Bhimsen: Episode 60

[Episode 59] [Archives]

I returned to my lodge after offering prayers at the yagna shala and found Visokan waiting for me with the kind of metal body armor I hate to wear.

People always speak of my strength but in my own mind, it was speed that was my greatest asset — and going to war in a bulky metal breastplate and arm guards was not conducive to the kind of quick movement that gave me my edge.

“What happened to my usual armor, the one of cowhide?”

“Have you heard anything of Karna’s secret weapon?” Visokan asked seemingly at a tangent. “Some say it was gifted to him by Indra, king of the gods.”

Not for the first time, I marveled internally at his ability to keep abreast of all that was going on. There was no one in the vicinity when Dhristadyumna had asked me to challenge Karna, and yet here was my charioteer discreetly hinting that he knew what was in the wind.

I shrugged. They also say Arjuna had weapons gifted by Indra, by Shiva, by Agni and Vaayu and other gods – stories that we had carefully spread through our own balladeers and spies as part of the tactic of demoralizing the enemy.

It was, I knew, perfectly possible that Karna had some kind of special weapon — the best warriors always save such for special enemies, or for those dire situations when they find themselves in trouble.

I had the iron javelins made to my specifications; Arjuna had several special arrows that I knew of. It would have been surprising if Karna, who had been preparing for this war for a long time, didn’t have some secrets up his sleeve as well.

“The story is it was actually created for him by a master engineer in Anga,” Visokan told me. “I haven’t been able to get much detail yet, but from what I hear I think it is a javelin, fired from some sort of mechanical contraption anchored in his chariot. Those who speak of it call it the Shakti.”

Possibly, I thought, a version of Arjuna’s Pasupathasthra — which, we had got the balladeers to sing, was gifted to him by Shiva himself. In actual fact, Mayan had fashioned for my brother a special arrow with a diamond tip capable of penetrating any armor. Just below the detachable tip, the wood was carved in the shape of a hollow bulge into which snake venom was filled before the head was screwed back on. The arrowhead was fashioned in such a way as to break off inside the body — you couldn’t pull it out, and the venom would do the rest.

“Very effective, but you can only prepare so many of these,” Arjuna once explained while showing off the weapons he had acquired on his travels. “The venom loses its potency within hours, so you need to fill it afresh each time – and you can’t go around with a basket of snakes in your chariot to draw venom from!”

Karna’s weapon was likely a spear, a larger weapon built on the same lines. In any case it was all speculation, and I didn’t see much sense in getting worked up about it.

“I was just thinking that maybe he will have to use that weapon today,” Visokan said. “I heard you are going to challenge Karna to battle…”

Ignoring his circuitous hints, I strapped on my favorite cowhide breastplate and arm guards and went out to supervise how my weapons were arranged on the deck of the chariot.

Dhristadyumna’s guess proved correct: Drona arrayed the Kauravas in the ultra-defensive Kamalavyuh, with each petal of the lotus formation led by a master warrior and comprising all three wings of the army. Jayadratha had been secreted in the center of the formation, the bud. The advantage was that no matter which point Arjuna attacked, the other petals would instantly close, creating a tight defensive shield around the target.

In the event I didn’t have to challenge Karna — it was he who found me as I drove diagonally across the field, heading towards where Arjuna was battling mightily to break through. An arrow flecked with peacock feathers embedded itself deep in my flagpole as a sign of his challenge; as I turned to confront him, two crescent-headed arrows pierced my breastplate.

To the acharyas, I did not rate as an archer on the same scale as Arjuna and Karna, but I had one thing going for me: power. And importantly, Visokan knew my strengths as well as I did. He needed no prompting; swiftly, he backed up the horses and drove away at a diagonal, putting distance between us.

“Coward,” Karna’s voice cut across the din. “Stand and fight!”

An instant later he was staring down at his bow, which I had cut in two. From this greater distance, the power of my arms and shoulders gave me the edge — I could shoot arrows further, and with greater force, than Karna.

I had a stock of specially prepared arrows — longer and stronger than the conventional ones, these were much harder to draw and release, but their heft gave them additional range and power the conventional arrows Karna was shooting at me did not have.

Realizing the danger, he kept trying to close the distance; with effortless skill, Visokan danced our chariot out of the way, maintaining the distance and constantly maneuvering so I had a clear view of my target.

I wanted to tire Karna out before I closed with him. My arrows thudded repeatedly into his breastplate and onto the wheels of his chariot; his armor was strong, but the repeated impact of the arrows created an additional physical hardship for him.

Thrice in succession, I cut his bow in half. As he bent to pick up a fourth, I noticed the first signs that he was tiring, and pressed my attack harder. A lucky shot took him dead center in the chest; he reeled, and grabbed hastily at his flagpole for support.

My time, I realized, had come. I picked up the arrow I had been saving — a long, extra thick one fitted with a crescent-shaped head and flecked with pigeon feathers — and carefully fitted it to the string.

Karna fired a volley at me; I shrugged them off and, as he bent to replenish his quiver, gave the word: “Now!”

I expected Visokan to spring the horses forward at speed to reduce the distance; I was poised to send the arrow straight at Karna’s throat. To my surprise, Visokan did the exact opposite — he drove diagonally away, putting even greater distance between us.

The moment was lost, and I was furious.

“You cannot kill him — it would be a huge sin,” Visokan said.

“He is your brother!”

The bow fell from my suddenly nerveless fingers; my limbs felt paralyzed. I willed myself to bend and pick up my bow again, but collapsed instead to the deck of the chariot, reeling under a shock far harder to absorb than the worst Karna had thrown at me.

“Karna is your mother’s eldest son.” Visokan’s words came to me as if from a great distance. I pulled myself back onto to my feet — and recoiled as Karna, who seemed to have gotten a second wind, drove his chariot close to mine and poked me in the chest with the tip of his bow.

“Fat fool!” he sneered. “You are only fit to wrestle in the mud with people like you — don’t ever make the mistake of thinking you are an archer.”

Words were always Karna’s sharpest weapons. He appeared to have forgotten that he had been just an instant away from death — or perhaps he hadn’t realized the extent of the danger he was in.

“I promised your mother I would kill only one of her sons, and you are not him. Get out of my sight before I change my mind.” With indescribable contempt, he flicked me in the face with the disengaged string of his bow and drove away without a backward glance.

Around me the battle surged, but my senses refused to take any of it in.

Visokan drove away to the edge of the field and, finding a quiet corner, stopped the chariot.

“It was when I was coming from Kasi to join you,” he said. “Since Queen Balandhara and your son Sarvadhan were with us, our force was travelling in slow stages and at one point, we made camp on the banks of the Ganga.

“I never meant to eavesdrop,” he said. “It was early morning and I was heading to the river for a bath. I saw your mother by the river bank and went towards her, meaning to pay my respects. It was when I got closer that I saw the man who was seated, in padmasan, before her.

‘I was unmarried, my child — what else could I do?’, Visokan heard my mother say.

“Karna laughed, and there was a wealth of bitterness in his laugh, a world of hurt,” Visokan told me.

‘I was brought up by a charioteer and his wife, and I always was, and always will be, their son,’ Karna had told my mother. ‘I will not now give up the identity I have lived under all these years, I will not give up those who were my friends when your sons taunted me as an outcast and you stood silently by, never once giving me the protection of your name.

‘But for you, I will do this — I will only kill one of your sons. Whatever happens, Queen — I wish I could call you mother but I just cannot think of you that way — whatever happens, you will have five sons.’

My mind whirled with the possibilities. Karna the eldest Pandava — rightful heir to the throne of Hastinapura?! How vastly different things could have been…

Every trick, every stratagem Duryodhana had launched against us had been with the knowledge of Karna’s backing — if Karna, Arjuna and I stood together, would our cousins ever have dared treat us the way they did?

Would they have dared deny us our due, knowing that the three of us in alliance could have annihilated them in an instant?

The fatal game of dice that had led to this disastrous war — would it have happened? Karna, not Yudhishtira, would as the eldest have received the challenge, and by no stretch of the imagination did I see him accepting, and falling into Sakuni’s trap as Yudhishtira had done.

And the Swayamvar? There was no doubt in my mind, as I recalled the events of that day, that Karna would have hit the target — I still recalled vividly the skill with which he had strung the bow, before Draupadi contemptuously rejected him as a candidate for her hand. If only my mother had spoken out, if only she had told us the truth, it would have been Karna who won her hand…

“Not now!” Visokan said, jolting me out of my reverie. “Dusk is approaching… Arjuna will need help…”

He raced the chariot across the field and through the massed Kaurava forces, the swords attached to the hubs of my chariot cutting brutally through flesh as we dashed headlong towards Arjuna. I grabbed my mace and vaulted out of the chariot, needing the bloody immediacy of hand to hand combat to overcome the demons of the mind.

Karna — the eldest Pandava. My brother and my king…

Ranging ahead of Arjuna’s chariot, I killed mindlessly, brutally, my mace mechanically rising and falling, breaking limbs, crushing skulls as I fought to clear a path for my brother. And yet, I thought, it was all going to be too late — the sky was darkening around us; any minute now the bugle would blow to signal dusk, and the end of hostilities.

Ahead of us, buffered by a massed array of archers and swordsmen, I could make out the chariots of Karna, Duryodhana, Sakuni, Dushasana and Drona. Somewhere in their midst would be Jayadratha, totally insulated from Arjuna’s revenge.

My brother would lose — there was no way we could bridge the distance in time. Arjuna would die on Abhimanyu’s funeral pyre  — and with that, our hopes of winning the war would go up in flames.

The sky went dark.

A massive roar went up from the Kaurava ranks. The rank and file threw their swords and bows and arrows up in the air; ahead of me I saw Drona, Duryodhana and Karna join the cheering throngs.

I glanced over my shoulder at Arjuna. Krishna had let the reins drop; on the deck of the chariot I saw Arjuna, head hanging in despair, slowly unbuckle his quiver and throw it down.

“Get in!” Visokan’s voice in my ear startled me out of my stupor.

“It is not over yet,” he said as I vaulted into the chariot. “Look up — it is the surya grahan, the eclipse…”

Realization hit me like a jolt — so that was why Krishna had spent the night closeted with the astrologers. Krishna bringing the chariot to a halt… Arjuna’s seeming despair… it was all part of a plan, and I didn’t need anyone to tell me it had originated in Krishna’s fertile brain.

I grabbed up my bow and quiver; even as I straightened, Visokan yelled “Now!”

I fought to balance myself as the chariot jumped ahead, smashing through the celebrating Kaurava hordes. But quick though Visokan was, Krishna was unimaginably quicker. The white horses of my brother’s chariot passed me in a blur; Krishna manipulated the team with extraordinary skill as he cut right across the field, towards the celebrating generals who were crowding around the triumphant Jayadratha.

Visokan accelerated, staying close to Arjuna’s flank. I trained my bow on the Kaurava generals — it would be cruel irony if Arjuna managed to fulfill his vow only to be cut down by the others.

The sky cleared.

Just ahead of me and to my right, Arjuna stood tall on the deck of his chariot, the light glinting off the diamond tip of his arrow. The twanggg of his release sounded above the din of the as-yet unsuspecting Kauravas; I watched the flight of the arrow as it shot across space and, with unerring aim, smashed deep into Jayadratha’s throat.

I heard the triumphant notes of Devadutt, Arjuna’s conch; an instant later, Krishna’s Panchajanya joined in.

Dusk fell. The trumpets of the heralds blared out, a high note dropping off in a diminuendo to signal the cessation of hostilities.

As the flames of Abhimanyu’s pyre burnt bright against the sky, I stood looking out across the river into the darkness beyond. Somewhere out there, in one of the lodges reserved for the womenfolk, sat my mother.

I wondered what she was doing, what she was thinking. She would, I knew, be calm, tranquil even in the face of the news of death and devastation ferried over by our messengers.

Maybe she was talking to Draupadi, or to Balandhara who she had invited to stay with her. Or maybe she was with Uttara, consoling the young princess even as the flames consumed her husband’s body on the other side of the river.

My mother — who, married when young to an impotent man, had manged to produce three children.

My mother — who, even before her marriage, had managed to have a son she had told no one about.

Who knew how many more secrets lay buried in her heart?

PostScript: A very busy weekend and a busier Monday ahead, folks — so, this episode ahead of schedule. The next one will be up Tuesday/Wednesday.

Bhimsen: Episode 58

[Episode 57] [Archives]

Since that day so long ago when I first stood outside the gates of Hastinapura, I’d been hearing that I was born to destroy the Kauravas. This tenth day of the war, it began to look as if the wolves that howled in the streets of Hastinapura to mark my birth may have been prophetic.

Both sides seemed determined to end the war that day. If our plan was to take down Bhisma, the ferocity of the attacks I faced from the first blast of the battle conches made me think the Kauravas had decided the key to their victory lay in my death.

In the midst of the fiercest fighting of the war thus far, I found myself under attack by a band of the younger Kauravas.

Arjuna in Bali

Arjuna in Bali

Visokan was brilliant. He manipulated the movements of the chariot to create the impression that I was in trouble, and drifted away to a relatively isolated part of the field. The Kaurava brothers, whooping in celebration of what they imagined was imminent triumph, charged headlong after me.

Way out on the right side of the field there was no one to notice, to interfere; no one to come to their rescue. This was the chance I had been waiting for. As Visokan abruptly pulled up in the midst of his seeming headlong retreat, I spun around on the deck of the chariot and hurled one of my iron javelins straight at the onrushing Jalasandha.

One down, I thought as the missile crashed through his breastplate; even at this distance I could hear the crack as the massive iron spear broke through his ribs and smashed him to the floor of his chariot.

Before they could adjust to going from hunters to the hunted, I felled Ugra, Viravahu and Bhima, one of two cousins who bore the same name as I, in quick succession with well placed arrows. Now they were just three – the kind of odds I liked. Grabbing up my mace, lusting for the feel of it cracking against Kaurava skulls, I hopped off the chariot and awaited them.

Senapati, Bhimarata and Sulochana were young and, unlike Duryodhana and Dushasana, relatively unskilled in the intricacies of hand to hand combat. They made the mistake of thinking to overwhelm me in close combat. As they rushed me, I ducked and swung my mace hard at Senpati’s knee and in a continuation of that move, crashed it into Sulochana’s rib cage. Both fell; a flurry of blows and parries ended with Bhimarata crumpling to the ground with a crushed skull.

Killing had through the course of this war become for me a job to be done with clinical efficiency – but for once, I gloried in what I had to do as I finished off the two wounded Kauravas, yanked my javelin from Jalasandha’s chest and tossed it, still dripping Kaurava blood, onto the floor of my chariot.

I had carried with me the memories of serial insults and injuries; I had spent many sleepless nights dreaming of the day I would have my revenge. Now was the time, and I luxuriated in the knowledge that seven of Duryodhana’s brothers had fallen to me in the space of mere moments.

I drove back into the thick of battle, and into a trap. Bhagadatta rode up on his elephant, his conch blowing out a challenge. As I readied to confront him, I found myself surrounded: Kripa, Shalya, Duryodhana’s son Laxman, and Krishna’s distant cousin Kritavarma, who had chosen to lead the Yadava forces against us. As Visokan maneuvered to find a way out of the trap, Jayadratha rode up from behind to cut off my retreat.

The terms of engagement the two sides had mutually engaged to honor mandated one on one battles between the major warriors – but as the fighting intensified over these last ten days, those rules were being gradually ignored. With my life at stake, I saw no reason to abide by rules my enemies were flouting – as Visokan took the chariot away from the line of Bhagadatta’s attack, I cut down Jayadratha’s horses, bringing his chariot to a halt and opening up a line of retreat. As he jumped down from his chariot and hopped into Kritavarma’s, I turned again to confront Bhagadatta who I had identified as the greatest danger.

The sudden blast of a conch from the rear made me glance around. A chariot drawn by six jet black horses and flying the flag of an eagle in flight was racing towards me; on its deck stood Abhimanyu, blaring out a challenge on his conch.

I had heard tales of my young nephew’s prowess from Visokan and others; I had seen brief glimpses of his skill on the field, but this was the first time I was watching him from close quarters. War for us was duty, a task to be accomplished in order to achieve a greater goal; for him it seemed to be entertainment, an exciting game to indulge his youthful energy in.

Abhimanyu’s first sally was against Kripa; he effortlessly parried the initial attack and, almost playfully and with incredible dexterity, fired a salvo high into the air. I marvelled as his arrows fell in an almost perfect circle around the old acharya’s chariot. “You are too old, sir,” Abhimanyu mocked. “Please leave the field – I don’t want to have to kill you, the guru of my father and uncles!”

I smiled to myself at the youngster’s audacity as Visokan drove the chariot headlong at Bhagadatta’s elephant Supratika. Sensing what he was about to do, I grabbed up one of my javelins. At the last split second, he swerved the chariot to one side. As we flashed past the flank of the massive elephant, I hurled my javelin at the Pragjoytisha king. The chariot’s headlong rush spoilt my aim, but there was still enough power in the throw to make the king reel; as he fought to keep his seat on the back of the elephant, I fired a volley and saw two arrows pierce his unprotected side.

As the mahout urged the elephant off the field to protect the injured Bhagadatta, I turned to battle the others and saw that Abhimanyu was already engaged in battle with Duryodhana’s son.

The two were the same age but in terms of skill, there was no comparison. I had seen Arjuna fight and observed him at practice; watching Abhimanyu at close quarters, I realized that in dexterity and speed, this boy of sixteen had already surpassed his father.

Abhimanyu cut Lakshman’s bow in half and with bewildering speed, switched his bow to his left hand, picked up a  a javelin with his right and before his enemy could straighten with spare bow in hand, hurled it with unerring aim at Lakshman’s chest.

Together we turned on Shalya and Kritavarma. The latter, already hampered by Jayadratha who had sheltered in his chariot, turned tail in the face of  our combined volleys and raced away from the field of battle. Finding himself outnumbered, Shalya whipped his horses and dashed off in Kritavarma’s wake.

I finally had a moment to catch my breath. Abhimanyu brought his chariot alongside mine. “Valiyachcha,” he said, with the smile that already, in the short time of knowing him, had the power to light up my heart, “can I tell you something?

“When uncle Krishna and uncle Balarama told me of  my father and uncles, they always spoke of my father as the greatest archer in the world and of you as one of the best with the mace. I never realized that with the bow you are as good as my father! Oof! Alone against six great warriors – who do we have in our ranks that is your equal?!”

I had always been impervious to praise, to what others thought of my skill. Growing up with my brothers and cousins, I received little enough from the gurus. Even with the mace, I was at best deemed the equal of Duryodhana – the likes of Drona and Balarama even rated him my better. At first I pretended indifference; as time passed, I no longer needed to pretend.

Abhimanyu’s words lit up my heart. I fought back the desire to jump down from my chariot and hug him to me, and shrugged. “Oh well, there is your father – and now there’s you,” I said. Abhimanyu shook his head and smiled; the affectionate pride in his eyes made me feel ten feet tall.

A sudden blare of trumpets and conches and the frantic thump of war drums jolted us out of this quiet interlude in the midst of the madness.

The sounds were coming from way off to the left of the field. “My father!” Abhimanyu exclaimed; an instant later, his chariot was charging ahead in the direction of the noise. Visokan used his whip mercilessly as we raced along in the youngster’s wake.

The din rose in volume as we neared that part of the field where a large crowd had gathered; in the center, we could see through a cloud of dust the rapid movements of war chariots.

Visokan weaved through the crowd in the wake of Abhimanyu’s chariot. I saw Arjuna standing tall on the deck of his chariot with the signature white horses, his favorite Gandiva in hand. Facing him, in a chariot that struggled to keep Arjuna in frontal view, was Bhisma. Off to the side, at the head of the crowd, I spotted Shikandi and Dushasna in their chariots — like dozens of others around them, they appeared to have suspended their own battle to watch the duel of two of the most celebrated warriors of our time.

Bhisma’s flagpole had been cut to pieces. His chest guard, its ribbons cut, dangled uselessly at his waist. Arrows pierced him everywhere; blood flowed freely from a dozen wounds. As my chariot came to a halt, I saw Bhisma recoil as his bowstring was cut. As the grandsire, his movements slowed by age and injuries, struggled to fix another, Arjuna cut his bow in two with a crescent-headed arrow.

I had always admired Visokan’s ability with the reins, but Krishna was clearly the real master. Good charioteers are instantly responsive to the needs of their masters; the very best go beyond that and, with their ability to bend a team of high spirited horses to their will, create opportunities.

Showing skills that seemed scarcely human, Krishna checked his horses in full flight, spun them around and whipped them back into a dead gallop on a course that cut in front of the enemy. Bhisma’s charioteer was forced to pull up to avoid a headlong collision; in that split second when the grandsire was immobile, Arjuna’s arrow flew true and took Bhisma in the center of his unprotected chest.

The wound was fatal; Bhisma collapsed to the floor of his chariot to the accompaniment of a loud, triumphant flourish of conches and trumpets from our ranks.

The commander in chief had fallen; from the Kaurava ranks came the descending notes of a trumpet signalling the cessation of combat.

Arjuna flung his bow aside, vaulted out of his chariot and jumped into Bhisma’s. He emerged with the grandsire cradled in his arms, and gently laid him on the ground.

Grievously wounded though he clearly was, Bhisma still breathed. As my brother stood before him with bowed head and folded hands, I saw him lift an arm, palm outward, in a sign of benediction.

The chariots of the  Kaurava generals were racing towards the spot. In the distance I saw Yudhishtira’s chariot, marked with the white umbrella of royalty, coming in our direction.

The leaders on both sides were gathering to mourn the passing of the patriarch, but I felt no desire to join them. For ten days we had plotted and strategized to bring about his death. And now we had achieved what we set out to do — my brother had shrugged off the doubts that tortured him and dealt a crippling blow to the Kaurava cause.

What was there to mourn?

At my signal, Visokan turned the chariot around, and drove away from the field.

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…

Bhimsen: Episode 54

[Episode 53] [Complete archives]

The chest protector Visokan had procured for me from a supply the Pandya kingdom had sent over was unlike anything I had ever used before.

Made of specially treated cowhide and supple as a second skin, it moulded itself to the shape of my body. Though it permitted unfettered movement, it was tough enough to withstand spears and arrows except when the range was really close.

I strapped on the protector and arm guards made of the same material, and after applying the tilak of sandal-paste and blood-drenched kumkum, walked out of my lodge just as Yudhishtira drove up in his chariot, unarmed and heading towards the Kaurava camp to seek the blessings of the elders.

“It is Krishna’s suggestion,” he said, when I pointed out that Duryodhana’s capacity for treachery was endless.

The priests had already performed their yagas to the gods. I walked over to the mandap and stood for a long moment in prayer. Maybe I was imagining it, but I felt the light caress of a breeze, and hoped the ‘father’ I had revered through my childhood, Vaayu, had come to be with his son in the war to follow.

Arjuna was also engaged in prayer. Though we didn’t talk, I got the sense that all was not well, and the puffiness around his eyes suggested a sleepless night.

Visokan was waiting for me beside the war chariot I would be using – a massive vehicle drawn by six gray horses and flying my battle standard: a rampant lion with emerald green eyes. We drove towards Dhristadyumna’s lodge, where the designated commanders were already assembled.

“I paid my respects to them all — Bhismacharya first, then Kripa, Drona, Shalya,” said Yudhishtira, who arrived shortly after me. “They all said the same thing — that if I had not come to seek their blessings they would have cursed me.”

Krishna smiled in satisfaction.

“They blessed me, said victory would be ours.” As Yudhishtira spoke, helpers busied themselves installing on his war chariot the ornate white umbrella that signified the presence of the king.

The army had begun to form up in the crescent prescribed by Arjuna. Visokan drove me to my appointed spot at the center of the formation. I jumped off the chariot and walked over to give final instructions to the mahout leading Kesavan my war elephant, and to the various captains of the division under my command.

As the first faint rays of the rising sun lit up the eastern horizon, conches blared and the big war drums boomed. I listened carefully to the beat, to the varying patterns that send signals across the line from commander to commander.

To the blare of trumpets, our armies marched forward onto the plain. As the massed ranks of the Kauravas came into view, a single conch blared from the extreme left of the field. Dhristadyumna had signalled the charge; the drumbeat picked up pace, acquired a sudden urgency.

As our forces raced across the plain, Visokan spotted Duryodhana’s chariot with the royal standard and white umbrella of the king and drove towards it.

A section of the Kalinga army charged forward to intercept me. Visokan accelerated, the horses responding instantly to his whip. The giant swords attached to the hubs of my chariot wheels churned through the flesh of opposing troops; the screams of the wounded drowned out the blare of conches and the beat of the drums.

The pungent smell of fresh blood swamped my senses; firing arrows from the deck of my chariot seemed too impersonal to slake the sudden killing rage that welled up inside me.

Hopping down from my chariot with mace in hand I plunged into the middle of the opposing forces, uncaring if my men were with me. The thump of mace on skull, the sharp sounds of bones cracking under my onslaught fuelled my frenzy. When I felt my arms tire, I spun around and forced a way back to my elephant; mounted, I guided him into the middle of the Kalingas and realized that Visokan had chosen well — Kesavan responded with a berserker fury that matched my own, trampling everything that came before him as I stood on his back and rained arrows down on the opposing troops.

Time lost all meaning. Somewhere in the periphery of my mind, I sensed that all was not well with our right flank. When a formation is holding, the pressure created by the opposing forces is spread evenly across the line; when you feel pressure intensifying from any particular direction, you know that out there somewhere on that flank, there is a problem.

All the strategies and tactics I had learnt under Kripa and Drona seemed so pointless now. From where I stood, I had no sense of how the larger battle was unfolding – before me, in the here and now, there was only the next throat to pierce with an arrow, the next head to crush with my mace.

A sudden blare of trumpets, starting on a high note and descending into a thin wail, woke me from the trancelike state of close combat. It was dusk; by the rules of engagement worked out by both sides, it was time for the day’s fighting to end.

Our forces reversed direction and marched back in the direction of the camp; as we hurried to where food and rest awaited us, wagons rushed past into the field of battle to carry the wounded back to camp and the day’s dead to the cemetery.

I headed for Dhristadyumna’s lodge. Krishna, Arjuna, Shikandi, Drupada and Satyaki had already gathered there. Arjuna sat by himself in a corner, looking downcast.

“Uttara is dead,” he told me.

The Matsya prince had engaged Shalya’s forces in a terrific battle. “He fought with rare courage,” Yudhishtira said.

I remembered a day soon after we had revealed our identity. I finished training with the Matsya army and returned to my chambers to find Uttara waiting for me.

Pacing around the chamber, he told me at length about the battle ‘Brihannala’ had fought; of how amazed he was that one man could defeat a massed force led by some of the most reputed warriors of the time.

“I was frightened that day, when I first saw the Kauravas,” he told me. “I wanted to turn and run, but Arjuna taught me what courage was. I’ll grow up into a warrior like him; I too will make my name one day,” he said that day.

And now he lay dead, in a war not of his making, to avenge an insult to those who, till just the other day, were strangers to him.

It had taken a warrior of consummate skill and experience to kill the boy. Shalya was our uncle, king of Madradesa and brother to Madri cheriyamma – and yet he and his formidable forces, on whom we had built so much of our hopes, were fighting on the side of the Kauravas.

We had left the palace of Virat for Kurukshetra, and were camped in Upaplavya on the outskirts of the Matsya kingdom, when our uncle set out with a large force and a considerable arsenal to join up with us.

All along the route, he found well-appointed guest houses ready for him to rest in; armies of servants waited at each post to cater to his needs and those of his army. It was only when Duryodhana appeared before him at his final halt before Upaplavya that Shalya realized who was responsible for the lavish hospitality.

“Having accepted all that he had provided, I could not refuse Duryodhana when he asked me to fight on his behalf,” Shalya told Yudhishtira through a messenger. “My blessings will always be with you,” he had added.

In the thick of battle, Shalya had managed to cut through our troops and launched a ferocious attack on Yudhishtira. Seeing our brother hard-pressed, Uttara had charged up on the back of an elephant and engaged Shalya. “His bravery in battle put me to shame,” Yudhishtira said, speaking of how the prince had smashed Shalya’s chariot and stampeded his horses, then jumped down from his elephant to meet the seasoned warrior with sword in hand.

“We are in a war,” Dhristadyumna broke in, his demeanour grim. “And the sooner some of us realize this, the better.”

I sensed discomfort in the sudden silence that followed. Something had happened that I did not know of, and this didn’t seem the right time to ask.

“We had a bad day today,” Dhristadyumna said, addressing no one in particular. “Another day or two like this, and it will all be over – the hardships you suffered all these years, and the sacrifices so many people are making on your behalf, will all be wasted.

“When we take the field tomorrow, every one of us will have to be fully committed to do whatever it takes to win.”

Abruptly, he turned and walked out of the room. One by one, the rest of us drifted off to our respective lodges.

A masseur was working on my body, his skilled fingers working the aches and pains out of my joints and the stiffness from my limbs when Visokan walked in.

“Your brother nearly brought the war to an end before it had even begun,” he told me.

As the two armies approached each other, Arjuna had caught sight of Bhisma, Kripa and Drona in the front rank. Throwing aside his bow, he had jumped down from his chariot and told Krishna that he could not continue – he would not commit the sin of turning his arms against his gurus.

“It was Drupada’s charioteer who told me what happened,” Visokan said. “Krishna spoke to him at considerable length. The charioteer, Sumedhu, heard only little and understood even less – he told me Krishna said something about life and death being only an illusion; that it was the soul shedding its worn out clothes and changing into fresh ones.”

The two armies had met, and war was waging all around as Krishna spoke to Arjuna. “Something he said stuck in Sumedhu’s memory,” Visokan said. “Bhisma, Krishna said, knew that right was on the side of the Pandavas. He had argued with Dhritarashtra, pleaded with him to avoid war, to give Pandavas their due share of the kingdom.

“But once war was declared, Bhisma had only one duty – to protect the kingdom he had sworn his allegiance to, and if in the process of doing that duty he had to kill the Pandavas, then that is what he would do. Every man has a duty, Krishna said, and yours just now is to fight those who have deprived you of what is your due, and offered your wife the kind of insult no man, much less a warrior, can forgive or forget.”

Arjuna had finally taken up his arms and joined the battle, but his efforts on the right flank were half-hearted – and it was on that side that we had taken the greatest losses.

As he was coming here, Visokan said, he saw Dhristadyumna entering the lodge Arjuna was sharing with Krishna.

I stood at the doorway of the lodge, looking out into the night.

Off to one side, the sky glowed bright red from the flames of the cremation ground.