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 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.”
“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!”