Bhimsen: Episode 56

[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.

“Father! Here!”

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.

Bhimsen: Episode 55

[Episode 54] [On writing the war episodes] [The complete archives]

We are faced with a vastly superior force, Dhristadyumna pointed out when we met before dawn on the second day to decide on strategy.

The accepted strategy in war is to concentrate on the main commanders, to kill or capture them at the earliest opportunity and thus render the opposing army leaderless.

That will not work for us here, Dhristadyumna said. The first day’s fighting had given him a good idea of Bhisma’s strategy. Each of the Kaurava generals had been protected by large segments of troops; the harder we tried to get to the leaders, the more losses we sustained against the numerically superior opposing forces.

Starting today, Dhristadyumna said, we had only one goal – to kill indiscriminately, to inflict maximum casualties on the opposing army. We would exert all our energies to stop the Kaurava generals when they looked like causing havoc in our ranks, but outside of that we would ignore the generals and focus our energies on decimating the opposition troops.

Arjuna decreed an eagle in flight as our battle formation for the day.

I would, from the position of the eagle’s beak, lead the formation. Yudhishtira and Virat would be positioned at the throat; Dhristadyumna would be stationed at the left wingtip with Abhimanyu and Sarvadhan, while Arjuna controlled from the right wingtip with Satyaki and Drupada in support. At the feet of the eagle, protecting our rear from surprise attacks, would be Nakula and Sahadeva with the sons of Draupadi, and Rukmi in support.

The Vidharbha king was an unexpected addition to our army. Years ago, Rukmi had planned to marry his sister off to the Chedi king Shishupala, but Rukmini was enamored of Krishna with whom, Arjuna had once told me, she had been carrying on a clandestine correspondence through messengers and pigeons.

When time came for the marriage, Krishna arrived in Vidharbha in the guise of a guest and carried Rukmini off in his chariot. Rukmi gave chase with a band of select troops, but was routed by Krishna and Balarama.

Rukmini’s earnest pleadings saved her brother’s life then, but before letting him go Krishna forced him to shave off half his hair — the ultimate insult for a warrior. He had since made friends with Krishna and, when war was declared, offered his services. “Use him in a defensive role,” Krishna had advised us. “As a warrior, he is not good enough to be in the front rank, but he and his men will help swell our numbers.”

As our army arrayed for battle, I had reason yet again to bless Arjuna for the long years he had spent wandering the country learning strategies and tactics from different lands. The formation he had suggested was the perfect answer to our requirement: it massed our troops in the eagle’s ‘body’, giving me enough backing as I sought to batter my way through the opposition while out on the two wingtips, our leading warriors were able to range free, causing mayhem where and how they could.

This was my kind of battle. Yesterday, I had spent a good part of time and energy trying to break through and get to Duryodhana. Today I didn’t bother with any specific target; at my direction, Visokan drove my chariot straight at the center of the Kaurava army, arrayed for the day in half moon formation. Fighting occasionally from my chariot, often on foot and, when faced with massed troops, from the back of Kesavan the elephant, I gloried in the task of killing all who came before me.

At some point in the midst of my frenzy, I became aware of signs of trouble to my left. I headed in that direction and, from my vantage point on Kesavan’s back, I saw our commander engaged in a terrific struggle against Drona.

Dhristadyumna’s chariot lay shattered around him; as I watched, he rushed forward with his mace only for Drona to cut it to pieces with his arrows. Dhristadyumna continued to advance, swinging his drawn sword to clear a path through the opposing foot soldiers and get at his tormentor, but he was clearly at a disadvantage.

I jumped down onto my chariot and had Visokan charge straight at Drona. The large cutting swords attached to the axle of my chariot churned through the opposing foot soldiers as I concentrated my fury on Drona.

With my first salvo I cut down his flagpole, which is the archer’s first line of defence; even as he turned his attention towards me, I cut his bow in half with another volley of arrows.

Years ago, when we studied war craft under him in Hastinapura, he had contemptuously rejected my skills as an archer and publicly said I was only fit to wrestle for the amusement of the public – today was my opportunity to pay him back.

‘Fat fool!’

That long ago taunt rang in my ears. As Drona hurriedly strung his spare bow, I cut it into pieces; before he could re-arm himself I sent a volley of arrows between the shafts of his chariot, cutting the bindings. Freed of their traces, his horses bolted, overturning the chariot as they broke free.

As the old man tumbled out of the chariot and scrambled in the dust, I laughed out loud in triumph.

I flung aside my bow, grabbed my mace and was about to leap out of the chariot and close with him when Visokan warned of danger approaching from my right. The Kalinga king Srutayu, mounted on a mammoth tusker and leading a large force of elephants and men, was rushing to Drona’s aid.

Visokan told me later that he had never been as alarmed as when he saw me leap off the chariot and, mace in hand, run straight at Srutayu’s elephant.

Years ago, in the paddocks of Hastinapura, the old mahout who was my mentor had taught me of this one fatal weakness of the elephant: between the two masses of bone on its forehead there is a very small, unprotected gap where its nerve endings are clustered, and where it is most vulnerable to pain.

Approaching the elephant at a dead run, I timed my jump and grabbed its tusk with my left hand. In the same motion, using the momentum to augment my strength, I swung the mace at that precise spot on its forehead I had been taught so long ago.

Maddened by the pain, Srutayu’s elephant reared on its hind legs while I hung on for dear life. As his front feet hit the earth I swung again, smashing the mace repeatedly onto that spot. Squealing in pain and rage, the beast swung around in a circle, shaking its head violently to dislodge me; the other elephants panicked at the sight of the enraged tusker and stampeded straight into the midst of their own troops.

Srutayu jumped off the back of his elephant and straight into my path; before he could recover his balance, I swung my mace in a crushing blow at his skull and roared in triumph as I felt the splatter of his blood on my face and arms.

The Kalinga forces, already scattered by the berserk fury of the elephants and now leaderless, turned tail and ran; I raced back to my chariot and set off in pursuit, slaughtering at will till the sudden blare of trumpets sounded the onset of dusk and the end of the day’s battle.

Dhristadyumna hugged me as I walked into his lodge for our evening review. “We had a good day today,” he said. “The battle went exactly as I had hoped; we inflicted heavy losses on their troops and took few losses of our own. I don’t think they’ve understood what we are trying to accomplish – they kept throwing their soldiers at us, which is exactly what I hoped they would do.”

Dhristadyumna had once told me that the war would be won not by the seasoned generals and the acharyas, but by the young – and it was increasingly easy to see why. He was breaking away from established strategies and tactics, adapting to the fact that we were outnumbered and finding his own solution to the problem while Bhisma, the most experienced warrior on either side, continued to operate within the confines of convention.

To my surprise, I saw Krishna stretched out on a plank bed on the floor of Dhristadyumna’s lodge, with attendants applying herbal salves to multiple wounds on his arms and chest. Arjuna was pacing the floor furiously; Abhimanyu walked beside him, talking earnestly to his father.

Noticing my look of surprise, Dhristadyumna pulled me aside. “That is the other thing I hoped would happen today,” he said when we were out of earshot. “For all Krishna’s advice, Arjuna has been reluctant to fight. He is fine when facing the troops, but the minute he catches sight of one of the gurus he loses his will.”

My brother was ranging free on the right, slaughtering soldiers in their dozens when Bhisma charged up in his chariot to oppose him. Arjuna lost his fervor; the grandsire however held nothing back in a ferocious attack.

“Arjuna would have turned his chariot about rather than fight, but by then some of Bhisma’s arrows wounded Krishna,” Dhristadyumna told me. “The sight of Krishna bleeding drove your brother into a fury; he forgot who he was fighting, and my father tells me Arjuna fought so brilliantly, many on both sides nearby stopped to watch. The old man was forced to turn his chariot about and race away from the field, they tell me.”

Abhimanyu walked with me as I returned to my lodge that night. “Valiyacha [father’s elder brother],” he said as we walked, “your son Sarvadhan is amazing! Trigartha and his men attacked us today while uncle Dhristadyumna was battling Drona – you should have seen Sarvadhan fight, oof! He routed them all on his own, and I saw Trigartha fall wounded in his chariot. You must tell my uncle to put Sarvadhan with cheriyachan [father’s younger brother] Nakula – we are somewhat weak in that section.”

I stood still for long moments, bemused by the self-confidence of this boy who was yet to turn 16. His deeds today were, I was told, so prodigious Dhristadyumna had decided to invite him to represent the younger generation in our daily council of war.

Abhimanyu, Sarvadhan, Sutasoman, Prativindhyan… young boys of fifteen and sixteen who should by rights be enjoying their youth, basking in the attentions of the palace maids and who instead were fighting beside us as equals, and making us proud with their deeds.

They were, I realized at that moment, the real future of our race. In time to come, perhaps, our chief claim to fame would be that we were their fathers; when they spoke of me it would be as the father of Sarvadhan, as Abhimanyu’s uncle…

We sat down to our meal. Like the boy he really was, he spoke with enthusiasm of all that he had seen that day – but I noticed that even in the full flight of his excitement, he never once spoke of his own part in the day’s battle.

A terrific clamor interrupted our meal. Visokan came running in. “A new group has come to join us,” he announced, smiling broadly. “The whole army has turned out to watch the fun – soldiers in carts drawn by bulls bigger than you have ever seen… dozens and dozens of wild horses… and they’ve even brought their own food – pigs, cows… come, see, it’s a big tamasha…”

Visokan darted out again. Moments later, a tall young man stepped through the door and prostrated at my feet.

“News travels slowly to us who live in the forest,” Ghatotkachan said as I raised him to his feet and looked at him in wonder – not least because I had to look up at him.

He had grown considerably since that last time I saw him, when he had with casual indifference gifted Yudhishtira Jatan’s head wrapped in a leaf and walked off into the forest without a word. His voice, when he spoke, was that of a man full grown.

“I am here to fight on your side, father – and I have brought an army with me.”

“I’ll take our brother to the lodge where we are staying,” Abhimanyu said, touching Ghatotkachan’s feet.

“No, no one needs to worry about us – we are most at home sleeping on the ground, under the stars, and we have brought our food with us,” Ghatotkachan smiled. “Father, I’ll see you in the morning – tell me what you expect of me, and it will be done.”

He turned and strode out without a glance, while Abhimanyu and I looked at each other in bemusement.

PostScript: I am travelling this week and will not be accessing the net for the duration. The next episode, and regular blog updates on cricket and all else, resume Monday July 6. See you here then; be well, meanwhile.

PPS: For those asking, no, I am not doing a game by game round up on the India-Windies series, but will do an end-of-series post on some off the ball thoughts when I get back from my travels. Later, peoples…

Bhimsen: Episode 54

[Episode 53] [Complete archives]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Krishna smiled in satisfaction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uttara is dead,” he told me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bhimsen: Episode 53

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The muted roar of an armed camp washed over me as I lay in the dark, yet I felt a strange sense of peace.

Tomorrow morning, the war would begin. Earlier in the evening, while doing one final check of my chariot and weapons, I had felt the crushing weight of the burden Dhristadyumna and Arjuna had placed on me.

Ever since taking charge as commander in chief, the young Panchala prince seemed to be everywhere at once. There was something about the ceaseless energy with which he moved from camp to camp, the commands and instructions he conveyed in the soft tone that was so much more effective than a raised voice, which marked him out as a born leader.

During the long hours of training, he had taken the measure of the various armies that had come to fight on our behalf, organized them in seven divisions and placed Drupada, Virat, Shikandi, Satyaki, the Kekaya king Chekitana and me in charge of each. He would personally lead the seventh division.

That morning, he summoned us to a final council of war – the six commanders, Yudhishtira and Arjuna. “The fighting on the first day will be tentative,” he said. “Both armies will be looking to feel each other out, to test each other’s strength. Our goal has to be to minimize damage, take the measure of the Kaurava army and learn all we can of their various commanders and battle strategies.”

Arjuna would, he announced, be in charge of deciding the daily battle formations. “He has traveled widely and has more experience than any of us,” Dhristadyumna reasoned.

On the first day, Arjuna said, we would fight in the crescent formation. With a fingertip, he sketched the formation in the sand, explaining the need to place the faster cavalry on the two curved sides of the crescent where they could use their speed to circle the enemy and attack the flanks, while the elephants formed the solid center that would hold the enemy at bay.

“I will lead from the left side tip of the crescent, with Shikandi and Chekitana,” Dhristadyumna said. “Arjuna will take the right side tip, and the forces led by my father, King Virat and Satyaki will support him. Yudhishtira, along with Abhimanyu and the other princes, will protect the rear from attack and press forward in support of the main armies as required.”

The key to the formation, Arjuna explained, was the center. “As the armies on the crescent swing out on the sides, the pressure will fall on the center. I have spent enough time discussing war-craft with Bhismacharya to know how he thinks – he will create a formation with the main warriors in some form of massed center, using it as a ram to hammer the opposition, to overwhelm us. If our spies are right, the Kauravas have at least four divisions more than we do; the acharya will want to achieve an early advantage, so we can expect a fierce surge. The man who leads our center has to be able to withstand this concentrated assault, and create opportunities for us to attack from the flanks.”

“Who will hold up the center, then,” Yudhishtira asked, “if you and Dhristadyumna and the other commanders are off to the sides?”

Arjuna glanced at Dhristadyumna before replying. “Bhima. Who else is capable of resisting the combined might of the Kauravas?”

For the rest of the day, the knowledge of my role – and the confidence my brother and Dhristadyumna had in me — weighed like a stone even as I went about the business of stocking up on arrows, bows and strings, spare maces and swords and, with Visokan to help, organizing my arsenal efficiently in my chariot.

For all the pride I had in my strength and abilities, this was not personal combat or even a skirmish against a neighborhood raiding party. This was war against a far superior opposing force, and our chances for success depended on my ability to withstand its might.

I felt the first stirrings of doubt.

“Kesavan,” Visokan interrupted my thoughts. “He will be your war elephant.”

I knew the beast he had named – a fierce tusker that had come along with the contingent from the Pandyas in the south, not as large as some others in our stable but very quick and responsive. “I have organized two mahouts for your use; the elephant will be alongside our chariot at all times so you can switch at will.”

He left me with a small jug of sura. I lay on the grass mattress in the middle of the room, sipping from the jug and trying not to think of what I had to do, the burden I had to bear, when the next day dawned.

I did not fear death; I never had since that day in the forest so long ago, when I had stood paralyzed in the path of the charging boar. What frightened me now – and I realized fear was the right word – was the prospect of letting my brothers, my sons, my friends down.

An image spread unbidden to mind. The great hall of Hastinapura;Dushasana strutting around in the center, dragging Draupadi around by her hair; Duryodhana seated on his throne, slapping his thigh in lecherous invitation while Karna laughed and egged him on.

I felt a sudden, deep sense of calm descend on me. I slept.

Bhimsen: Episode 50

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After 12 years of deprivation and a year spent in the soiled black robes of a palace cook, it felt good to have maids waking me up in the morning with hot water for my bath and fresh, clean silk robes to change into.

We had been installed in the palace of King Virat, who insisted that till our future course of action was decided, we would remain in Matsya as his guests. I thought it proper to let him know that I had killed Keechaka.

He took the news with surprising calm – in fact, I thought I even detected a sense of relief. “Keechaka was a hedonist, the bane of my life but he was my wife’s brother, there was little I could do,” he told me. “With him in charge, my army has had neither proper training nor a good leader. The men are loyal, and fierce fighters, but they need someone like you to teach them the arts and strategies of war. Now that you no longer need to hide who you are, it will please me if you could take charge of the army.”

We were seated in the king’s main audience chamber, waiting for Krishna, Yudhishtira and the others. The talk, once they took their places, revolved around whether the Kauravas had managed to uncover our identity before the stipulated period of exile was over. Would we need to start the whole twelve plus one cycle all over again?

“Don’t worry,” Krishna assured us. “I did all these calculations even before I left Dwaraka. You started your exile on the eighth day of the Sarvadhari Shravana’s dark phase of the moon,and your 13th year ended on the 7th day of the dark phase of the Plava Shravan – the night before the Kauravas attacked Matsya and were defeated by Arjuna.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, and I didn’t care much either. Even if we had been discovered before the end of our stipulated period, there was no way I would willingly accept another cycle of exile. Yudhishtira could talk of dharma all he liked, but I was done hiding and running – here on, it would be war, for revenge and to recover what was rightfully ours. And I knew that if it came to that, Arjuna, and my two youngest brothers would be with me – and that is all I needed anyway.

The court astrologer confirmed that Krishna was right. “Duryodhana can argue that according to the solar calendar, he uncovered your identity one day before the 13th year ended – but it is the lunar calendar that we follow across the land, and Bhisma and the other acharyas will have done their own calculations, and they will know we are right,” he told the king.

At the king’s behest, Matsya celebrated the return from exile of the Pandavas. Our own celebrations were enhanced by an unexpected marriage proposal – and that was Krishna’s doing.

“King Virat has been a good friend to the Pandavas,” he told the five of us that evening. “We need to bind him to our side, and there is no better way than through marriage. I’ve seen Princess Uttara – she is beautiful, and just the right age to be married.”

Arjuna caught my eye and smiled – I should say smirked. He seemed sure that he was about to add one more to his collection of beauties.

“Uttara will be just right for Abhimanyu,” Krishna said, pretending not to notice Arjuna’s smile. “He will be here soon; I have already sent word to Dwaraka. He has grown into a fine young man – and without exaggeration, I can say that in the arts of war he is more skilled than his father, and both his uncles. You,” he said, addressing Arjuna directly, “were Uttara’s guru; itwould be inappropriate for you to then accept her as your wife.”

Two days later, Drupada and Dhristadyumna arrived from Panchala. Yudhishtira, Krishna, Virat and Drupada immersed themselves in their discussions; Dhristadyumna joined Satyaki and me in working with the Matsya army, teaching them the arts of moving into the various formations, shifting at a signal from one formation to the other, and similar skills they were deficient in.

In these 13 years, Dhristadyumna had grown into the most impressive warrior I have ever seen – in physical stature he was my equal, and in all but hand to hand combat and wrestling, the young man was clearly my superior.

“They are thinking of sending a messenger to the Kauravas, asking that they give you half the kingdom as your share,” Dhristadyumna told us the next morning. “It’s a waste of time – Duryodhana will never give up an inch of the territory he has cheated you out of, but my father thinks this is the right thing to do.”

Yudhishtira too believed that peaceful means had to be tried first. “War is always the last option,” he told us that afternoon, when we met for a meal. “And besides, we have no certainty of victory in a war where the opposing forces are led by Bhisma, Drona and Kripa.”

Draupadi seemed about to say something, but Dhristadyumna beat her to it. “Not going to war is even less of an option,” he told my brother, not bothering to hide his disgust. “Everyone knows how you were treated. Even if you established another kingdom someplace, not one of the kings of this land will respect you if you do not face the Kauravas on the battlefield.

“And as for those gurus – this war will not be won by them,” the Panchala prince said. “This war is our generation’s, and we are the ones who will win it – Bhima and Satyaki and Arjuna and I.”

Yudhishtira did not contest the assertion, but next day an envoy set out for Hastinapura with a message to Dhritarashtra from Drupada. “Messengers will go from here, they will come from there – these things have to be done, so no one can say tomorrow that the Pandavas did not explore all the options,” Drupada told me, taking me aside as I was heading off after the usual morning conclave.

“But that does not mean that your preparations must wait. I have sent a messenger to Panchala; within days, a contingent of our most seasoned troops will be here, and they will help you and my son train the Matsya army.”

Drupada had aged in these last 13 years – but he was still unmistakably regal, his authority unchallenged even by the Yadavas who deferred to him, while King Virat almost seemed a guest in his own palace, content to let Drupada do all the talking and even installing him on a throne placed next to his own.

When the messenger returned, we all gathered in the audience chamber. This was a professional – such men don’t just carry messages, they act it out, infusing their words with all the authority of the sender.

“I went to Hastinapura and was received by King Dhritarashtra in the great hall,” he told us. “This is what I told them, as coming from King Drupada:

“O Dhritarashtra, you know that you and Pandu are sons of the same father; your respective sons merit an equal share in the kingdom. And yet, you and your sons have systematically cheated the Pandavas out of what is rightfully theirs. You fobbed them off with wasteland; when they built a kingdom on it, you cheated them out of it with a crooked game of dice. In their name I ask – no, I demand – that you give the Pandavas their due, if you wish to avoid a conflagration that will consume your tribe.”

Reverting to his normal tone, the messenger said, “As soon as I finished my words, the venerable Bhisma said you were right, and advised Dhritarashtra to offer you half the kingdom. But uproar then broke out; Karna shouted the loudest and with the Kauravas backing him, refused to permit Bhisma to speak. Finally, Dhritarashtra said he would send his reply in a few days; I was given food, and silk robes, and a purse of a hundred gold coins, and told to return.”

It was a week before the messenger from Hastinapura arrived – and it proved to be none other than Sanjaya, Dhritarashtra’s ‘eyes’ and his closest confidante. Virat welcomed him and had his retainers take him to a private chamber so he could rest after his journey. Sanjaya joined us for the evening meal, but it was in the audience chamber the next morning that he officially delivered his message.

“O Drupada,” Sanjaya said, speaking as Dhritarashtra’s voice, in the manner of skilled messengers, “my brother Pandu’s children are my own, and I am happy beyond measure that they have survived their exile and are under your protection, and that of King Virat.

“I have no quarrel with you, Drupada. It is not to you but to my son Yudhishtira – for he is, and he knows he is, my eldest son – that I now speak. He knows that he lost all he had in a game of dice he voluntarily played; he was given the choice to accept defeat and withdraw with all his possessions intact – it was his decision to stake all, and having staked it all and lost it all, he knows no longer has the right to claim any part of it. He is the embodiment of dharma, of all that is right and good, and he will know this better than anyone.

“The forces of Drupada and Virat and Dwaraka and others, led by Bhima and Arjuna and Krishna and Dhristadyumna, can never be defeated. But equally, a war against the forces of Hastinapura and our friends, led by Bhisma and Drona and Kripa and Karna and my second son Duryodhana will be disastrous for anyone who dares oppose them.

“My son Yudhishtira, I ask that you be patient, that you be tolerant, that you adhere to the principles of dharma that you have held dear all your life. I ask, my son, that you do nothing that will pave the way for the destruction of our tribe.”

That was the message Sanjaya delivered in a ringing voice that reverberated around the audience hall – and at the end of it all, I had no idea what our situation was. Had Dhritarashtra accepted our demand for half the kingdom, or no? Was he counseling patience while he worked out the details?

“The message is simple enough,” Dhristadyumna, seated beside me, said. “The old king is completely in the control of Duryodhana and his evil genius, Karna. They have no intention of giving you anything, of giving up anything they tricked you out of. Didn’t you hear – Sanjaya said, in Dhritarashtra’s words, that the Pandavas lost in a fair game and now have no right to claim anything.”

Affecting the courtly manners he could assume at will, Yudhishtira thanked Sanjaya for his message and asked about the wellbeing of the king, and valiyamma Gandhari and our cousins. “We will discuss your message, and give you our answer tomorrow,” Yudhishtira told Sanjaya, signaling to a retainer to guide him to his quarters.

A tinkle of anklets distracted me. I turned around, and saw that Draupadi had slipped into the audience chamber through a side door. She must have heard all that had transpired. Catching my eye, she looked at me long and hard, then abruptly turned and walked away.

I was not conscious of having come to my feet. “There is no need to wait,” I heard my voice say. “We have nothing to discuss, our answer is simply this: Prepare for war, we come to claim what is ours by right, and to be avenged for all the wrongs that have been done to us.”

Sanjaya stopped in his tracks; the hall fell silent. I felt the heat of Yudishtira’s stare, and I knew my brother would be angry. I had breached protocol; I had given an answer that was not mine to give, but his.

For once, I did not care for protocol, for my brother’s anger, or even for what Drupada, Virat and Krishna thought of me. I had given my answer – and as far as I was concerned, it was final.

It would be war – and even the gods wouldn’t be able to keep our cousins safe from me.

Bhimsen: Episode 49

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The dust cloud approached rapidly, but at this distance it was impossible to tell if it was friend or foe. I halted the Matsya troops and quickly organized them into a defensive formation.

“It is the Matsya banner — this must be Prince Uttara returning,” my charioteer, who was standing up in the chariot and peering into the distance, announced suddenly; at my signal, he whipped the horses and raced the chariot forward towards the advancing troops.

I was apprehensive – had been ever since I had learnt from King Virat that while we were off recovering out cattle from Trigarthan’s raiders, Prince Uttara had led a section of the Matsya army against the attacking Kauravas.

“He has never fought a battle — he is just a boy,” King Virat lamented, while ordering me to take our troops and rush to help. “And they tell me he has taken that eunuch, Brihannala, as his charioteer!”

That was at the insistence of Draupadi, who in her guise as Malini told Queen Sudeshna that Brihannala had served for a time as charioteer to no less than Arjuna himself.

I couldn’t help laughing out loud at the sight: holding the reins of the lead chariot sat Arjuna, still dressed in the garb of a woman.  The flowers braided into his hair, and the soft colors of his robe, presented an incongruous sight in tandem with the breastplate and arm protectors of the warrior. I noticed he had Gandiva, his favorite bow, slung across his shoulder.

“I have told them not to breathe a word of my part in the battle,” Arjuna said, as my charioteer took over Prince Uttara’s reins and Arjuna jumped into my chariot. “The Kauravas will have known it was me even with this disguise, but I thought it best for now to let Uttara pretend he had won the battle.”

It was, Arjuna told me as we drove at a leisurely pace back towards the palace, a surprisingly easy affair. “Uttara was brash and boastful when we set out, but once we left the palace he panicked, like I thought he would.”

Arjuna had driven the chariot to the grove in the forest where, before entering Matsya, we had hidden our weapons. They were tied neatly in individual bundles; I had climbed the tallest tree I could find and stashed them in the forks of branches.

I found a skeleton in the forest and with a rope, tied it to one of the lower branches so passers-by would see it. I learned later that locals had spread the story that the tree was haunted by the ghost of the person who had committed suicide – the story spread and so did the fear, to the point where no one would go near the place.

Armed with his favorite bow, and with his quiver packed with the weapons he had acquired during his travels, Arjuna handed over the reins to the young prince and directed him to drive towards the enemy.

“It wasn’t a very large army,” Arjuna told me. “Some 400 soldiers – they must have planned a quick raid to try and uncover us. But all the main warriors were there — Duryodhana leading, Karna, Kripa, Drona…” Bhisma was there too but he stayed in his chariot off to one side, watching but taking no active part in the battle.

“I wasn’t sure about the quality of the Matsya army and whether they would take orders from me, so I decided to take the Kauravas by surprise. They were drawn up in battle array, clearly waiting for us to get within arrow range. I stopped just short, and shot a stream of fire arrows, the Agneyastra, and built a wall of fire just ahead of the Kaurava army. Their horses panicked; there was much confusion.”

Under cover of the flames Arjuna attacked the leaders, cutting down Duryodhana’s horses, then Drona’s. “The one who gave me the most trouble was Kripa,” Arjuna said. “The others proved easy to handle, but Kripa fought back and he was good – I had to kill his horses and charioteer with poisoned arrows, the Nagastras, and render him helpless before he gave up.”

It was the first opportunity my brother had to try out his newly acquired skills and weapons, and he was ecstatic at the outcome. “The Nagastra is okay, but the Agneyastra is key – just fantastic,” Arjuna said with the enthusiasm he reserves for talk of war.

“I hadn’t realized it before, but it’s not the fire alone that makes the arrows so deadly, it’s the accompanying smoke. The powder you coat on the arrowheads produces clouds of thick black smoke – it hangs over the opposing army, confusing them, and lets you get closer and attack.”

But it was his newly developed ambidextrous skill, Arjuna said, that paid the richest dividends. “You know how when skilled archers face each other, we organize our own defenses to counter the style of the opponent. All those hours of practice I put in during my wanderings paid off – I kept switching the bow from right hand to left, changing the angles of attack and breaching their defenses with ease. Duryodhana and Drona had no clue how to handle my attacks; they were among the first to retreat.”

His duel with Karna, brief but intense, was what pleased Arjuna the most. “The suta putra ran from the field, bleeding,” my brother laughed. “I was battling Kripa when he attacked me. I shot an Agneyastra between his horses. They panicked and before they could recover, I cut down the lead horses with poisoned arrows. He jumped off the chariot and fought on foot; I switched hands, cut down his bow, pierced his armor, wounded him high on the shoulder with that other arrow I showed you, remember, the one with a crescent head? I was getting ready to kill him with a Nagastra, when he turned and ran, like the coward he is.”

We drove through the gates of Matsya and went our separate ways. Arjuna, who had removed his breastplate and armguards and given me his bow and quiver to hide, went back to his room in the ladies’ quarters and I, suddenly assailed by the hunger pangs I had been denying in course of a very long day, slipped into the kitchens to see what I could find to eat.

Over the next three days, Matsya celebrated the triumph of its young prince. The king and courtiers fawned over Uttara and made him repeat endlessly the details of the battle; the ladies in waiting dimpled at him and fought each other for his favors.

To his credit, Uttara seemed embarrassed by all the unmerited attention. Arjuna later told me that the prince had sought him out, protested that he didn’t deserve the honors being heaped on him and said he was going to tell the king the truth. At my brother’s urging, the young prince reluctantly agreed to keep up the pretense for a few more days, and personally ensured that none of the soldiers who had gone with him to fight the Kauravas spoke of what had actually happened.

On the afternoon of the fifth day, I was part of group serving a sumptuous celebratory lunch for the royal family and close retainers, when a messenger came rushing up with news that a half dozen chariots flying unfamiliar insignia had been spotted racing towards Matsya.

“Be ready to meet whoever it is with force, if need be,” the king said to me.

“O King, I suspect you won’t need force –if my guess is right, you will accord these visitors royal honors and make them welcome,” Kanka, who was seated among the favored courtiers, said.

Minutes later, the royal herald entered the chamber to announce the arrival of Krishna of Dwaraka and his retinue. King Virat hastily rose to do the honors; to his surprise, Krishna went straight to Kanka and bent to touch his feet. He then accepted Virat’s obeisance, and said, “Where is Brihannala?” Krishna asked. “Have your herald lead me to him!”

Satyaki, meanwhile, had also paid his respects to Kanka. Perfunctorily saluting King Virat, he ran up to where I stood among the other cooks and helpers. We embraced.

PostScript: Traveling back to Bombay today; no other updates till tomorrow, folks.