable skill, piloting their chariots in a dazzling series of moves and countermoves, each striving to gain some little advantage over the other.
Karna and Arjuna were evenly matched in strength and, as far as I could see, in skill. As I neared the combat zone, I saw Karna in a brilliant move fire a stream of arrows high up in the air. As they curved through the air and came down towards Arjuna, Karna fired a series of arrows in a straighter line, forcing Arjuna to defend at two levels – the ones coming down from above and the ones coming at him straight.
All those years ago, when we were still young boys learning the art and craft of war and Drona had called for a trial of strength, Arjuna had dazzled the spectators with a trick. At blinding speed, he had shot a stream of arrows high into the air; as they came down, he fired a series of white-painted arrows into their midst to conjure the effect of lightning flashes amidst rain.
What was the point, I thought at the time, of endless hours spent practicing such tricks? After each attempt he had to painstakingly gather up his arrows, re-pack his quiver, and then do it all over again — for what? To amuse people with nothing better to do? What I practiced with the mace, the bow and arrow and in the wrestling pit, had a point to it — the skills I was practicing to perfection were the ones I would some day use in actual combat…
Now I saw the point — the “tricks” that amused crowds at a martial arts exhibition were the very ones that, used in deadly combat as Karna was doing now, could force the enemy to confront different challenges.
As I urged my elephant closer to the scene of the duel, I saw Arjuna do something I had never seen before — firing continuously with his right hand and establishing a line of attack, he switched suddenly, seamlessly to his left and used what seemed to me some special arrows. These must be poison tipped, I thought; they were so thin, almost like needles, that he was able to notch five, six of these arrows onto the string at the same time and fire them simultaneously, multiplying the danger to the enemy.
Around them, the fighting had come to a standstill as everyone in the vicinity gathered to watch the duel of the master archers. With each side cheering on their champion and jeering the opponent, the atmosphere was incongruously festive.
Their battle must have been going on for a long time — Arjuna and Karna were both bathed in sweat and streaked with the dust raised by their chariots.
There was no way I could make a path for my elephant through the milling crowd. I jumped down, hoping to push a way through the crowd – and even as I straightened, a groan of despair went up from the Kaurava ranks.
Over the heads of the crowd, I saw the white horses standing stock still. Arjuna stood on the chariot deck, face grim, bowstring drawn taut. I could see the chestnut horses and the head of Shalya in the charioteer’s seat, but there was no sign of Karna.
Using my arms and lowered shoulders to smash a way through the crowd, I got to the front — and saw Karna down on one knee, desperately trying to lift the wheel of his chariot out of a rut it appeared to have gotten caught in. Shalya was furiously whipping his horses but strain as they would, the wheel refused to budge.
“I am unarmed,” I heard Karna say. “Wait till I free the wheel – kshatriya dharma demands that you allow me that…”
Arjuna looked confused; eyes fixed on Karna, he gradually lowered his bow.
“Kshatriya dharma!” Krishna’s voice cut through the hubbub, dripping scorn in every syllable. “This from the man who sneaked behind a sixteen year old boy and cut his bow string from the back!
“Since when did Adhirata’s son, this suta putra, have the right to rank himself with kshatriyas and to invoke our dharma?!” Krishna demanded, turning to Arjuna.
“What are you waiting for? The sworn enemy of the Pandavas, the killer of your son, stands before you – do your duty!”
Just then, a passing cloud obscured the sun, throwing the scene in gloom.
His head tilted to one side and his eye fixed on Arjuna, Karna put his shoulder to the wheel and his hands on the hub, and strained mightily.
I saw despair in his eyes and took a hasty step forward, not quite knowing what it was I intended to do. Help Karna free the wheel of his chariot? Stop Arjuna from killing his eldest brother?
It was all too late – Arjuna’s bow flashed up, an arrow thudded into Karna’s shoulder and, as he turned under the impact, another burst through his breastplate. I saw the sudden gush of blood as the arrow drove deep; an instant later, Karna slumped backwards against the wheel, a third arrow impaling his throat.
A blast from Krishna’s conch was drowned by Arjuna’s triumphant roar; an instant later, Yudhishtira jumped down from his chariot and rushed forward. “Karna is dead,” he yelled, hands thrown up in triumph. “There he lies, the suta putra who caused this war.
“Where are the musicians, the singers?! Let them sing to my beloved brother, to the peerless archer, Arjuna, the equal of Indra himself!!”
Arjuna spotted me and rushed up, arms spread wide. “Brother,” he shouted as he folded me in a hug, “I did it – I’ve killed Karna like I promised I would!”
He danced away into Krishna’s embrace; Dhristadyumna, Nakula and Satyaki all ran forward to add to the acclaim.
The heralds had blown the end of combat. My brothers got in their chariots and drove towards our camp, in a hurry to celebrate; Dhristadyumna, Satyaki, Nakula and others raced to catch up. In their excitement, no one noticed me standing off to one side, eyes fixed on Karna’s lifeless form.
Around me, the dejected Kauravas gradually drifted away, leaving my brother’s body there for the chandalas.
I stood there, not moving, not thinking, not feeling – just waiting until, finally, I was all alone. And then I walked up to where Karna lay.
As gently as I could, I pulled out the arrows that had impaled his shoulder, his chest, his throat. Responding to the promptings of some inner need, I arranged him so he was comfortable — his legs stretched in front of him, the wheel of his chariot supporting his back. With my robe, I wiped the sweat and the blood off his face.
And then I bent low and touched his feet — seeking from him in death the blessings I had never been able to get in life. And even as I did, I cringed at the cowardice that made me glance hastily around to make sure I was alone, that no one had seen this act of mine.