[Episode 55] [On writing the war episodes] [Archives]
Beneath the belly of a maddened war elephant is the safest place to be. It is also the scariest.
At that moment in time I was caught between the overwhelming relief that comes from having narrowly escaped certain death and the paralyzing fear that my time had come, that I would end up as a red smear beneath the feet of the most fearsome war elephant I had ever encountered.
Cowering for life underneath an elephant was not how I had imagined the day would go when Dhristadyumna, during our council of war early in the morning of the fifth day, instructed us to slip the leash.
“We’ve killed many of their troops these last two days,” he said. “It is time for a change in plan – from today, we go after their leaders. Each of us will pick one general in the Kaurava ranks and make him our primary target. With their troop numbers reduced, they don’t have as many men to protect the leaders.”
There was no question about who I would pick. Since that moment in the great hall of Hastinapura when he had slapped his thigh and invited Draupadi to share his bed, I knew the day would come when I would face Duryodhana in battle — and there would be no let up, no escape until one of us was dead.
Dhristadyumna picked Drona; Arjuna said he would seek out Bhisma and engage him in mortal combat.
“No,” Dhristadyumna said. “Not you – I don’t think you are ready. We cannot afford to have you hesitate when confronted by the grandsire – and god forbid, if Bhisma takes advantage of your hesitation and you end up wounded or worse, it will cripple us.”
My brother looked as if he was about to protest. Dhristadyumna quelled him with a glance. Krishna had chosen well – the Panchala prince may be young in years, but he was no respecter of persons or reputations and, when it came to fulfilling his role as commander in chief, he brooked no opposition.
“It is your job to harass Bhisma,” he told his brother Sikhandi. “With Karna still sulking in his tent, it frees Arjuna to range at will – we have reduced their troop strength, but they still have the edge. We need Arjuna’s skill with the bow and the special weapons he commands to wreck havoc among their armies. Ghatotkacha and his men will back Arjuna up.”
In keeping with our changed tactics, Arjuna arrayed the army in the shape of a trident with a large, thick haft. Dhristadyumna took the lead on the left prong and Shikandi the right, while I led the central prong. Arjuna stationed himself at the junction of the three prongs, while Yudhishtira, Nakula and Sahadeva took position along the haft.
Arjuna decreed that only fast moving cavalry backed by war elephants would comprise the three prongs; archers were arrayed in a wide curve linking the three prongs to the center while the slowest movers, the sword and spear-wielding foot soldiers, made up the haft. That way, he explained, the three prongs could hurtle into combat with great speed; the archers would be able to cover all three prongs, while the foot soldiers would come up in support at need.
The formation dictated our tactics for the day: at the first note of Dhristadyumna’s conch we would charge hard, hitting the Kaurava formation at three points along its length and looking to break through. From his vantage point in the center, Arjuna would come up to support whichever of us met the greatest resistance.
As dawn broke over the killing fields of Kurukshetra, our armies clashed to the hypnotic thump of the big drums and blare of battle conches. Ahead of me, buffered by an array of sword-wielding foot soldiers, I spotted the white umbrella signaling the presence of Duryodhana. Visokan needed no orders – his whip cracked, the chariot lunged through the protective buffer and headed straight at Duryodhana.
We were greeted with a shower of arrows. Rage surged within me when I realized he was deliberately aiming at Visokan and at the horses. The day before the battle began, representatives of both sides had agreed on the rules of combat, and one of the most crucial was that charioteers and messengers were inviolate.
Visokan winced as he pulled out an arrow that had struck him in the shoulder, high to the left. “It is a small wound, don’t worry about me,” he said.
At my signal he picked up the pace, racing the chariot in tight circles around Duryodhana. My rival was forced to turn in place, struggling to keep me in his sights as we raced from his right to left. I used my shield to deflect his volleys and waited for my moment; when I sensed that he was not turning as quickly to keep me in his sights, I fired a stream of arrows aimed at his leading shoulder, the left.
My salvo cut the bindings that linked his arm guards with his chest protector. The arm guard flapped free, distracting him and impeding his movements. I sent two arrows into his shoulder; with a third, I cut his bow string in half.
He was now at my mercy, but killing Duryodhana with bow and arrow was no part of my plan. The accumulated memory of his insults, the wrongs he had inflicted on us, his mortal insult to Draupadi – all of it festered in my mind and soul, a suppurating sore that called for the immediacy of personal combat. I needed to get in close with mace in hand; I needed him to look into my eyes and see his death there long before I delivered the killing blow.
His charioteer sensed that his master was in danger and, spinning the chariot around at speed, drove Duryodhana away from the field. Visokan whipped the horses and gave chase; I tossed my bow aside and was bending to pick up my mace when a terrific shock flung me out of the chariot and onto the ground.
I scrambled to my feet and found myself confronting a beast I had heard of in the songs of the balladeers. Supratika the elephant was, if anything, more famous than his master Bhagadatta, the king of Pragjyothishpura and a one-time friend of our father Pandu, who had opted to fight on the Kaurava side and who, at an opportune moment, had come to Duryodhana’s rescue.
Supratika was massive, far larger than any elephant I had ever seen. His forehead and trunk were covered in a seamless sheet of pliant metal studded with wickedly pointed spikes; there was no discernible weakness I could target. As the charging elephant lowered his tusks, lifted his trunk and screamed his challenge, I dodged to the left and dived under him, coming up on my feet under his belly.
The elephant stopped in mid charge and began moving sideways, seeking his prey. I watched his feet carefully to gauge his changes in direction, and moved when he moved. It was stalemate, but it couldn’t last – I heard Bhagadatta yelling orders for archers to surround the elephant and fire at me.
I needed to do something before I was surrounded and flushed out. I was looking for some small opening in the opposing ranks so I could dash out from under the beast and look for safety in the midst of my own people, when I heard the ululating war cry I had already learnt to identify even amidst the din of battle.
Supratika staggered sideways as another, smaller elephant crashed into his side at full tilt.
Ghatotkacha stood on the back of his elephant, holding out a spear with its blunt end towards me. I took a running jump, grabbed hold of the haft and scrambled up behind him.
Waiting till he was sure I had found a firm seat on the beast, my son tossed his bow and quiver at me and, drawn sword in hand, jumped into the midst of Bhagadatta’s massed troops.
His sword flashed; a head went flying through the air. Again I heard that full throated scream with which my son marked his kills – a sound that had, in the space of just two days, become a source of encouragement to us and of paralyzing dread in the Kaurava ranks.
Smarting under the humiliation of having had to hide under the belly of his beast, I turned on Bhagadatta. Supratika was massive – a mountain of flesh it was impossible to overwhelm in a direct charge. But now that I was mounted on an elephant of my own, I turned that size to my advantage. Ghatotkacha’s elephant was a barely tamed beast of the jungle –swift on its feet and totally without fear. At the promptings of my goad it danced away from Supratika’s charge, then crashed again into its side as I fired a stream of arrows at the ageing king.
Visokan drove up in my chariot. “Bhisma!” he yelled.
I glanced off to one side and spotted the grandsire’s chariot charging at speed in my direction, two others protecting its flanks. I leapt onto the ground, and from there onto the racing chariot, grabbing up my own bow and quiver as the chariot turned to confront Bhisma’s charge.
His first volley smashed my flagpole. I found myself marveling at the grandsire’s eye and hand speed; even at the age of 95, he was so quick it felt as though I was being enveloped in a cloud of arrows. Visokan danced the chariot away to one side; as Bhisma turned to keep me in his sights, I felt the lash of accumulated memory.
For all his moral authority and undisputed stature, Bhisma had at no point sought to actively intervene to spare us the many humiliations we had been subjected to. He had vowed to be impartial, but at every point in our tortured history he had sided with the Kauravas, at least through his studied silences and his refusal to intervene.
He did not protest when Duryodhana plotted to burn us alive; he did not stand up for us when we were fobbed off with a barren patch of land at Indraprastha; he did not intervene when Yudhishtira was tricked by Sakuni’s loaded dice; he sat silent while Draupadi was humiliated in open court, and even when Krishna at my brother’s urging had sought to avoid war by accepting five villages as our share, he never interceded on our behalf.
Anger lent me strength and speed; my bow hummed as I shot volley after volley at the old man. I saw one of my arrows striking home in the soft flesh on the inside of his right elbow. Arjuna might revere Bhisma, he might find his will sapped when confronted by the grandsire, but I only saw our hurts, our grievances, our many wrongs – and an old man who had stood by passively and let our enemies do what they wanted to us.
Bhisma’s flagpole fell, cut in pieces by a sudden volley of arrows. I glanced to my left, seeking the source, and saw Shikandi driving up at speed. The elder Panchala prince stood tall in his chariot, hands working with marvelous speed to send arrows flying in an unbroken stream towards the embattled grandsire.
Visokan, whose tactical sense was finely honed, promptly angled my chariot off to the right. Bhisma was now trapped in a pincer; master warrior though he was, he was hard-pressed as we attacked him from either flank.
His charioteer broke free from our trap and drove the grandsire away from the field of battle; when I attempted to give chase, I found my way blocked by sections of the Kalinga army that had hurried up to protect the Kaurava commander. Abandoning all thought of pursuit, I vented my anger on the hapless troops, jumping into their midst with sword in hand while Shikandi covered me with his bow.
When the conches blew to signal the end of the day’s battle, Shikandi and I rode over to Dhristadyumna’s lodge together – and were met by an angry Yudhishtira.
“You had Bhisma at your mercy today and let him escape,” he said, addressing us equally. “As long as the grandsire is alive, we have no hope of victory — and you of all people should have known that.”
It was easy enough for him to talk – his position as king of the Pandavas meant that he was always positioned in the middle of our armies, protected on all sides by massed troops and insulated from all danger. I was the one who was always out in front, a target for all our enemies; I had narrowly escaped death that day; I had forced the grandsire, whom everyone thought to be invincible, to retreat – I didn’t need criticism from my brother on this of all nights.
I was about to voice my thoughts when I caught sight of Shikandi. The Panchala prince had moved to within inches of my brother; his eyes – flat, cold, lifeless – fixed on Yudhishtira in an unblinking stare that sent a sudden chill down my spine.