Bhimsen: Episode 67

[Episode 66] [Archives]

Duryodhana leapt high. I bent at the knee, going low in a counter.

In a move I had never seen before, his left hand came off the mace. The right hand slid down the handle till his fingers held it by the tip, and then he flicked it at my face like a whip.

I blocked it with ease – and realized too late that the move was meant to distract, not hurt. Even as I moved to defend, Duryodhana lashed out with his leg, smashing his heel against my shoulder and sending me staggering backwards.

We had been fighting for a long time. Or maybe it just felt that way. Early into our bout, I realized that Duryodhana’s mace – his favorite one with the gold-plated handle and the wickedly sharp spikes along the head – was considerably lighter than mine. Whatever it lost in power, it more than made up in the speed with which he could wield the lighter weapon.

All those years ago, when we fought for the first time during the trial of strength, I had won by using my strength, hammering my mace repeatedly against his to tire his wrists and arms.

Thinking to repeat that tactic, I went at him hard from the moment Balarama finished his little speech. “Just in time to watch your two disciples in battle,” Krishna had said as Balarama’s chariot rolled into the glade.

Balarama always spoke of impartiality, of how the Pandavas and Kauravas were equally dear to him and how he wanted no part of our quarrels – but for all that, he had over the years favored Duryodhana, taking him under his wing and teaching him the tricks of the mace.

When war seemed inevitable, Balarama had gone off on an extended pilgrimage to avoid taking sides – but only after he made sure the bulk of the Dwaraka army would fight under the Kaurava flag.

I had listened to his little speech about fair play, about the rules of combat and about making him proud of us, with growing disbelief – did he think this was some contest got up for his amusement?

Duryodhana swung at me – a powerful, underarm swing aimed at the right side of my chest; as my mace met his in a block he disengaged, spun in reverse with startling speed, and swung at my left.

There was no time to bring my mace around. I smothered the impact by stepping into the blow and blocking the handle with my body — but even so it stung, driving the breath out of me and forcing me to one knee.

Duryodhana roared in triumph and charged, swinging; I parried and, still on my knee, spun around with a sweeping strike at his legs that forced him to jump back, giving me room to recover.

What had started off as a contest of speed and strength was slowly turning into a battle of skill and wits. My arms were beginning to feel the strain; I was gasping for breath and struggling with the sweat that poured down my face and into my eyes – and by the look of him, he was as drained as I was.

I sensed desperation in him as our battle dragged on. There was an increased frenzy to his attacks. He must have known his best chance was to finish me off quickly, before my strength and endurance began to wear him down.

I realized I had to change my tactics, find his weakness and figure out how to exploit it.

Duryodhana jumped high, as he had repeatedly done since our battle began, using his lighter mace and his agility to advantage. What made his tactic dangerous was that he kept changing the angle of attack – sometimes he jumped high and swung down at my head; at other times he feinted, forced me into a defensive posture, then waited till he was on the way down to attack me from an angle lower than I was prepared for.

With sudden clarity, I saw the flaw in his tactics – and what I had to do.

I breathed deep to center myself, and settled down to a calculated defense, blocking his attacks without launching any of my own, conserving my strength and waiting for my opportunity.

I had to make him think I was more tired than I was, that my reflexes were slowing down, that it was all I could do to defend — and that he had no reason to fear a sudden counterattack.

Duryodhana changed tack and launched a series of swift attacks, swinging the mace to the left and right with great dexterity and putting all his power into each strike. I countered with force; our maces struck sparks off each other.

Seemingly hard-pressed, I staggered back, letting one hand come off the handle and taking one of his strikes on my body.

Dimly, I heard my brothers yelling encouragement. I shut it all out – their shouts, my rage, the memories of all the insults Duryodhana had visited on us…

It was only a matter of time, I knew, before Duryodhana would go airborne again. This time, as he reached the apex of his jump he swung from the right, aiming for my shoulders and chest. I made as if to block, waited till he was committed and then pulled out of the feint.

To exploit the weakness I had spotted, I knew I had to take a serious blow – and this was it. I did the best I could to minimize the impact, but even so his mace landed on my side with a thud that drove the breath out of me. I bit down hard on the searing pain, spun around and using the momentum of my turn and the full strength of my arms, I smashed my mace against his momentarily unprotected ribs.

The crack of breaking bones as the head of my mace smacked into his side told me all I needed to know. Duryodhana crashed to the ground, the mace flying out of his hand.

Vaguely through the percussive pounding of blood in my head, I heard the voices:

“No.”

“Bhima, he is unarmed, you have won …”

“NO!”

Almost as if it had a will of my own, my mace rose high overhead. Duryodhana raised his legs in a desperate attempt to block. I adjusted and smashed the mace down against Duryodhana’s thigh, just below his waist.

“What have you done?!” Yudhishtira rushed up to me. “He was unarmed – to hit him then… it was wrong!”

I stared at my brother in disbelief, amazed –not for the first time – at a sense of wrong and right that he seemed able to switch on and off at will.

Just yesterday, he had danced with glee when Arjuna felled Karna.

Karna had voluntarily put down his weapons; Duryodhana had lost his in a battle that had not yet ended – that was right, this was wrong?!

I looked away and caught Balarama’s eye. His face contorted with rage, he was straining to get away from Krishna and Satyaki, who struggled to hold him back.

“Coward!” he screamed. “Duryodhana was the better fighter — you tricked him and then, when he was unarmed, defenseless and hurt you hit him! Your act was against dharma, against the laws of combat! Coward!”

Deep inside of me, something snapped. Duryodhana was finished – I knew that he would die of his wounds even if I didn’t lay another finger on him. But this – this was more than I had the fortitude to bear.

“Let him go!” I roared at Krishna. “I vowed to kill Duryodhana – and kill him I will, right here, right now. I know no kshatriya dharma greater than that!”

I raised my mace high overhead.

“Anyone who thinks to stop me can step forward now and try!”

I waited, mace poised, as Krishna and Satyaki let Balarama go and stepped back. He took a step towards me, then another, his eyes locked on mine.

And then he stopped.

I held his eyes with mine as my mace came down with all my strength, crashing into the side of Duryodhana’s head. Almost in continuation of that blow, I flung my mace away. I had no further use for it – my war was over.

For long moments I stood there, mentally and physically drained by the toughest battle I had ever fought in my life.

I felt their eyes… my brothers’, my kinsmen’s, my friends’… eyes that looked down on my dying enemy with pity… eyes that lacerated me with a scorn I had done nothing to deserve…

I walked over to where Visokan waited with the chariot, and painfully hauled myself in. On the deck, I saw my blood spattered mace.

“It is a good weapon,” Visokan said gently, as he held out a cloth for me to dry the sweat that poured off me in an unending stream. “What does it know of dharma and adharma? What does it care?”

He drove slowly towards the river. I threw away my robes – and felt the soothing, healing caress of a gentle breeze.  My ‘father’, Vaayu – where were you when I was all alone, when my enemies covered me with their arrows and my friends with their contempt?

As I dived into the river, I heard the sound of Visokan driving away.

I floated in the water, letting the gentle eddies rock me like a baby in its cradle, and thought back to what I once was – the little boy who, every evening, would come to the riverbank looking for his father… the boy who, on feeling that first gentle touch of breeze on skin, would pray with all his heart to become the strongest, the bravest, the best warrior of all time.

That prayer had come true. I had grown big and strong – there was in my world no warrior to equal me, no one who had ever bested me in combat. I had fulfilled my vows, every last one of them; my last remaining enemy lay breathing his last in the dust, the thigh he had slapped in a lascivious invitation to my wife a bloodied, broken mess.

I had become what I wanted to be, done all that I vowed to do — and yet, what did I have? A wife I shared with four others… two other wives whose faces I couldn’t remember… a son who had given up his life for those who had delighted in his dying, two other sons who I did not know… and brothers who could never appreciate the depth of feeling I had for them…

Evening gave way to the pitch black of night, matching the darkness that swamped my mind, my heart.

I sat there for a long, long time. At some point, I thought I smelt smoke…

The urgent clatter of horses’ hooves woke me from my reverie. I looked around for my robe as Visokan drove up at reckless speed.

He jumped down before the chariot had come to a halt and ran towards me, sobbing.

“They are dead… Ashwathama… he came in the night, like a thief… he set fire to our camp… he killed them all while they slept…”

He collapsed to the ground, sobs wracking his frame.

From the depths of a heart grown suddenly cold, a question welled up and lodged in my throat: who?

My brothers had gone off into the forest to celebrate the victory, with them went Krishna and Satyaki. Dhristadyumna broke away from the party – I want to celebrate with the first good night’s sleep I have had since this started, he told them.

Ashwathama came in the middle of the night. With him was Kritavarma, and Kripa – the guru of our race. They set the camp on fire – that must have been the smoke I sensed, and ignored… as our people woke to this conflagration and rushed out in panic, Ashwathama cut them down one by one in the dark.

Dhristadyumna… our children, Draupadi’s sons… Prativindhya, Suthasoma, Shrutakirti, Shatanika, Shrutakarma… my son Sarvadha, who had become inseparable from his cousins…

Young men… boys, really – the future of the Kuru race, for whom we had slaughtered our kin and won a kingdom…

All dead.

I looked down at hands that seemed suddenly drained of their strength.

The war was over, but the enemy still lived.

The enemy never dies…

Bhimsen: Episode 66

[Episode 65] [Archives]

“They saw three men standing by the lake, talking,” Visokan told us with the air of having penetrated some deep mystery.

Dhristadyumna and I were resting in my lodge, talking desultorily of all that we had been through. The war was over – it had officially ended the moment Shalya, the latest commander in chief of the Kauravas, fell to Yudhishtira’s arrows.

When our uncle led the tattered remnants of the Kaurava troops out onto the field that dawn with only Shakuni among the major warriors for company, it was obvious he was prompted not by any expectation of victory as by his own notions of kshatriya dharma, the belief that a kshatriya who once sets foot on the field of battle cannot turn back until the war is won or he is killed.

Arjuna and Dhristadyumna, exhausted from their revelry of the previous night, did not bother to take the field. Sahadeva replaced me at the head of our forces and, as soon as the bugles sounded, headed straight for Sakuni’s position.

I saw no sign of Ashwathama and Duryodhana in the Kaurava ranks, and decided to stick close to Yudhishtira, to guard against some last minute surprise.

A messenger came with news that Shakuni had fallen. So many years ago, while waiting for the final throw of dice that would send us into exile, Sahadeva had told me he would one day seek out and kill Shakuni – another promise fulfilled and one more left, looming ever larger in my mind.

Off to one side of the field, Nakula had engaged Shalya. Yudhishtira headed in that direction, seemingly intent on battle. Over the last 17 days he had never once been part of any decisive battle involving a major warrior on the Kaurava side; he alone among us had no deeds the balladeers could praise in song.

My brother seemed bent on redressing that. Racing his chariot past Nakula’s, he challenged Shalya to direct combat. I maintained position to his left and a little behind, from where I could keep an eye on the field and intervene if necessary.

Yudhishtira seemed to be managing well enough against our uncle. My brother was fairly skilled in fighting from the chariot, but Shalya was his equal or better – and unlike Yudhishtira, our uncle had a lifetime of experience to draw on.

Discreetly, without giving my brother reason to suspect I had taken a hand, I used a few cleverly placed arrows to cut the traces of Shalya’s chariot. The suddenly freed horses bolted, bringing the Madra king to a standstill. I fell back to await the inevitable outcome; sure enough, Shalya soon fell before Yudhishtira’s arrows.

Our troops roared in celebration as the Kaurava army, now bereft of leaders, turned tail and ran. The war was, finally, over.

“Duryodhana still lives,” I reminded Yudhishtira as we headed back to camp.

“I saw him fleeing from the field, heading in the direction of the river,” Visokan interrupted. “He was alone and on foot.”

When we reached camp, Yudhishtira summoned Yuyutsu and charged him with rounding up a few boats and conveying our womenfolk to Hastinapura. Born to Dhritarashtra through a serving maid, Yuyutsu had abandoned the Kaurava side after the events in the assembly hall and, once our term of exile was over, joined our camp.

With Nakula and Sahadeva to help, Yudhishtira immersed himself in the task of breaking up the camp and preparing for our return. I left them to it and went back to my lodge; Dhristadyumna found me there a few minutes later, and it was as we were sipping from a skin of sura, talking of all that we had been through, that Visokan entered the lodge with two tribals in tow.

“These are hunters who live in the forest here,” Visokan told us. “They saw three men standing by the river bank, talking.”

Three men talking by the riverbank – what, I wondered, was Visokan fussing about?

“They say these three were talking to a fourth person who couldn’t be seen…”

“Duryodhana!” Even as the realization dawned in me, Dhristadyumna raced out of the lodge, yelling instructions to the soldiers.

Within minutes, a force mounted on horseback raced in the direction of the river with instructions to flush out the fugitive.

“We’ll go see if we can pick up his trail,” Visokan said, running towards my chariot with the two tribals in tow.

The hubbub had alerted everyone in our camp. I climbed into Dhristadyumna’s chariot and we set off after Visokan; Arjuna, Krishna, Yudhishtira and the others followed in our wake.

A tribal was waiting at the river bank to guide us; at his direction, we moved away from the river and through the woods until we came upon an immense lake that, the tribal told us, was known locally as Dwaipayana.

Visokan was waiting for us. “He is hiding in there,” he told me. “We tracked him from the riverbank to this place. These men are sure he is in there somewhere – they think he could be hiding in one of the subterranean caves.”

The lake stretched in front of us, calm, placid. Amidst the rushes near the bank, a few boats bobbed about.

“It is not possible to find him – we don’t know where to start looking. The only thing to do is shame him into showing himself,” Krishna suggested.

Yudhishtira approached the bank of the lake. “Duryodhana! Coward! You wanted this war – you wanted the kingdom for your own, so come out and fight for it like a man!”

“Is it manly for so many of you to surround someone who is exhausted, and defenseless?” The voice came to us from amidst the rushes. Duryodhana was hiding in their midst, sheltered from sight by the boats.

I toyed with the idea of diving in, and going after him.

“I have had enough of this war, enough of Hastinapura,” Duryodhana’s disembodied voice floated out to us. “My brothers are dead, my friends are dead, what is there left for me? Of what use to me is a kingdom of widows? I give it all up — let me go, I will retire to the forest and do penance for the rest of my life…”

“Have you no shame?” My brother seemed inspired by a rage he was no longer in control of. “You send your brothers, your friends and relatives to die for the sake of your greed, your selfishness – and all you care about now that they are dead is saving your own skin?!

“I will not take the kingdom without defeating you. Come on out and fight – it is the least you owe those who died for you. Pick any one of us — single combat, your choice of weapons… if you win, Hastinapura is yours!”

I chanced to glance at Krishna, and saw his face crumple in dismay at these words. “Are you mad!” he muttered in disgust. “What if he picks you or Nakula or Sahadeva – and chooses to fight with the mace?

“Apparently the sons of Pandu are destined to spend their entire lives in some forest or other, because this man is at heart a gambler!” Krishna walked off, muttering to himself.

I noticed movement among the reeds. Duryodhana emerged, caked in mud from head to toe, his favorite mace with the golden handle in his hand.

“I accept!” I saw the glimmer of hope in his eyes as he walked towards Yudhishtira.

My brother stood there crestfallen, unable to take back the words he had spoken in a moment of unthinking arrogance.

I stepped forward.

“We have a history between us, Duryodhana – and many, many debts to settle,” I said, eyes locked on his. “Let’s settle it all right here, right now. Maces – and only one of us walks out of here alive.”

“The man who can defeat me with the mace is yet to be born, you fool!” His voice was harsh with contempt.

I laughed in his face. “That’s right — I remember now. The first time we met, during the trial of strength, Drona had to stop me from killing you. And the last time we met, on the field of battle, you ran like the coward you are!”

He hesitated; it seemed to me that for that one instant in time, he was contemplating the escape route Yudhishtira had so carelessly offered him. And then something snapped; his arrogance — and the contempt he always had for me — kicked in, as I had hoped it would.

“Come!” he said. “Our battle will be one for the gods – and when I am done with you, your brothers can wander in the forest for the rest of their lives, knowing you died in vain.”

My trick had worked, just when all seemed lost. I had him now.

Bhimsen: Episode 64

[Episode 63] [Archives] [Complete PDF]

War is all consuming – every minute of your time, every corner of your mind, is filled with the enemy who comes at you in endless waves. The days pass by not in minutes and hours but in the blood of the enemy you just killed so you can move beyond him to the enemy you must kill next.

It was as I took position at the head of our formation on the morning of the 17th day that I realized just what all those many moments added up to. Sixteen days ago when I had stood in this identical position and looked ahead, it had seemed as if we were confronting an enemy without end. The Kaurava forces had stretched out in front of us, as far as the eye could see and then beyond.

I realized with a start that today, from that identical position, I could see where the Kaurava troops began – and where it ended; beyond the last enemy I could see the expanse of the Kurukshetra battlefield, now shorn of so many of the soldiers that had once covered it.

The view brought home to me with great clarity that the war was effectively over — we had the greater troop numbers left standing, and there was no question that we would prevail if only through sheer numbers. Yet the killing would not stop — not until Karna, Duryodhana and Dushasana lay dead on the field.

Those deaths had to happen, and of them I would regret only Karna’s – but that wasn’t something I could tell my brothers, even during that endless night I had just spent with Yudhishtira and Arjuna.

Of the two, Yudhishtira was the easier to convince – when I left Krishna and went to his lodge, I found him already regretting his ill-considered words.

“I wish I could take it all back,” he told me even before I could sit down. “I don’t know why I said what I did – the humiliation of defeat at that suta putra’s hands, added to finding Arjuna here in the lodge and not on the battlefield facing Karna – I must have hurt our brother grievously…

“Ask Arjuna to come,” Yudhishtira told me. “I must tell him how sorry I am, I must take back my words….”

“Why?” Arjuna demanded when I went to his lodge with the message.

“He insulted me, abused me without cause — and now because he has had a change of heart, I have to go to him so he can be magnanimous and tell me how sorry he is?”

“Go to him, don’t go – I’m beyond caring,” I said and stormed out of the lodge, knowing even as I put on that display of calculated anger that it was the one thing most likely to force my brother, in his present mood, to listen to me.

I wasn’t wrong — Arjuna came running up as I strode through the empty lane. “Brother, if it had been you who said those things I would not have reacted as I did – but this man who hides behind our army, behind the strength of your arms – he had no right to accuse me of cowardice. How can I now go to him?”

“Because he is your elder brother,” I told him. “Because he is your king – and the reason you are fighting this war. You could die tomorrow and so could I – and it won’t matter because as long as Yudhishtira lives, the throne of Hastinapura remains at stake.”

Words tumbled out of him then – hot, bitter, angry. So many years had passed, so much blood had been shed since the day he had, in Drupada’s court, bent his bow and hit the target – yet even today, it was the one thing that rankled above all others.

“Yudhishtira lusted after Draupadi from the moment he set eyes on her, yet he didn’t lift a finger to try and win her; instead he tricked our mother, he manipulated us all just so he could enjoy her… What kind of elder brother is he that he could do that, what kind of king is this we are hell bent on making, who can subvert justice for his own pleasure?!”

I listened in silence, fighting down my rising impatience – an impatience exacerbated by the fact that I felt the justice in some at least of his criticism. This was my kid brother, the one person closest to me. Clearly he needed to vent; as clearly, I was the only one he could say all this to – knowing him as I did, I knew that loyalty to family would prevent him from speaking in such terms even to Krishna, his dearest friend.

I had no choice but to stand and to listen as years of accumulated angst poured out of him in a tidal rush.

And then he stopped, all talked out and looking drained, spent. He had nothing more to say, and now he did not know what to do.

What could I say to him? It was not, I realized, in me to suggest that he should seek out our brother – while I understood the deference due to the eldest, I couldn’t help thinking that as the older brother, it was Yudhishtira’s responsibility to care for the feelings of his brothers — and besides, he was clearly the one at fault.

“Brother, I agree with much that you say; times without number during these last few years I have felt that our brother was wrong to do what he did or to say what he had. I cannot ask you to go to him now, to make peace when the quarrel was not of your seeking.

“But this much I know – I cannot now abandon this war. Before it began, I made two promises. I promised mother that I would see our brother on the throne of Hastinapura or die in the attempt. And I promised myself that I would kill every one of those who that day insulted Draupadi in open assembly. I will not live with the knowledge that I went back on my promises – so if you withdraw and I have to face Karna at dawn, to kill him before I can get to Duryodhana, then so be it — I will kill Karna, or die trying.”

I walked away.

When I reached my lodge, I glanced back over my shoulder – and saw Arjuna walking slowly, painfully, in the direction of our brother’s lodge.

Filled with a sense of portent, we moved into formation even before dawn. As they passed my position, Krishna stopped the chariot. “Brother,” Arjuna said to me, “today only one of us, Karna or I, will leave the field alive.” He jumped onto the deck of my chariot, hugged me with a sudden fierceness, and was back in his chariot before I could react.

The heralds sounded their trumpets. Arjuna’s chariot darted forward, heading straight to the focal point of the Kaurava formation where Karna had taken position, with Dushasana protecting his left flank and Ashwathama his right.

With the field denuded as it was, I found it easier to sense what was going on across the two formations. I saw Satyaki dashing up to challenge Dushasana and ordered Visokan to drive at an angle, cutting across his path. “Help Dhristadyumna against Ashwathama,” I yelled as we crossed. “Dushasana is mine.”

Visokan was at his best – weaving the chariot deftly through the Kaurava lines, he cut in at an angle that separated Dushasana from Karna.

Finally, I exulted as I roared out my own challenge – finally, a chance to fulfil a vow I had made so many years ago.

There is something impersonal about fighting from a chariot – you fire your arrows, the enemy fires his, the charioteers manipulate the horses, and all you can do is wait for the enemy to make a false move, to expose some chink you can exploit.

The rage I had nursed deep inside of me for close to 14 years needed more – I needed the immediacy, the physicality of hand to hand combat.

Dushasana had a weakness he was not aware of – he was always just that little bit jealous of his elder brother. The world acclaimed Duryodhana as peerless with the mace; deep inside, Dushasana always thought he was as good or better.

I threw aside my bow and quiver, picked up my mace and vaulted onto the ground, roaring a challenge I knew he would be unable to resist.

I knew I could defeat him – he was not half the fighter he thought he was. But I wanted more – I had to humiliate him, I needed to confront him with the fact of his own death before I dealt the killing blow.

He swung his mace, a powerful overhead swing at my head, trusting to his strength to somehow smash through. It was a blow of anger, not sense, and easy enough to block. But instead of blocking his blow overhead, I skipped out of line and, as the mace whistled past me, swung my own mace in a short, hard stroke powered by every ounce of muscle in my shoulders and arms. My mace smashed into his. He fought to control it and swung at my ribs; again I hit him with the double strike, the first one a defensive tap to push his mace out of line and the second a powerful crash of my mace on his, forcing him to exert all his strength to keep the mace from being wrenched from his grasp.

I saw the sweat break out on his brow as Dushasana backed up, looking bewildered. He charged headlong, mace held in front of him. Exulting in my knowledge that he was finished, I sidestepped and again, smashed his mace with mine; this time, I followed up that blow by pressing my attack, aiming not for his body but for his mace, which I bludgeoned in short, hard strikes.

Dushasana backed away, gasping for breath; I noticed him flexing his arms, where the strain had begun to tell. I threw my mace away. “Bare hands, Dushasana,” I roared. “Your hands were strong enough to drag Draupadi to the assembly – now show me what you can do to me!”

He ran at me, more desperation than skill in the charge. It was a lesson I had learnt a long time ago – when fear swamps your senses, the techniques you had learnt are always the first casualty. With clenched fists, he struck at me – blows that were badly timed, lacking in any real power.

I absorbed his blows, taking them on the body and on my shoulders – and laughed loudly, deliberately, in his face. I saw the first hint of fear dawn in his eyes – and switched from defense to attack.

In continuation of a block, I smashed the heel of my palm up under his chin, jolting his head back in time for my left elbow to crash into his exposed throat. As he fought desperately for breath and balance, I hammered my open palms into his ears. He reeled back; I turned sideways and drove the heel of my foot hard into his stomach.

He stumbled, staggered backwards – and fell. In an instant I was on him, my knee on his throat, bearing down while my hands hammered down at his ribs. My hands splayed, fingers curved to hook into his ribcage, I gradually brought all my strength to bear on his lower ribs.

I took my time, increasing the pressure gradually and ignoring his feeble struggles. I waited to see the realization of death in his eyes – and bore down hard.

It was as if the world around us didn’t exist anymore – my whole being was consumed with the lust for a revenge I had long dreamt of.

With a sudden crack, his ribs gave way. I pushed down harder, driving the broken bones into his lungs, his heart.

A great gout of blood gushed up from his shattered chest, drenching my face.

Involuntarily, I licked my lips.

The metallic, slightly sour taste of warm blood reminded me of that day in Hastinapura. I will drink your blood, I had vowed then as I watched Dushasana dragging Draupadi to the center of the assembly, the blood dripping down her legs.

I licked my lips again – this time slowly, deliberately, lingering on the taste of revenge.

In a daze, I walked towards my chariot, my thoughts on a woman waiting somewhere on the other side of the river – a woman with skin of gold, with hair that hung down her back like a black waterfall… a woman who loved to hear of battles, whose lips would part and breasts heave as she listened to stories of killing, of blood.

“Go,” I told Visokan. “Go to Draupadi. Tell her Dushasana is dead… tell her I’ve killed him and drunk his blood. Tell her from me that she can tie her hair up again…”

Bhimsen: Episode 63

[Episode 62] [Web archives] [PDF of Bhim 1-62, courtesy Karun]

Krishna was waiting for me when I returned to my lodge that night. He needed to talk to me, he said.

In all these years of knowing him, Krishna was invariably punctilious in doing what he saw as his duty. Whenever he visited us, he made it a point to go first to see Yudhishtira and then, as inevitably, he would seek me out, touch my feet and ask after my well-being before going off to find his friend.

But never once had he sought me out for a private conversation, never once asked for my advice, my help, as he was doing now.

“You must talk to Yudhishtira,” he told me. “You are the only one who can. It is not good for him and Arjuna to quarrel.”

When Karna led the Kaurava troops out at dawn on that 16th day of the war with Shalya as his charioteer, I’d guessed there would be trouble.

My brother – ever since the day Visokan had told me who he really was, I often caught myself thinking of Karna as my brother and even feeling a momentary twinge of anger when others referred to him as the suta putra – had wanted this command; it was this desire that had led to his quarrel with Bhisma.

From the moment the heralds signaled the start of combat, Karna hit us with the force of a whirlwind. If Bhisma and Drona had deployed strategies and tactics based on the principles of war craft we had been taught since we were young, Karna’s tactics were more free-flowing, and considerably more dangerous.

He led the Kaurava troops in a series of raids, swinging from one end of the field to the other, catching us off balance and hitting us hard, causing immense losses to our foot soldiers and cavalry.

Nakula was the first among us to face the full force of his fury. Karna caught him at an unsupported moment in his defensive position on the right side of our formation and engaged him in combat. While his forces decimated the troops Nakula led, Karna toyed with my brother, destroying his weapons one by one, cutting his armor to shreds, wounding him in a dozen places and finally, in a supreme act of contempt, jumping onto Nakula’s chariot, grappling with him and throwing him out into the dust.

I spotted him as he was leaving the field to seek treatment for his many injuries. “That suta putra told me to tell mother Kunti that he remembered his promise, and would spare even the sons of Madri,” a bewildered Nakula told me. “What promise? What did he mean? And why did he let me go? When he jumped onto my chariot, I thought the end had come…”

I had no time to explain, even if I could – Ashwathama’s peculiar war cry rang out just then, and I turned to confront this challenge.

Drona’s son had a voice unlike any other – more the shrill neigh of a horse in rage than anything human. The story I heard was that when the startled wet nurses first heard his cry at birth, they gave him the name ‘Ashwathama’ – the one with a horse’s voice.

I looked to use the same tactics that had worked so well against Karna – with Visokan keeping a distance from Ashwathama’s chariot, I tried to use my remaining stock of larger arrows and my superior shoulder strength to hurt him, tire him out before closing with him.

Ashwathama’s skill as an archer was without parallel – and I was now finding out that he was considerably shrewder. Where Karna had felt insulted at being bested by me and repeatedly tried to close the distance, Ashwathama increased it and, staying just out of ideal range, effortlessly cut down the arrows I aimed at him.

My stock of special arrows was rapidly running out; the danger for me would come when they were all gone, and Ashwathama could close the distance and use his greater skill to good effect.

“Save one or two of those,” Visokan, as aware of the danger as I was, said over his shoulder. “Let him think they are all used up – when he looks to attack, you might get a chance to use them.”

It was a desperate ploy; I thought afterwards that only the skill of Visokan and the timely arrival of Satyaki saved me from humiliation or worse.

The prolonged combat had drained me; besides, I needed to replenish my stock of arrows. I signaled to Visokan to drive off the field, but we were cut off by a band of Duryodhana’s brothers attacking in formation.

For this I needed no strategies, no tactics – just the deep, burning anger that surged up within me whenever I caught sight of any of my cousins. The skill level of the younger ones in the group was rudimentary – in a few moments of furious combat, with Visokan weaving the chariot in and out of their ranks, six of them fell to a combination of my arrows and spears.

With only Chitrasena and Vikarna left standing, I vaulted out of my chariot, sword in hand. Chitrasena fancied himself as something of a swordsman – back when we all trained together, he loved to show off his skills.

It was with drawn sword that I met him. He was good, no question – fast on his feet and lightning quick at switching the angles of his attack. Against him I used my sword like a bludgeon; instead of merely deflecting his attacks, I repeatedly smashed my sword against his on the blocks, using my superior strength to drain him.

From the diminished power of his strikes and the time he took to bring his sword back in line after each thrust, I sensed that he was tiring fast. There is a trick that I had learnt during my time with the Nagas – they use it with spears, but I had practiced it with the sword whenever Arjuna and I trained together.

Instead of repelling his thrust, I caught Chitrasena’s sword on the blade of my own and rapidly twirled it around in quick circles. The pressure of holding on to the sword began to tell on Chitrasena’s already weakened wrists; I judged my moment and, when our swords were at the lowest point on the circle, suddenly disengaged and with a reverse sweep, cut deep into his neck.

Vikarna ran to where his brother lay in the dust, his life blood gushing out through the cut in his neck. I had no intention of killing this youngest of my cousins; I had never forgotten that when Duryodhana, Dushasana and others insulted Draupadi that day at Hastinapura, Vikarna was the only one in the Kaurava ranks to brave Duryodhana’s anger and to protest the wrong that was being done.

I was walking back to my chariot when his challenge stopped me in my tracks. “I don’t want to fight you,” I told him.

His answer was to rush at me with his sword raised high. I decided to finish this fast – it was the only thing I could do for him. I blocked his downward cut with my elbow against his forearm, knocking his sword out of line; before he could recover, I buried my sword in his chest all the way to the hilt.

Catching him as he fell, I lowered Vikarna gently to the ground and pulled my sword out. For a long moment I stood looking down at this most honorable of my cousins, wishing things had been different, wishing I could have befriended him, wishing his decency had prevailed with his own brothers…

I strode back to my chariot and ordered Visokan to drive me back to my lodge, wanting space, needing some time to myself. The last thing I expected was to find Krishna waiting for me.

“Yudhishtira and Arjuna had a huge quarrel today,” he told me.

Alarmed by the havoc Karna was creating, my brother had foolishly challenged him. Karna toyed with Yudhishtira, destroying his chariot and disarming him with ease. He then threw aside his own weapons and attacked Yudhishtira with his fists, battering him into submission. Yudhishtira fell; Karna stood over him, mocking, taunting, then left him lying there in the dust with a parting word and a kick.

My brother retreated to his lodge, and found Arjuna there.

“That set him off,” Krishna told me. “He called Arjuna all sorts of names, upbraided him bitterly for leaving you alone on the battlefield…”

Krishna had tried to pacify Yudhishtira, but that only goaded my brother more. “I’ve been listening to his boasts for thirteen years,” Yudhishtira said, “I’ve been hearing him talk endlessly about how he will deal with Karna – but now that the time has come, he hides here while Karna destroys our forces!

“Coward!,” he said. “If you can’t do it, give your Gandiva to Krishna – maybe, like that suta putra you are so afraid to face, driving a chariot is what suits you best!”

Seeing Arjuna’s hand tighten on the hilt of his sword, Krishna had hastily come between my brothers, looking to make peace. But Yudhishtira’s words had pushed Arjuna over the edge.

“This fellow – what has he ever done but live off the fruits of others?” Arjuna lashed out. “From the moment he saw her he wanted Draupadi, and he managed to trick mother into getting her married to all five of us!

“He talks of cowardice, this man who has always stayed a mile away from any actual fighting, hiding in the middle of our troops and letting others kill and die so he can be king. If Bhima calls me a coward, I’ll take it – but not this…”

Krishna had somehow managed to push Arjuna outside before either of them could say something irrevocable. “But now Arjuna has shut himself up in his lodge; he says if Yudhishtira wants a kingdom let him shed his own blood, win the war if he can.

“You are the only one they will listen to,” Krishna said.

As I walked over to Yudhishtira’s lodge, I couldn’t help thinking that our real problem was not the Kauravas but the bitterness each of us had accumulated over the years.

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 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.”