Bhimsen: The Epilogue

[Episode 71] [Archives]

They stood on top of a cliff and looked down at an ocean turned dark and deadly dangerous.

Like a glutton who even after a full meal picks at his plate in the hope of finding some overlooked morsel, the ocean that had swallowed an entire kingdom, castle and all, continued to throw up waves that combed the land, seeking odds and ends to devour.

They saw a dead bull lying where the waves had thrown it against a tree, breaking its back instantly; over there an overturned chariot, its shaft stuck deep into the mud; elsewhere, oddly, an earthen pot in pristine condition, its perfection an incongruous element of normalcy against the surrounding chaos.

They observed another oddity: in the midst of the ocean’s turbulence one spot alone seemed calm, the waters still. That, they guessed, marked where the towering castle had once stood, with its vaulted Dome of Victory thrusting proud into the heavens.

In spite of his iron self-control, Yudhishtira shivered internally as he looked down at that once proud kingdom reduced to an overturned chariot, a pot, a few decaying bodies the ravenous ocean had overlooked.

He shook his head, fighting to clear the cloud of grief. What was it the patriarch, Krishna Dwaipayana, had said when they had formally handed the throne of Hastinapura to Parikshit, grandson of Arjuna and beloved of them all, and set out on the mahaprasthana, the final journey that would lead them to heaven or to hell as their deeds deserved?

“Never look back,” the patriarch had advised them. “Not physically, and not in the mind – from this moment on you have no past. There is only the step ahead that you must take, and the next one, and the next.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Yudhishtira caught sight of Arjuna perched on a rock, his head in his hands, his shoulders shaking with the strength of his grief – a grief time had not been able to mitigate.

He had been present when the destruction had begun and yet, or maybe because of it, Arjuna had not been able to reconcile with the fact that his dearest friend was no more, that the kingdom that had been a second home to him had vanished as if it had been a figment of his imagination, that the gardens in which he had first seen Subhadra and wooed her was now buried deep beneath the pitch black waters of the unforgiving ocean.

They had greeted him with cries of relief when, in response to the urgent summons, Arjuna had first rushed to Dwaraka. The mightiest archer of the time was here, they consoled each other; Krishna’s dearest friend had come to their aid, and nothing bad could happen to them now.

Around them were the sights and sounds of impending doom: the roar of an ocean whipping itself into a consuming fury; the howls of the jackals that stalked the streets of Dwaraka in broad daylight; the screeching of the kites and vultures that circled overhead in such numbers as to turn the sky dark – birds of prey that had gorged on the flesh of Dwaraka’s men and, hungry still, hovered in search of more fodder.

These sights and sounds paralyzed them with a fear beyond imagining – but still they took heart:  Arjuna was here.

They rushed to him, the women of Dwaraka. The closest clutched at him; the others called out his name and reached their hands towards him, clamoring for his attention, pleading for his protection.

He knew many of them, women of Krishna’s personal household. He had on his numerous visits sported with them in Dwaraka’s gardens, even bedded some of the more attractive among them. Arjuna forced aside his own grief at the destruction of the Yadava and Vrishni clans and worked to calm their fears.

“We will go to Hastinapura,” he promised them. “No harm will come to you there.”

He organized them into a group and marched at their head down the broad streets of Dwaraka. There was no time to waste gathering provisions for the trek; there was no able-bodied male left to help him in that task. One young boy had survived the general carnage; Arjuna put him on a horse and sent him away to Hastinapura with a message for Bhima: “Come quick, brother — I need help!”

With the Gandiva in his hand, an arrow notched to bowstring and a full quiver at his back, Arjuna marched out of the towering main gate of the ‘Kingdom of Gates’, with its embellishments of brightly colored peacocks and dancing girls, and headed towards the forest.

He felt a lassitude in his limbs and a fog enveloping his mind, but put it down as a reaction to the strain of his desperate rush to Dwaraka. He marched on and behind him, now quiet from a mixture of relief and exhaustion, walked the women.

Without warning the Dasyus burst out of the trees, their roars met by shrieks of fear from the women. Arjuna calmly lifted the Gandiva – and experienced a moment of stark terror when the bow slid out of his suddenly nerveless hand and thudded to the ground at his feet.

He bent to pick it up and found that it was all he could to raise the bow: his strength seemed to have deserted him, and his skill. When he reached for a fresh arrow, he merely managed to knock the quiver off his back.

All these years, the Gandiva had been an extension of his hand, his will – now, it was all he could do to pick it up and when he finally managed, he looked at it as if he did not know what to do with this strange curved object in his hand.

Arjuna slumped to the ground in despair, his eyes unfocused and mind blank. Around him in a rising crescendo rose the screams of Krishna’s women as the Dasyus grabbed them, threw them over their shoulders and raced away in the direction of the forest.

He lay there through that darkest of nights, next to the bow and the arrows that he was no longer master of. He lay there in the grip of a terror unlike any he had ever known, trying without success to shut his ears to the horrific sounds coming from the forest – the triumphant roars of the Dasyus mixed with the despairing wails of women stripped successively of their modesty and their lives.

At some point in the night, another sound intruded on his consciousness: the growing roar of an ocean that had burst its natural boundaries and commenced its assault on Dwaraka, swallowing everything it found in its path and returning, with redoubled fury, for more.

He had never felt such grief, such an enveloping sense of despair, ever before – not even when on the morning after the war he had walked field of Kurukshetra, his eyes fixed on a ground where the blood of his children had mingled with that of his enemies. But then that day, he had a friend who walked beside him, reminding him that to fight was a kshatriya’s duty, that to kill and to die were inextricable parts of Life itself.

Today he no longer had that friend. No more could be rely on finding beside him a source of strength when he was weak; no longer could he take refuge in the encompassing wisdom that could make sense out of the seemingly senseless, and keep him grounded when the world as he knew it appeared to be shifting beneath his feet.

And so he cried through that long night: bitter tears for the friend he had lost, for the women who had trusted him and who had paid for their trust with their honor and their lives. And he cried for himself – the greatest warrior of his time, now reduced to the eunuch he had once pretended to be.

That was how Bhima had found him sometime the next afternoon: prone on the ground, the now useless bow and arrows inert beside him, his face ravaged with grief and his body devoid of strength to even stand up.

Bhima had lavished on Arjuna the attention a nurse bestows on a sick child; while his brother slept, he had wandered in the direction of Dwaraka and recoiled from the unbelievable destruction. The ocean in its mindless fury had destroyed the once proud kingdom brick by brick; it had swallowed large parts of Dwaraka and, even as he watched from his vantage point, was returning for more.

He recalled the one time he had visited Krishna’s kingdom. Duryodhana was already in residence, learning the arts of the mace from Balarama. Krishna had urged his brother to invite him too, and when the messenger had come to Hastinapura he had been overjoyed.

He had taken care to wake well before dawn each day. Meticulously he had set aside his ornaments, tied up his hair, stepped out of his robes and tied his loin cloth around his waist in that special fashion peculiar to wrestlers and adepts of hand to hand combat, and hurried to the arena.

Each day, he had hoped that his guru would impart the secrets that, Sukracharya had once told him, were known only to Balarama himself. He practiced religiously all that he was taught and yet, when time came for him to leave, he struggled not to show the disappointment he felt at having learnt very little that was new.

The only memory he retained from that time was of Dwaraka’s blinding wealth, its pomp and unrivalled splendor.

Bhima stood beside Yudhishtira, looking out over the waters that had swallowed Dwaraka whole, and thought: had Krishna known how it would all turn out? Had he, fed up of the growing corruption and decay of the kingdom he had carved out of nothingness, deliberately sent the Yadavas and the Vrishnis to their deaths?

From what they had been able to pierce together from the accounts of two or three survivors, Krishna had organized a massive ‘celebration’ on the shore of the ocean. He had provided limitless food and drink and when the revelry was at its rowdiest, had left them to it and walked away into the forest with his brother Balarama.

At some point in the celebration Satyaki, considerably the worse for drink, had chanced upon Kritavarma and charged him with cowardice, accusing him of his role in killing the sleeping Pandava children and others on the 18th night of Kurukshetra.

An enraged Kritavarma had in his turn taunted Satyaki, reminding him that he was on his knees before Burisravas and begging for his life when his friend Arjuna had cut off his enemy’s arm – and Satyaki had then, Kritavarma reminded him, jumped up and cut off the head of the helpless Burisravas.

The argument led to blows and then to a full-fledged battle with swords; in a trice, the Vrishnis had taken up for Satyaki and the Yadavas rushed to the defense of Kritavarma. None survived.

Even as they pieced the story together and tried to make sense of it all, a wandering rishi had come to court with news that Krishna and Balarama were dead. Krishna was meditating under a tree, the rishi told them, when a passing hunter mistook him for a deer and shot him dead; grief-stricken at the death of his brother and the destruction of his race, Balarama had slipped into a yogic trance and given up his life.

Enough, Bhima thought – we have lived through several lifetimes in this one, we have endured more grief than any one human could possibly bear.


He felt his brother’s calming touch on his shoulder. “No more tears, Bhima – we have put all that behind us. Remember what Krishna once told us? Nothing ever dies – we merely change one form for another, one life for another. The time has come to give up this body, this life where we have known very many griefs and very few joys. Come!”

Yudhishtira glanced out at the ocean for one last time and then, turning abruptly, began walking down the hill.

Bhima followed. Arjuna pushed himself up from the rock he had slumped on, and walked after his brothers. Nakula sighed and glanced at his twin; with one mind, the twins walked in the direction their elders had taken.

Draupadi stood under the shade of a tree, watching them go and summoning up the strength, the will, to walk in their wake. Her heart still grieved for the one who was gone – Krishna, who had been her strength when she most needed it, the unfailing source of comfort at the darkest of times, the one who more than any other, more even than her husbands, had kept her faith alive when all had seemed lost: kingdom, pride, dignity, honor, all.

He was gone. What was left?

She turned her back on the ocean, and walked down the hill, picking up the trail.

For days without end they walked on in single file, stopping when the need for rest overwhelmed them, eating the berries and fruits they foraged during their trek and marching ahead again, their minds absent of thought, their hearts devoid of feeling, their weary feet plodding one step at a time through increasingly difficult terrain — until, one dawn, they saw looming ahead of them the snow-crowned peaks of the Himalayas.

The sight of Mount Meru in the distance seemed to give Yudhishtira renewed energy; picking up his pace, he hurried in that direction without a backward glance at his brothers and wife struggling along in his wake. And when he got to the foot of Meru he began to climb, his eyes fixed on the peak.

Once, when escaping from Varanavata, he had struggled to climb a little hill and had to be carried on Bhima’s shoulders. But not this time – this time he would climb the mountain on his own and, at its peak, find in himself the will to slip into yoga nidra, to attain salvation.

Behind him, Bhima trudged on mindlessly, ignoring the rocks that cut into his feet and the thorny bushes that impeded his progress, scouring his palms when he pushed them aside.

He was tempted to turn back, to see how Draupadi was faring – always, through the long years they had spent in the forest, it had been his self-imposed duty to smooth her path. With an effort of will he kept his eyes focused on the path ahead and on the form of his elder brother climbing rapidly up the slope.

Throughout his life, he had followed in that brother’s footsteps. Even when his instincts suggested a different path, he had brushed such thoughts aside, sublimated his will to that of his brother. Now, in the final moments of his life, he could do no less – Yudhishitra led, so he needs must follow to whatever end awaited them on the mountain top.

And then he heard it – a faint cry, the sound of a body falling, the clatter of displaced rocks as they bounced away down the mountainside.

“Brother, wait!” Bhima shouted. “Draupadi has fallen.”

Yudhishtira neither turned around, nor paused in his steady climb. “I am not surprised. She long ago lost the strength of mind to climb away from this world and into salvation.”

Bhima froze in his tracks. “What?! She, this princess, followed us to our hovel, she married us, she partook of our troubles when she could have gone back, led a life of ease in the home of her father…”

“She followed us out of self interest, out of ambition – she wanted to keep our desire for revenge alive, she wanted us to fight and win a kingdom for her,” Yudhishtira’s voice came faintly to Bhim as he marched relentlessly on. “And above all, she was wife to all five of us, but it was only Arjuna she loved – even when she sat beside me on the throne, it was on him that her eyes were fixed. Those who fall, do so as a result of their own deeds – keep your eyes fixed to the front and walk on…”

Bhima heard footsteps approaching behind him.

Arjuna. Draupadi’s beloved.

Moments later, Arjuna drew abreast. “Draupadi has fallen,” Bhima said.

Arjuna walked on as if he had not heard, his eyes fixed on the path ahead.

He saw Nakula passing him to the left.

“Draupadi has fallen.”

“We cannot turn back, we cannot wait for anyone,” he muttered, and walked on.

Bhima stood where he was, watching the forms of his brother’s vanishing in the mists up ahead. Any moment now, he thought, Sahadeva would come up to him, carrying Draupadi in his arms. To this youngest of the brothers Draupadi had been wife and mother both; she had reserved for him a special place in her affections – surely, Bhima thought, Sahadeva would not leave her lying where she had fallen.

He heard Sahadeva’s footsteps approach. Bhima listened for the sounds that would tell him his brother was staggering under a burden, and readied to take Draupadi from him – but the footsteps were strong, steady; moments later, Sahadeva drew abreast, then walked on ahead without even a glance in his direction.

Bhima craned his neck back and looked up at the tip of the mountain. Somewhere up there, salvation waited; somewhere down below, the wife he had loved above all else in this world lay where she had fallen, abandoned by all.

He made his choice. Abruptly, he turned and hurried down the path as fast as his tired limbs would take him. Ahead of him, half hidden by a thorny bush, he saw the crumpled form of Draupadi. He ran.

Dropping to the ground beside her, he lifted Draupadi’s head onto his lap. She opened her eyes and looked up at him – and then she looked away, scanning the area for… what?

A last sight of the one she loved above all others? Or of the one who, as eldest, had most claim on her affections? A final glimpse of the handsome Nakula, of Sahadeva whom she had loved as mother and beloved both?

She looked back at him, and Bhima cringed at the disappointment in her eyes. “I am here,” he told her. “I’ll be here for as long as you need me.”

Leaving her lying there, he ran around gathering the little grass and moss he could find amidst the rocks, and spread it out in the shade of a tree. Carefully lifting Draupadi up in his arms, he carried her to the bed he had made and laid her down, her head cradled in his lap.

She looked up at him for a long moment. Her lips moved, forming words he could not hear. He bent closer. “My children,” she whispered, in a voice grown raspy with fatigue.

Her eyes closed. Bhima sat there, his back against a tree, his beloved’s head in his lap, and thought back to the 36 years she had ruled as queen. At first, they had hoped for more children; each of the brothers had in his turn as her husband longed to be the one who would father a heir to the throne.

After a while, Draupadi just gave up. “I think grief has turned me barren,” she had told him once, when he attempted to console her. “God gave me five wonderful sons and I failed them – why would he give me more?”

Gently, taking infinite pains not to disturb Draupadi who slept on in his lap, Bhima eased into a more comfortable position and closed his eyes.

A memory returned to haunt him: the memory of a man who, bleeding and broken, wandered the earth far below where they sat.

That night, Arjuna’s fury had been terrible to behold – he had rushed into the blazing lodge and rushed out again with his Gandiva and his quiver. Without even waiting for Krishna, he had jumped into his chariot, whipped the horses, and driven away at furious speed.

By the time the rest salvaged some weapons from the inferno that was the Pandava camp and caught up with him, Arjuna had cornered Ashwathama and engaged him in a battle that raged ferociously even as they watched.

Fighting with a brilliance none had never before seen in him, Arjuna had systematically, ruthlessly cut down each of Ashwathama’s weapons – and as the murderer of Draupadi’s children stood there helpless, had proceeded to inflict the most gruesome wounds on him in the most deliberate fashion imaginable.

It was Krishna who stopped him then – Krishna and the grandsire Dwaipayana, who had rushed to our camp when he caught sight of the fire from across the river and who had followed us to the spot in Nakula’s chariot.

They had stripped Ashwathama of his most prized possession, the blazing Syamanthaka jewel he wore on a gold band tight on his forehead. When Krishna ripped it away from him, the circlet had snapped and cut a deep furrow across his brow.

While Krishna pacified his friend, Dwaipayana spoke to Ashwathama. He was forbidden to ever enter the gates of any kingdom ruled by kshatriyas; he was doomed, Dwaipayana said, to wander the earth, forlorn and friendless, his life a constant reminder of his ultimate treachery.

“You brothers have each committed many sins during the course of this war,” Dwaipayana had told the brothers then. “Enough – do not add the killing of yet another Brahmin to those crimes. Let him go.”

And so, somewhere down below he wandered still, the man who in the dead of night had set fire to the Pandava camp and, with sword in hand, mercilessly cut down every one of Draupadi’s children.

My work is not done yet, Bhima decided; it will not be over as long as Ashwathama remains alive.

Draupadi stirred; her eyes fluttered opened and she looked up at him.

“You are still here!”

I will be, Bhima said – for as long as you need me, I will be here.

He saw tears moisten her eyes, then. She glanced for one last time at the path ahead, seeking the forms of those who had gone on ahead. And then she caught his eyes again and, her voice a weary whisper, she said: “Next time, be born the eldest!”

Bhima sat there through the night, not moving, not thinking. When the first rays of dawn lit up the sky above the distant peak, he gently lifted Draupadi’s head off his lap, and stood up.

He looked down at her still form for one last time; he glanced upward at the path his brothers had taken.

And then he turned and walked back down the mountain.

He still had work to do.

Bhimsen: Episode 62

[Episode 61] [Archives]

“Drona has to die today,” Dhristadyumna said at dawn on the fifteenth day, as he took up position at the head of the Panchala army.

I began the day on my chariot, leading our surviving force of elephants on a single-minded mission.

Thanks largely to Ghatotkacha and his band, one wing of the Kaurava army had been almost entirely destroyed. It was up to me now to do to their chariots what my son had done to the foot soldiers.

It went well in our part of the field – with Bhagadatta dead and the bulk of his elephant force destroyed by Arjuna, our own elephants had the space to range free, wrecking havoc among the Kaurava chariots. I had given the mahouts their orders: it wasn’t enough to defeat the warriors; the chariots had to be totally destroyed.

The messages that came from other parts of the field were, however, dire. Drona, backed by Karna and Ashwathama, had launched a ferocious assault on our position from the northern side – first Drupada, then Virat, had failed in their bid to halt him and fallen to his arrows.

The Kaurava forces had been decimated, but Drona’s mastery of war craft was unparalleled. Even with hugely reduced numbers, they were inflicting tremendous damage on our forces. Drona led brilliantly, grouping his forces tight, picking weak spots in our defenses as they opened up and gutting us with unexpected tactical moves and his own mastery of weapons.

In the distance I saw two chariots rushing in our direction, the distinctive white horses of the first and the royal white umbrella on the second identifying them as those of my brothers.

“Drona is invincible,” Krishna said as they drew near. “The only way to defeat him is to break his spirit, his will. We must announce that Ashwathama is dead… Drona should see us celebrating.”

Will Drona believe us, I wondered.

“No. Not unless Yudhishtira tells him his son is dead,” Krishna said.

“You want me to lie?” Yudhishtira was disturbed. “Thus far I have tried to do everything that is consistent with truth, with dharma… how can I now give up the principles of a lifetime?”

With a visible effort, Krishna fought down his anger. “This is war, Yudhishtira – not a game of dice. Too many people have died so you can have your chance to rule in Hastinapura… it’s a bit too late to stand on scruples.”

My brother looked unconvinced.

Krishna pointed at the massive bulk of an elephant I had killed just minutes earlier. “I say the name of that beast is Ashwathama,” he said. “I say Ashwathama is dead – where is the lie in that?”

At his urging we drove rapidly towards the northern part of the field, where Dhristadyumna was now locked in battle with Drona.

“Ashwathama is dead!” I proclaimed as we neared. The Panchala soldiers nearby picked up on the cry and soon, to the blare of trumpets, the entire force was celebrating wildly.

Yudhishtira threw a hand up in triumph. “Ashwathama is dead,” he proclaimed. “Ashwathama, the elephant…”

Krishna must have anticipated what my brother would do – with a triumphant blast on his conch, he drowned out my brother’s final words.

The next few moments rushed past in a confused blur. I saw Drona, his eyes fixed on Yudhishtira’s face, lower his bow. Dhristadyumna’s horses plunged forward; when the dust settled, I saw him standing on the deck of Drona’s chariot, holding the acharya by his tuft of hair.

His sword flashed. Drona’s head, severed clean at the neck, flew through the air and landed in the dust.

Showing no emotion whatever, Dhristadyumna vaulted back onto his chariot and drove away from the field, his bloodied sword held high.

Heralds signaled the fall of the Kaurava commander. As the fighting came to a halt, the rest of us drove off the field and in the direction of Yudhishtira’s lodge.

I was taken aback when Satyaki rushed up to Dhristadyumna. “Coward! For all your big talk, you couldn’t defeat him in battle – and then to cut his head off when he was laying down his arms… Drona… a Brahmin… an acharya…!”

“This is war,” Dhristadyumna said with unruffled calm. “I haven’t learnt to make all these fine distinctions about ‘honorable’ killing and dishonorable killing.”

“Even if he was an enemy, even if he had to die, he was a Brahmin,” Satyaki persisted. “He was an acharya, a guru… but then what would you, and that amoral brother of yours, know about honor, about ethics? You are a shame on all kshatriyas!”

“True.” Dhristadyumna’s  laugh was suffused with scorn. “What do we Panchalas know? We need you to set us all an example, Satyaki – like you did when you killed Burisravas.

“How did that happen? You — an example for kshatriyas everywhere — were on your knees begging him to spare your life. And when Arjuna saved your life by cutting off Burisravas’ arm with an arrow, you showed  the bravery you upbraid me for lacking when you chopped his head off from behind! And now,” Dhristadyumna snorted, “I get lessons in honor, in ethics, from this pillar of the Vrishnis!”

Satyaki’s hand flashed to his sword hilt.

Krishna interposed himself between him and Dhristadyumna – but just when I thought the tension would be defused, Arjuna added unnecessary fuel to the fire.

“I agree with Satyaki. Drona was our guru, our acharya – it is not the same as when Satyaki killed Burisravas.”

“He was a Brahmin, hence doubly sacred,” Yudhishtira chipped in.

Dhristadyumna had remained calm through Satyaki’s attacks, but this proved more than he could take.

“Brahmin! Acharya! Guru! What respect, what praise, for the man who ordered his generals to surround a 16 year old boy who was on his own – or have you forgotten how Abhimanyu was killed, Arjuna? Where was that famous Brahmanyam when he, this man you revere as your guru, ordered Karna to attack Abhimanyu from behind?!”

“Cowards will always find a way to justify their actions,” Satyaki muttered.

“Enough!” I roared. I had finally come to the end of my patience. To win this war we had killed our own flesh and blood; we had lied, we had cheated, we had broken every rule, violated every code – must we now add hypocrisy to the list of our sins?

“Have we lost our minds? We, all of us, wanted to see Drona dead – it didn’t matter to us that he was our acharya. We knew none of us could kill him in direct combat – isn’t that why Krishna asked us to lie, to pretend Ashwathama was dead?  You lied,” I swung around to confront my brother. “Where was dharma then? Honor? Ethics? You wanted to win, you wanted the acharya dead, and for that you were prepared to lie, if necessary — or are you fooling yourself that by mumbling about an elephant your lie had somehow become the truth?

“So what were we thinking? That Drona would drop dead on his own when he heard his son was dead? We knew someone had to kill him — and the fact is, none of us had the courage to do what all of us wanted done — none except Dhristadyumna. And now that we have got what we wanted, you want to lessen your own guilt by rounding on him? What kind of men are we that we have sunk to this?”

It was rare for me to speak out in public, rarer still to speak at any length — but the accumulated hurts and griefs of the past two days finally proved too much for me to bear.

“This acharya of yours, Arjuna — what did he teach you? To cut down the arm of a warrior who was engaged with another? Oh, I forget — Satyaki is a friend, so anything you do, any rule you break, to save him is okay?

“And you, Satyaki? So you think it was a grievous crime to cut off Drona’s head? Would it have been better, would it have somehow been consonant with your notions of honor and ethics, if one of us had killed him with an arrow shot from a distance? Or were you waiting for Drona to die a natural death?!”

This was war, not some game we were playing. Dharma, honor, rules, ethics – nice notions all, every one of which had died the day Bhisma fell. Since then, the Kauravas had broken the rules repeatedly — and so had we. “If we are not prepared to face the consequences of a war we sought then let’s admit it now,” I told Yudhishtira. “Go to Duryodhana, tell him it is all over, and let’s head back into the forest!”

An inoffensive water pot stood in my way. I smashed it in with a single kick and stormed out into the night, not caring what my brother made of my words.

Bhimsen: Episode 61

[Episode 60] [Archives]

The mist rolling in off the river added a layer to the darkness of the night.

It was Drona’s decision to continue the battle beyond dusk. The Kaurava commander was under increasing pressure from Duryodhana who, our spies told us, had accused the acharya of pulling his punches, of not attacking flat out against his favorite disciples.

The heralds had signaled a cessation of hostilities when Jayadratha fell, but there was barely time to replenish our quivers and tend to our wounds before the blare of trumpets summoned us back onto the field.

A sudden, blinding ball of flame exploded in the air a little ahead of me. Close on its heels came the unmistakable sound of Ghatotkacha marking another kill – a shrill, ululating cry that pierced the ear and paralyzed the mind.

My son hadn’t exaggerated: he owned the night and already, an hour or so into the fighting, there was enough indication that Drona had blundered badly.

For once, Ghatotkacha was fighting in formation. His chariot was in the lead, flanked by two others on either side. Around them were ranged his small but highly effective band, fighting on foot the way they liked to.

I had gone up in support, but I really had very little to do. The men slipped in and out of the shadows at will, dealing death with sword and bow and spear and melting away before the enemy could react to their presence. But even this silent, deadly assault paled in comparison with what Ghatotkacha and his four companions were doing.

Every so often, one of them would toss a ball of pitch high in the air; another hit it with a flaming arrow and as the pitch exploded in flames, they went to work, brutally massacring the stunned, blinded Kaurava forces.

It was a scene straight out of hell: the screams of the dying mingled with the panic-stricken yells of their fellows who found fire raining down on them from above.

A messenger arrived from Krishna to put me on guard. Drona, Krishna warned, might use the cover of night to try to kill or capture Yudhishtira.

Visokan drove headlong towards that part of the field where my brother was stationed. We arrived just as Ashwathama launched a ferocious assault on Yudhishtira’s position. Satyaki and Nakula had already come up in support; as I slipped into a defensive position in front and covered my brother, Drona and Kritavarma drove up to join Ashwathama.

Fighting in the dark of the night was, despite the massive torches both sides had deployed, nightmarish. Without a clear view of the field, it was difficult to assess the situation tactically and deploy counter measures. We surrounded Yudhishtira on all sides in a defensive formation, but it seemed to me that we were vulnerable to a flat out assault from any one point.

Visokan brought my chariot up close beside my brother’s; amidst the din of combat I argued for discretion, and finally persuaded Yudhishtira to leave the field.

It was not that my brother was lacking in courage. Though not as skilled as Arjuna and I, he was in fact a better warrior than either Nakula or Sahadeva, especially when fighting from a chariot. But it would serve no purpose for him to be felled by a stray arrow, or to be captured, I pointed out.

With the immediate danger averted, I ranged the field looking to inflict damage where I could, and came upon Sahadeva staggering around in the dark. His armor had been shattered; he was bleeding from multiple wounds, and seemed on the verge of collapse.

“Karna!” Sahadeva told me, once I had lifted him onto the deck of my chariot and settled him down. “He destroyed my chariot, broke my bows, cut my sword to pieces… he humiliated me, he had me completely at his mercy – and when I was disarmed and defenseless, he flicked me in the face with his whip and told me to go tell our mother that he had sent her another gift. And then he drove off!

“What did he mean?”

“Who knows!” I pretended disinterest as Visokan drove back at speed towards our camp. “Never mind that – we have to get your wounds tended.”

We pulled up outside Yudhishtira’s lodge, and I carried Sahadeva inside. Visokan changed to a single-horse chariot, and drove back onto the battlefield to see what was going on. I called for some Sura and, with Yudhishtira for company, sat awaiting the reports of our messengers and spies.

“Tonight is good for us,” Yudhishtira said. “Satyaki killed Somadatta, hadn’t you heard? But it is your son who is winning us this war. Duryodhana sent the rakshasa Alayudha at the head of a large force to attack Ghatotkacha – your son and his men slaughtered them all; Ghatotkacha cut off Alayudha’s head and in the dark, drove up to Duryodhana’s chariot and threw it at him! He is fearless, that boy…”

Visokan walked in just then – and it seemed that he, too, couldn’t stop talking of Ghatotkacha’s deeds this night.  “If this goes on for much longer, the war will be over tonight,” Visokan said. Drona had sent his son, supported by a force of about one thousand troops, against Ghatotkacha.

“It was something to see! Ghatotkacha had his men with him – some two hundred of them, I think. The way they fight, oof! They slip through the shadows, and the only sign of their presence is the bodies they leave behind. The Kaurava troops were slaughtered; Ashwathama has been wounded, badly I think – I saw him in headlong retreat.”

Messengers came in with fresh reports. Out on the eastern side of the field Drona and Dhristadyumna were locked in fierce combat; Karna had joined in, a messenger reported.

Krishna walked in just then with Arjuna. “Where is Ghatotkacha?” Krishna asked. “Send a messenger to him – let him go in support of Dhristadyumna. Ghatotkacha is a peerless warrior, even more so at night – if anyone can stop Karna, it is him.”

Visokan drove off to deliver the message.

I decided to return to my lodge – it was nearing midnight; the fighting wouldn’t last much longer before the trumpets called a halt and before you knew it, it would be dawn and the killing would begin all over again.

For how much longer could this war go on, I thought as I walked. Already both sides had taken grievous losses – the Kauravas far more than us. But the major warriors remained undefeated – Duryodhana, Drona, Karna and Ashwathama on the Kaurava side; Arjuna, Dhristadyumna and I on our side. And until the leaders fell, the killing would go on…

I sat on the little stoop outside my lodge, taking occasional sips of the goatskin of sura I had provided myself with.

A blaze of light caught my attention. I jumped up and looked out in the direction of the field. An enormous fireball lit the night sky; over the din of battle I heard the voice of my son — fierce, triumphant.

And then, suddenly, silence – punctured a few moments later by the trilling call of the trumpets crying truce for the day.

I stretched out on the bed, trying to ease the aches and pains of a long day. Outside, I heard the clatter of hooves. Visokan came running into the room.

“Karna almost died today,” he said. “He was forced to use the Shakti to save himself. Ghatotkacha is dead.”

I ran towards Yudhishtira’s lodge, where the lights still burnt bright. My brother rushed up and hugged me tight.

“I am overwhelmed with grief,” he said. “First Abhimanyu. Now Ghatotkacha. I still remember the respectful boy who came to our help at Gandhamadhana… the eldest of our sons… our heir… “

Nakula and Sahadeva came up to hug me, their faces, like Yudhishtira’s, etched in grief.

I slumped to the floor in a corner of the room. Moments later, Krishna rushed in.

“What is this?! Why the long faces? Karna had one weapon, one chance, against Arjuna and now that too is gone. We should be celebrating. Where are the balladeers – why are they silent, the fools? Have them strike up the music!”

Did Krishna see me in the shadows? I suppose not. I slipped out without a word, but Krishna’s voice followed me, adding fuel to the anger I felt burning deep inside of me, anger I did not know how to vent and on whom.

“He may be Bhima’s son but Ghatotkacha is a tribal, a rakshasa. Which of us kings could rule in peace, knowing he and his men were out there somewhere – a renegade band of tribals who come in out of the forests and raid us at will, and against whom all our war craft is useless? Balarama and I had long had it in mind to go after him, to find and kill him and his men — it was only because of this war that I spared him.”

I heard Yudhishtira say something, but the words were low pitched, indistinct. And then Krishna laughed – a harsh, cruel, triumphant sound.

“Do you take me for a fool? It was not for nothing that I sent that message asking him to attack Karna. I knew no one could stand up to Ghatotkacha; it followed that when faced with the prospect of his death, Karna would be forced to use his Shakti.

Now Arjuna is safe – what is the life of a tribal compared to that?!”

I fought down the surging anger that threatened to overwhelm me and headed in the direction of the field. The chandalas were hard at work, piling the bodies of the dead onto their ox-wagons. I walked towards where I had seen that last fireball, and finally I found him.

My first born – sent to die so my brother could live.

My son – born to the woman who one magical evening in the forest had stilled my doubts, who had proved to me that I was not impotent like my father.

Hidimbi — the first woman I had ever had; the first woman I had ever loved…


A sense of shame engulfed me. I had enjoyed my time with her, but when my brother decided it was time to move on and my mother said I had to leave her behind, I had turned my back on her and walked away without a backward glance. In all these years it had never occurred to me, obsessed as I was with Draupadi, to go looking for her.

Even when Ghatotkacha came to me that evening eleven days ago to tell me he had come to fight for me, I never once thought to ask after his mother…

And now he lay there at my feet, this child born to a woman I had loved and left, his chest split open by an enormous iron javelin the likes of which I had never seen before. Around us, head bowed, faces streaked with tears, stood the few dozen members of his tribe that had survived this night.

Vultures wheeled high overhead; in the shadows surrounding us I sensed the gathering presence of jackals sensing a feast.

I had thought, as I stood beside Arjuna earlier that evening, the most heart-breaking thing a man could do was perform the funeral rites for his son. I now knew a greater sorrow — here I stood, a father looking down at the slain body of his son, knowing that he did not even merit a proper funeral.

Ghatotkacha was a Nishada; a tribal. The rules that governed us prohibited cremation for such as him – rakshasas were just so much fodder for the scavenging beasts that roamed the battlefield.

A sudden revulsion swept over me – revulsion for a war that would win us a kingdom in return for the lives of our young.

I pulled the javelin from his chest and hurled it far into the night. Lifting Ghatotkacha’s lifeless body in my arms, I strode through the blood-soaked field and headed for the cremation ghat.

I would not leave my son for the jackals and vultures to prey on. He would get a proper funeral, even if I had to build his pyre with my own hands.

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!”