Bhimsen: Episode 59

[Episode 58] [Archives]

A jackal howled in triumph as it found some overlooked scrap of human flesh; its fellows joined in the demoniac chorus, while vultures wheeled and circled overhead.

Abhimanyu is dead.

The thought echoed in my head as I walked on through the pitch black night, looking for some sign of where it had happened.

Abhimanyu is dead.

Never again would he walk into my lodge late in the evening, still fresh after a day of performing prodigies on the battle field. Never more would I hear that call I had grown to love:


Over the course of the saddest day of my life, we had pieced together details of how he had been killed, but I still felt the urge to visit the scene, to see for myself where that boy, so dear to me, had breathed his last.

Drona had taken over command of the Kaurava army. Bhisma was still clinging to life; the Kauravas had laid him out in state in one corner of the battlefield, surrounded by an honor guard. Karna had given up his sulks and joined the Kaurava ranks; his presence in the field had given a fillip, a  fresh impetus, to the enemy.

The 13th day of the war was very nearly fatal for us. The army that confronted us that dawn was arranged in a defensive quarter moon formation but once battle was fully joined, it swiftly rearranged itself in the concentric circles of the Chakravyuh, that legend said was impenetrable, with Drona and Karna at its center.

Drona, our spies warned us, had promised Duryodhana he would end the war that day by killing or capturing Yudhishtira. Engrossed in the immediacy of combat, I hadn’t realized the change in Kaurava tactics; it was when a messenger came up to warn me that our center was in danger of buckling that I rushed over in support. Nakula, Sahadeva, Drupada and others were also riding up to help contain the Kaurava charge.

There was no sign of Arjuna, but I had no time to worry about that. The Kauravas in their circular formation pressed us hard. The battle raged with an intensity I had never seen before, and when it looked like we might be overwhelmed, I persuaded Yudhishtira to withdraw from the field.

When you are in the thick of battle, it is difficult to get a sense of what is happening across the field – there is just you and the next person to kill, or to be killed by. Even so, I got the feeling that something had happened to change the dynamic. The Kaurava charge seemed to lessen in intensity. I saw no sign of their main warriors in our immediate vicinity – I wondered if they were facing their own problems elsewhere on the field.

I thought to seize this opportunity, get a sizeable troop together and launch a counter-offensive. Just then, a stray arrow pierced deep into my right forearm. Rather than fight on, I signalled Visokan to drive off the field so I could get the attendants to clean and bind my wound.

“Something bad must have happened,” Visokan said as we drove into camp, pointing his whip at the chariots drawn up in front of Yudhishtira’s lodge.  I hurried inside.

“Abhimanyu is dead!”

Krishna’s face was ashen; for all the philosophies he had spouted about life and death being an illusion, the loss of the nephew he had brought up as his own son appeared to have hit him hard.

Arjuna was slumped in a corner, staring fixedly into the fire and seemingly oblivious of the tears that streamed down his face. A grim-faced Sahadeva sat beside him, a hand on my stricken brother’s shoulder.

Through the rest of that awful day, we waited in Yudhishtira’s lodge as a succession of spies passed through with details of what had happened.

Drona had waited until Arjuna was busy coping with a challenge by Bhagadatta, backed by a large force of Samsaptakas. From our spies, we had heard about this group of mercenaries who had been formed with the sole intention of harassing and containing Arjuna.

Once Arjuna was fully occupied in dealing with the challenge, Drona switched formations and launched his own attack. Abhimanyu, who was at point in our own formation, realized what was happening and decided the best counter was to break the Chakravyuh and take the attack to Drona himself.

“We told him to wait, we told him we would send messengers to Arjuna to warn of the danger and bring him to the front line,” Satyaki said, his voice hoarse with grief. “The boy wouldn’t  listen. He mocked us for being cowards; he said if we waited it would be too late; he said if we didn’t back him, he would go in there alone…”

It takes considerable skill to break the Chakravyuh — I think Arjuna was the only one of us who had perfected that skill. Abhimanyu managed to smash through the outer wall of the Kaurava formation. The plan was for Drupada and Satyaki to follow in his wake, backed by the rest of our cavalry. Once inside the enemy formation, Abhimanyu would lead the charge to smash through the concentric rings that comprised the formation, and attack Drona and Karna directly.

“It was Jayadratha who blocked us,” Satyaki said, tears streaming down his face. “Abhimanyu had penetrated inside and I was following immediately behind when the Sindhu king drove into the breach, crippled his own horses and overturned his chariot. He sealed the breach before Drupada and I could break through, and then he escaped into the melee.”


“The man you pardoned,” I reminded Yudhishtira. This was perhaps not the best time to upbraid my brother, but I didn’t care – I had just lost a boy I cared for more deeply than anyone else, even my own sons.

“His crime merited death, but you ordered us to let him go. You said we could not be responsible for making our cousin Dusshala a widow! Thanks to your generosity, Abhimanyu is dead and now Uttara is a widow – who among us has the courage to tell her that her husband of four months is dead?”

My brother kept his eyes fixed on the floor; if he heard my recriminations, he gave no sign, he didn’t say a word.

What was there to say? Abhimanyu was dead.

Over the past 12 days, the boy had already done enough to overshadow the reputations of the great warriors on either side – the deeds of Bhisma, Drona, even Arjuna himself had paled in comparison. But on this day, trapped in the midst of the massed Kaurava forces, he excelled himself.

“There is no celebration in the Kaurava camp,” one of our spies reported. “Even their own balladeers are praising Abhimanyu. The very gods came down to watch, they are singing…”

For once, I thought, the balladeers didn’t exaggerate – even the gods would have wanted to watch this boy. Having seen him in action, I knew that even overwhelmed as he was, he would have fought with joy, with the exuberance that was so uniquely his, without a shadow of fear or doubt.

Shalya and his brother Rukmaratha had tried to stop his progress; Abhimanyu killed Rukmaratha and forced Shalya to retreat.

Dushasana engaged him and, overwhelmed by the supreme skill of the youngster, fell fainting on the deck of his chariot. Karna drove out to check him and, wounded in combat, was forced to scurry back into the safety of the center.

Abhimanyu then did what no one believed was possible – alone, surrounded on all sides by hostile troops, he smashed through the supposedly impregnable formation and penetrated to its heart.

Each time a spy came to us with some fresh narrative, we grieved anew – but at no point did sorrow threaten to completely overwhelm me as at this moment. It must have been Abhimanyu’s audacious assault that blunted the edge of the Kaurava attack – preoccupied with trying to stop the boy from winning the war single-handed, the Kauravas didn’t have the space to push their own attack through.

I had sensed that diminished intensity, I had realized that the Kauravas had been blunted. Yet it never occurred to me to wonder why – instead, I had driven off the field to rest. Had I only known… had I thought to ask, to check… had Satyaki or one of the others thought to send messengers…

Unable to contain his brilliance, the Kauravas were forced to try and overwhelm Abhimanyu through sheer weight of numbers.

Drona, Kripa, Shalya, Ashwatthama, Duryodhana, Karna – vaunted warriors all – surrounded him. A revived Dushasana and his son came up in support.

Even so, Abhimanyu held his own,  until an increasingly desperate Drona, seeing his carefully planned strategy reduced to ruin, signalled to Karna to attack from the rear.

While Drona and Ashwatthama drew Abhimanyu’s fire, Karna slipped behind him and cut down his bow. Dushasana and Duryodhana, mounted on elephants, combined in a flanking attack to smash his chariot.

Abhimanyu fought on with his sword until he was disarmed; bleeding from a thousand cuts, he picked up the wheel of the shattered chariot and fought on while the Kauravas fired at him from all sides.

When the boy finally collapsed under the weight of his injuries, Dushasana’s son had slipped in behind him, and crushed his head in with a mace.

Unable to sit still under the burden of grief, I wandered out into the now deserted battle field, seeking some sign of where it had all happened. The chandalas had done their job well – there was nothing: no smashed chariot, no shattered arms, no chariot wheel with which he had fought his last fight.

Nothing, except the memories that pierced my heart.

Abhimanyu’s smile.

Abhimanyu’s eyes on me, shining with pride at my skill.

Abhimanyu’s voice, in the timbre of which man and boy met so nicely, calling out to me.


Had he, I wondered, in those final moments called for help? Had he longed for  his father? He had once come to my aid unasked – did he, as he fell before those cowards, wonder why I wasn’t at his side when he most needed help?

“I was looking for you,” Dhristadyumna’s voice interrupted my thoughts as I walked past the door of his lodge. His eyes were bloodshot with alcohol and with grief; he was sitting on the step, drawing aimless patterns in the dust with the tip of his spear.

“Challenge Karna to a duel tomorrow – he will not refuse a direct challenge,” Dhristadyumna said. “Drona is my problem and I’ll deal with him – but if we are to win this war then one of us needs to take out Karna before he can do too much damage, and the only one who can is you.”

“Arjuna has vowed to kill Karna,” I reminded him.

“Vows are cheap – there are far too many of them already. And besides, where does he have the time? He is preoccupied with other things – he has vowed that he will kill Jayadratha by dusk tomorrow.”


“Your brother, who else?! In full hearing of our soldiers, Arjuna swore that he would kill Jayadratha before dusk, and only after that will he perform Abhimanyu’s last rites. Failing that, he said, he will immolate himself on the funeral pyre of his son.

“How could he have been so criminally stupid?” Dhristadyumna said, after a long pause. “Drona is no fool. He will put Jayadratha at the center of his army, surround him on all sides with his best warriors and keep him safe through a day’s fighting – and we will use our best warrior to his own stupidity.”

“Where is Krishna? Why didn’t he stop Arjuna from making such an impossible vow?”

Dhristadyumna snorted with impatience, took a long swig of sura and passed the goatskin to me. “Oh, Krishna—he is busy. He is consulting priests and astrologers.”

“What?! Why?”

“How would I know? He didn’t take me into his confidence – he summoned the priests and our astrologers, and has been meeting with them in Arjuna’s lodge. What a time to consult omens!”

I walked away, too disturbed in mind and restless in body to seek the comfort of my bed. As I neared the river, I saw etched against the night sky the silhouette of a single chariot drawn up on the bank. Someone was perched on its shaft, staring out across the river.

“Abhimanyu is dead,” Ghatotkacha said as I walked up.

“No one – not your brothers, not your other sons, not Dhristadyumna or Krishna or any of the great kings who have come to fight for you, have ever treated me and my men like human beings,” he said, jumping down from his perch and standing there, staring off into space.

“For all of you, we are just tribals. What does that king, your brother for whom we are shedding our blood, call us? Rakshasas?! We are fit only to kill for you, but not to be treated as one of you. Abhimanyu alone…”

His voice broke; he fought for control while I stood there, feeling the truth in my eldest son’s words scour me like a whip.

“Abhimanyu alone, from that first day we met in your lodge, treated me like an equal, like a brother. He sought me out each day, he asked about my comfort, he mingled with my men, he praised my skills, he told me he had never seen a greater fighter and how proud he was that I was his brother…”

I had never known any of this. In the 11 days since he had come to join us, I had never thought to seek out my own son, to find out how he was doing. He had once rescued me from dire peril; even then, I had never looked for him after the day’s battle to utter a word of praise, of thanks.

How many lessons did I still have to learn? In how many more ways would Abhimanyu continue to prove that he was better than all of us combined?

“And now he is dead! Abhimanyu is dead! They surrounded him like jackals and brought him down – all those great warriors, those acharyas, behaving in a fashion we tribals would scorn…”

In the darkness, his sword flashed fire – a world of pain and anger powered his arm as the sword bit deep into the shaft of the chariot.

He looked down at his weapon as if he had never seen it before.

“My spy in the Kaurava camp tells me that Drona is planning to fight at night – the fool! That is just what we like, us tribals. Rakshasas!” The way he spat out that last word was an insult to us.

“Night is our time – they will not see us come, they will not see their death till it is too late.”

His laugh rang out, a sound more blood-curdling than the howls of the jackals that occasionally pierced the stillness of the night.

“From now on when I kill, it is for him, for Abhimanyu. I will write the story of my brother in the blood of the cowards who brought him down!”

Bhimsen: Episode 57

[Episode 56] [Archives]

“I came to check if you are well, Valiyachcha,” Abhimanyu said as he walked into my lodge. “When you didn’t come for our meeting, I wondered if you were injured.”

I took another long swig from the goatskin of sura a disapproving Visokan had procured at my insistence. The fiery liquor, part of a stock Ghatotkachan’s band had brought with them, burnt a furrow down my throat but did nothing to erase the frustrations of the past two days.

Day eight had for all practical purposes been a stalemate. The cremation pyres on either side burnt bright with the bodies of countless dead, but neither side had achieved any quantifiable advantage. And that was prelude to today, when I watched another of our children die and missed yet another chance to kill Duryodhana and end this seemingly endless carnage.

Iravan, Arjuna’s son by the Naga princess Ulupi, had been our sole bright spot on the eighth day.  A messenger had come to me with word that the youngster, who was protecting our left flank, was being hard-pressed by a band led by Shakuni’s brothers.

By the time Visokan maneuvered the chariot over to the left quadrant of the field, I had nothing to do but admire the youngster’s skill with the sword – at his feet lay the bodies of Gaya, Gavaksha, Chamavat and Arjava; even as we approached, I saw him send Suka’s sword flying and, in a reverse stroke almost too quick for the eye to follow, behead this last of Shakuni’s brothers.

Iravan was beside me as, on the ninth morning, we crashed headlong into the Kalinga army that had been deputed to protect Duryodhana. Seeing that the boy was more than holding his own, I concentrated on cutting a path through the opposing forces.

The first hint I had of trouble was a roar of rage from my right. Ghatotkacha, bloodied sword cutting ruthlessly through flesh, was racing in our direction. I spun around to see what had attracted his attention and, to my left, saw that Alambusha, the renegade tribal who was fighting on the Kaurava side, had jumped onto Iravan’s chariot and attacked him from behind, in violation of the conventions of warfare.

Before I could do anything to stop him, the son of Rishyasringa had thrust his sword deep into Iravan’s side; as the Naga prince staggered under the unexpected assault, Alambusha’s sword cut deep into Iravan’s neck.

The boy died as I watched; an instant later, Ghatotkacha had leapt onto Iravan’s chariot and engaged Alambusha in direct combat. The two were seemingly well-matched, but Alambusha wilted before my son’s berserk fury; a brisk flurry of swordplay ended with Ghatotkacha slamming into his enemy’s body with his shoulder and tumbling him off the chariot. Before Alambusha could recover, Ghatokacha had jumped down, grabbed him by the hair and with one stroke, cut off his head.

Roaring in rage and triumph and holding the bloody head aloft, he marched through the field. The Kalinga forces, paralyzed by the spectacle, made way before him and I drove through the breach, heading straight for Duryodhana.

Mayan had made for me a set of special javelins. Unlike the conventional spear with its triangular point and wooden haft, these were extremely heavy and made entirely of iron, with a thick stock that tapered seamlessly to an elongated point. I had conceived it as the perfect weapon against an elephant; it was Visokan who had once suggested an alternate use.

Grabbing up one of the javelins, I tensed for the effort and hurled it as hard as I could at the near wheel of Duryodhana’s chariot. I had looked to shatter the hub, but by sheer luck it slipped between the spokes; the tip embedded in the ground and the haft smashed the spokes of the moving chariot, bringing it to an abrupt halt.

I vaulted onto the ground and raced towards Duryodhana, mace held in front to ward off his arrows. Even so, one pierced the leather guard on my chest; I felt its tip pierce the flesh between my ribs. Shrugging off the pain, I crashed the mace into the damaged chariot wheel; the wood splintered, the chariot listed to one side as Duryodhana fought for balance.

He grabbed his mace one handed and tried to block my swing; I shifted aim and slammed my mace onto the handle of his, very near his fingers. The shock of the blow tore the mace out of his hand; he was at my mercy and my mace was raised for the killing blow when a sudden searing pain forced me to drop it.

I spun around, and found Bhisma confronting me with arrow poised on drawn bow string. His first arrow had ripped across the back of my hand; I was now unarmed and convention dictated that he could not fire on me. Having effected the rescue, he turned to deal with Shikandi who was driving up on his left; I looked for Duryodhana, meaning to finish what we had started, and found him riding hastily off the field of battle on a horse he had apparently commandeered from one of his troops.

It was not these cumulative frustrations that kept me from the meeting, but the fear that I might end up voicing a thought that loomed larger with each passing day: our real problem was Arjuna.

There was no question that my favorite brother was, more than any of us, responsible for the fearsome carnage in the Kaurava rank and file – the fire arrows, the poisoned darts and other weapons he had taken such pains to acquire and master were proving to be irresistible.

But it was not to kill common foot soldiers that we needed him – and in any event, ever since Ghatotkacha had joined us with his little band of tribals, he had proved to be a one-man scourge among the Kaurava armies.

When during our long years in exile we anticipated the war to follow, it was always with the comforting thought that in Arjuna we had our trump card against the master warriors who would be ranged against us. That feeling had been reinforced when he single-handedly routed the Kaurava raiding party that had attacked Matsya in an attempt to flush us out of hiding.

Now that the time had come, our presumptive strength was proving to be our biggest weakness. It was not that he was refusing to meet Bhisma, Drona and Kripa in combat – but when he did find himself confronting one of the gurus he tended to pull his punches, fighting at less than his best and allowing the senior warriors considerable freedom of movement.

His hesitation was beginning to cost us. The Kauravas, who had taken considerable losses in the early days of the fighting, had begun over the last two or three days to turn our own tactics against us. Bhisma and Drona had launched a wave of attacks that was rapidly eroding our own numbers.

We were an increasingly tense lot as a result; tempers were fraying, and Yudhishtira’s snapping at Shikandi and me the other day had gone from being the exception to being the rule when we met for our strategy sessions. Krishna had on that occasion narrowly averted a showdown; he backed Shikandi down just when it seemed the Panchala was on the verge of stuffing my brother’s ill-judged criticism down his throat.

Krishna had a point when he said we needed to rediscover our unity of purpose – but for that to happen, we needed a major breakthrough. Brilliantly though Dhristadyumna was leading us, we seemed to have hit an impasse, and the longer this went on the more certain it was that we would lose.

To blame Arjuna in open meeting was not going to serve any purpose other than to heighten tensions; there was also no way I could discuss all this with a young man who idolized his father.

“I’m tired, that is all,” I told Abhimanyu. “I just thought I’d get some rest.”

“It is about my father, isn’t it?”

I looked at him, startled yet again by perspicacity unusual in one so young.

Abhimanyu smiled. He had Subhadra’s eyes – large, limpid, fringed with the long, delicate lashes of a young maiden. In repose he looked absurdly young, like a boy playing with his father’s weapons. In battle, though, he had already earned a reputation as one of the most brilliant warriors of our time; even the balladeers on the Kaurava side were singing his praises.

“Something happened today that is good for our cause,” Abhimanyu said. Arjuna, with Abhimanyu, Sarvagan, Suthasoman and others in support, had clashed with a large segment of the Kaurava forces led by Bhagadatta and Shakuni.

Yet again, it was Bhisma who had come to the rescue just when it seemed the Kaurava commanders would be overwhelmed and killed. Arjuna fought back, but his efforts were defensive, aimed at limiting the damage Bhisma could do rather than directly attacking the grandsire.

Angered beyond measure by his friend’s actions, Krishna had tossed aside the reins and confronted Bhisma, armed only with a horsewhip. Arjuna had pleaded with him, reminding Krishna of his promise that he wouldn’t take up arms in this war.

“A horsewhip is not a weapon, my uncle told father.”

Krishna had bitterly upbraided Arjuna for neglecting his duty, and swore that the next time he backed off when confronted by one of the acharyas, Krishna would renege on his promise and take up arms.

“This evening for the first time, I saw determination in my father’s eyes as we were discussing strategy,” Abhimanyu told me. “One of our spies told us that Duryodhana is worried the grandsire could tire and be overwhelmed; he has deputed Dushasana to guard Bhisma at all times.

“Tomorrow, my father and Shikandi will fight together. Shikandi will confront Bhisma and my father will target Dushasana. Then, at the opportune moment, they’ll switch targets; my father will attack Bhisma when he is most vulnerable.

“Valiyachcha, mark my words – tomorrow, Bhisma will die at my father’s hands.”

Bhimsen: Episode 55

[Episode 54] [On writing the war episodes] [The complete archives]

We are faced with a vastly superior force, Dhristadyumna pointed out when we met before dawn on the second day to decide on strategy.

The accepted strategy in war is to concentrate on the main commanders, to kill or capture them at the earliest opportunity and thus render the opposing army leaderless.

That will not work for us here, Dhristadyumna said. The first day’s fighting had given him a good idea of Bhisma’s strategy. Each of the Kaurava generals had been protected by large segments of troops; the harder we tried to get to the leaders, the more losses we sustained against the numerically superior opposing forces.

Starting today, Dhristadyumna said, we had only one goal – to kill indiscriminately, to inflict maximum casualties on the opposing army. We would exert all our energies to stop the Kaurava generals when they looked like causing havoc in our ranks, but outside of that we would ignore the generals and focus our energies on decimating the opposition troops.

Arjuna decreed an eagle in flight as our battle formation for the day.

I would, from the position of the eagle’s beak, lead the formation. Yudhishtira and Virat would be positioned at the throat; Dhristadyumna would be stationed at the left wingtip with Abhimanyu and Sarvadhan, while Arjuna controlled from the right wingtip with Satyaki and Drupada in support. At the feet of the eagle, protecting our rear from surprise attacks, would be Nakula and Sahadeva with the sons of Draupadi, and Rukmi in support.

The Vidharbha king was an unexpected addition to our army. Years ago, Rukmi had planned to marry his sister off to the Chedi king Shishupala, but Rukmini was enamored of Krishna with whom, Arjuna had once told me, she had been carrying on a clandestine correspondence through messengers and pigeons.

When time came for the marriage, Krishna arrived in Vidharbha in the guise of a guest and carried Rukmini off in his chariot. Rukmi gave chase with a band of select troops, but was routed by Krishna and Balarama.

Rukmini’s earnest pleadings saved her brother’s life then, but before letting him go Krishna forced him to shave off half his hair — the ultimate insult for a warrior. He had since made friends with Krishna and, when war was declared, offered his services. “Use him in a defensive role,” Krishna had advised us. “As a warrior, he is not good enough to be in the front rank, but he and his men will help swell our numbers.”

As our army arrayed for battle, I had reason yet again to bless Arjuna for the long years he had spent wandering the country learning strategies and tactics from different lands. The formation he had suggested was the perfect answer to our requirement: it massed our troops in the eagle’s ‘body’, giving me enough backing as I sought to batter my way through the opposition while out on the two wingtips, our leading warriors were able to range free, causing mayhem where and how they could.

This was my kind of battle. Yesterday, I had spent a good part of time and energy trying to break through and get to Duryodhana. Today I didn’t bother with any specific target; at my direction, Visokan drove my chariot straight at the center of the Kaurava army, arrayed for the day in half moon formation. Fighting occasionally from my chariot, often on foot and, when faced with massed troops, from the back of Kesavan the elephant, I gloried in the task of killing all who came before me.

At some point in the midst of my frenzy, I became aware of signs of trouble to my left. I headed in that direction and, from my vantage point on Kesavan’s back, I saw our commander engaged in a terrific struggle against Drona.

Dhristadyumna’s chariot lay shattered around him; as I watched, he rushed forward with his mace only for Drona to cut it to pieces with his arrows. Dhristadyumna continued to advance, swinging his drawn sword to clear a path through the opposing foot soldiers and get at his tormentor, but he was clearly at a disadvantage.

I jumped down onto my chariot and had Visokan charge straight at Drona. The large cutting swords attached to the axle of my chariot churned through the opposing foot soldiers as I concentrated my fury on Drona.

With my first salvo I cut down his flagpole, which is the archer’s first line of defence; even as he turned his attention towards me, I cut his bow in half with another volley of arrows.

Years ago, when we studied war craft under him in Hastinapura, he had contemptuously rejected my skills as an archer and publicly said I was only fit to wrestle for the amusement of the public – today was my opportunity to pay him back.

‘Fat fool!’

That long ago taunt rang in my ears. As Drona hurriedly strung his spare bow, I cut it into pieces; before he could re-arm himself I sent a volley of arrows between the shafts of his chariot, cutting the bindings. Freed of their traces, his horses bolted, overturning the chariot as they broke free.

As the old man tumbled out of the chariot and scrambled in the dust, I laughed out loud in triumph.

I flung aside my bow, grabbed my mace and was about to leap out of the chariot and close with him when Visokan warned of danger approaching from my right. The Kalinga king Srutayu, mounted on a mammoth tusker and leading a large force of elephants and men, was rushing to Drona’s aid.

Visokan told me later that he had never been as alarmed as when he saw me leap off the chariot and, mace in hand, run straight at Srutayu’s elephant.

Years ago, in the paddocks of Hastinapura, the old mahout who was my mentor had taught me of this one fatal weakness of the elephant: between the two masses of bone on its forehead there is a very small, unprotected gap where its nerve endings are clustered, and where it is most vulnerable to pain.

Approaching the elephant at a dead run, I timed my jump and grabbed its tusk with my left hand. In the same motion, using the momentum to augment my strength, I swung the mace at that precise spot on its forehead I had been taught so long ago.

Maddened by the pain, Srutayu’s elephant reared on its hind legs while I hung on for dear life. As his front feet hit the earth I swung again, smashing the mace repeatedly onto that spot. Squealing in pain and rage, the beast swung around in a circle, shaking its head violently to dislodge me; the other elephants panicked at the sight of the enraged tusker and stampeded straight into the midst of their own troops.

Srutayu jumped off the back of his elephant and straight into my path; before he could recover his balance, I swung my mace in a crushing blow at his skull and roared in triumph as I felt the splatter of his blood on my face and arms.

The Kalinga forces, already scattered by the berserk fury of the elephants and now leaderless, turned tail and ran; I raced back to my chariot and set off in pursuit, slaughtering at will till the sudden blare of trumpets sounded the onset of dusk and the end of the day’s battle.

Dhristadyumna hugged me as I walked into his lodge for our evening review. “We had a good day today,” he said. “The battle went exactly as I had hoped; we inflicted heavy losses on their troops and took few losses of our own. I don’t think they’ve understood what we are trying to accomplish – they kept throwing their soldiers at us, which is exactly what I hoped they would do.”

Dhristadyumna had once told me that the war would be won not by the seasoned generals and the acharyas, but by the young – and it was increasingly easy to see why. He was breaking away from established strategies and tactics, adapting to the fact that we were outnumbered and finding his own solution to the problem while Bhisma, the most experienced warrior on either side, continued to operate within the confines of convention.

To my surprise, I saw Krishna stretched out on a plank bed on the floor of Dhristadyumna’s lodge, with attendants applying herbal salves to multiple wounds on his arms and chest. Arjuna was pacing the floor furiously; Abhimanyu walked beside him, talking earnestly to his father.

Noticing my look of surprise, Dhristadyumna pulled me aside. “That is the other thing I hoped would happen today,” he said when we were out of earshot. “For all Krishna’s advice, Arjuna has been reluctant to fight. He is fine when facing the troops, but the minute he catches sight of one of the gurus he loses his will.”

My brother was ranging free on the right, slaughtering soldiers in their dozens when Bhisma charged up in his chariot to oppose him. Arjuna lost his fervor; the grandsire however held nothing back in a ferocious attack.

“Arjuna would have turned his chariot about rather than fight, but by then some of Bhisma’s arrows wounded Krishna,” Dhristadyumna told me. “The sight of Krishna bleeding drove your brother into a fury; he forgot who he was fighting, and my father tells me Arjuna fought so brilliantly, many on both sides nearby stopped to watch. The old man was forced to turn his chariot about and race away from the field, they tell me.”

Abhimanyu walked with me as I returned to my lodge that night. “Valiyacha [father’s elder brother],” he said as we walked, “your son Sarvadhan is amazing! Trigartha and his men attacked us today while uncle Dhristadyumna was battling Drona – you should have seen Sarvadhan fight, oof! He routed them all on his own, and I saw Trigartha fall wounded in his chariot. You must tell my uncle to put Sarvadhan with cheriyachan [father’s younger brother] Nakula – we are somewhat weak in that section.”

I stood still for long moments, bemused by the self-confidence of this boy who was yet to turn 16. His deeds today were, I was told, so prodigious Dhristadyumna had decided to invite him to represent the younger generation in our daily council of war.

Abhimanyu, Sarvadhan, Sutasoman, Prativindhyan… young boys of fifteen and sixteen who should by rights be enjoying their youth, basking in the attentions of the palace maids and who instead were fighting beside us as equals, and making us proud with their deeds.

They were, I realized at that moment, the real future of our race. In time to come, perhaps, our chief claim to fame would be that we were their fathers; when they spoke of me it would be as the father of Sarvadhan, as Abhimanyu’s uncle…

We sat down to our meal. Like the boy he really was, he spoke with enthusiasm of all that he had seen that day – but I noticed that even in the full flight of his excitement, he never once spoke of his own part in the day’s battle.

A terrific clamor interrupted our meal. Visokan came running in. “A new group has come to join us,” he announced, smiling broadly. “The whole army has turned out to watch the fun – soldiers in carts drawn by bulls bigger than you have ever seen… dozens and dozens of wild horses… and they’ve even brought their own food – pigs, cows… come, see, it’s a big tamasha…”

Visokan darted out again. Moments later, a tall young man stepped through the door and prostrated at my feet.

“News travels slowly to us who live in the forest,” Ghatotkachan said as I raised him to his feet and looked at him in wonder – not least because I had to look up at him.

He had grown considerably since that last time I saw him, when he had with casual indifference gifted Yudhishtira Jatan’s head wrapped in a leaf and walked off into the forest without a word. His voice, when he spoke, was that of a man full grown.

“I am here to fight on your side, father – and I have brought an army with me.”

“I’ll take our brother to the lodge where we are staying,” Abhimanyu said, touching Ghatotkachan’s feet.

“No, no one needs to worry about us – we are most at home sleeping on the ground, under the stars, and we have brought our food with us,” Ghatotkachan smiled. “Father, I’ll see you in the morning – tell me what you expect of me, and it will be done.”

He turned and strode out without a glance, while Abhimanyu and I looked at each other in bemusement.

PostScript: I am travelling this week and will not be accessing the net for the duration. The next episode, and regular blog updates on cricket and all else, resume Monday July 6. See you here then; be well, meanwhile.

PPS: For those asking, no, I am not doing a game by game round up on the India-Windies series, but will do an end-of-series post on some off the ball thoughts when I get back from my travels. Later, peoples…