Eye Browse

1. Reading now, two books. Stein on Writing [A brief sampling on Amazon] during the morning commute, and The Sands

Looking under the hood

Looking under the hood

of Ammon, the second volume of Valerio Manfredi’s Alexander trilogy [earlier post here; and on historical fiction generally, here].

Great reads, both of them. I would have thought the former was of more interest to those in the

Alex in Persia

Alex in Persia

business of words, but my other half was browsing through it the other day, and her take is that Sol Stein [wiki], by highlighting examples of good and bad writing and by illustrating how bad writing could be improved, had helped her understand her own frustration when, as a reader, she comes across some specimen of bad writing. “I know instinctively it’s bad,” she told me, “but don’t know why. Reading Stein is like having a trained mechanic show you what’s under the hood.”

As for Alexander-II, early days, early chapters yet, but it promises to be even more outstanding than the first book. A recent post by Jai Arjun Singh articulated the perennial fascination of historical fiction:

When we learn about history primarily through cold details set out “objectively” in textbooks, it’s possible to lose sight of the fact that the distant events we take for granted – events that now appear set in stone, almost as if they could have unfolded in no other way – were the accumulated products of the personalities, life experiences and whimsies of human beings who happened to be in a certain place at a certain time: real people with ambitions, weaknesses, dilemmas, biases and prejudices of their own. One of the things Mantel does wonderfully well in this book is to show how Cromwell’s life and character – in conjunction with those of the others around him – came to have a bearing on the vital events of his time.

It is at this level — as a story of real people with ambitions, weaknesses, dilemmas and prejudices of their own — that Manfredi is brilliant: the historical facts of Alexander’s odyssey forms the backdrop to a vivid fly on the wall narrative of the workings of the Greek king’s mind, his relationships with his tutor Aristotle and the ‘band of brothers’, including best friend and lover Hephaestion, who were his mates in Aristotle’s ‘school’ in Meiza and who grow up into his most loyal generals and ‘Companions’ and most particularly the strategic and tactical thinking that underpin his saga of conquest.

2. An earlier post had looked at the upcoming publication of Vladimir Nabakov’s last work. Following on, a Wall Street Journal article on that book and a spate of similar posthumous publications, and the often ticklish debates that surround them.

Some of the posthumous releases claim to offer truer versions of the authors’ original intent. This month, Vintage published a new edition of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”—158 years after her death—that for the first time presents the original text without the editing of her husband, Percy Shelley. This version aims to resolve a long festering debate over whether Mary Shelley or her husband actually wrote the book. Publicity materials for what Vintage has titled “The Original Frankenstein” claim that Percy Shelley wrote just 5,000 words out of 72,000. The more familiar, edited version will appear alongside the original.

Editors who exhume the work of iconic authors can face charges that their tinkering fundamentally alters literary artifacts.

3. The Maharashtra assembly election is turning into Animal Farm. If the choice is between a frog and a rat, why should anyone bother to turn out to vote? Also read, on related lines, Amit Varma on Uddhav Thackeray.

4. From Vanity Fair, this eminently readable — and typically long — inside story of the collapse of AIG.

5. Pakistan is pissed off with the Americans fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Islamabad thinks this is a better way to deal with them? In passing, the trial of the Mumbai 26/11 accused has been postponed. Again.

6. Responses to my earlier post on the “right” and “wrong” light in which to show historical figures apparently struck a nerve — besides the comments below the post, a stream of friends in email recount amusing [of the laugh that you may not weep kind] instances from their own school/college days. One such, closely relating to mine, was sent in by Karun, who was kind enough to compile my Bhimsen into one complete work. From his mail:

This happened in my college where we (too) had Julius Caesar. A question in the exam was “What was the turning point of the story?” Common wisdom was that it was the funeral speech of Antony, because it turned the crowd against the conspirators. I argued, however, that it was Antony’s soliloquy in front of Caesar’s corpse. This is when we get an insight into Antony’s psyche for the first time, which is startlingly different from the audience’s impression of him till then. His speech, I argued, portends the fall of the conspirators and shows his true colours.

The professor, while not denying the merit of the argument, told me that it was graded down as it was not conventional. I told him that was precisely the point. Our relationship kind of went downhill from then on.

Typical. The ‘Friends, Romans and countrymen’ oration is a classic example of the demagogue’s art: pitch-perfect rabble-rousing, where the speaker sets out to prepare the wick, carefully adds the fuel, and then deliberately sets the crowd on fire. The earlier one, delivered when Mark Antony finds himself finally alone with the body of his friend, is raw, unadulterated passion: a moment of sadness for the one who is no more, followed by a fierce cry for bloody, brutal vengeance. How dense do you have to be to not get the point of Karun’s argument?

7. As we count down to the Booker and Nobel prizes, Nilanjana Roy looks at the state of English writing in India. The money quote:

The real question is not why we haven’t produced more Rushdies, but why we haven’t produced more Chetan Bhagats. The answer might lie in the fact that we’re not just a post-colonial market—we are an evolving, under-developed literary market, where the supporting infrastructure (creative writing courses, literary magazines, demanding editorial standards) is only just coming into being.

We don’t control the international literary markets; we haven’t yet evolved a robust domestic market of our own. Until one or the other of these comes to pass, our writers will continue to write for export, or for a very small, patient audience. And we’ll continue to need the ratification of the odd Booker win and the occasional nod from the Nobel.

8. Thanks to a review on my friend Chandrahas’ blog, I just added Tzvetan Todorov’s Torture and the War on Terror to my reading list. Bonus: a great collection of links to quality commentary on the subject of torture, embedded within the review.

9. The Daily Beast, a daily stop on my surfing tour, turned one today — here’s editor Tina Brown on what the year has been like.

10. In case you haven’t checked out Vanity Fair’s rhyming round up of the news of the week: Here.

11. The Atlantic’s much-awarded correspondent James Fallows, documentary filmmaker Bob Schapiro and video reporter Emily Chang have a series of web-episodes [don’t you just hate these newfangled constructions, like ‘webisodes’?] on doing business in China. Catch them here.

12. Reading now: From Foreign Policy, an essay on how America’s image in the world impacts on its foreign policy.

Random clips here.

The view from my window

A "dark and stormy" evening

A "dark and stormy" evening

The last two evenings have been magnificent. It starts around 5, 5.30, when the cloud cover intensifies and ‘magic light’ kicks in. And then, whoosh — a windstorm of epic proportions, followed shortly thereafter by one heck of a downpour.

Brilliant if you are out for a jog [Monday evening], even better when ensconced in the study with a view like the one above, wine close to hand and books/to-read printouts piled beside you.

The Lost Symbol: read, and promptly forgotten. The exercise merely confirmed all the problems I have with the author: he telegraphs his punches so much, you know the identity of the villain within a few pages of the author introducing him to you in all his tattooed splendor; his use of italics, ellipses and other devices is merely indicative of an author who needs all the artificial aids he can get to ratchet the excitement quotient up; the story-telling is formulaic to an extreme degree; syntax suffers under his repeated assaults…

The Daily Beast decodes Dan Brown critics. I agree with author and television personality John Humphrys, who at the height of the Da Vinci Code phenomenon dismissed the book as “the literary equivalent of painting by numbers, by an artist who can’t even stay within the lines”. On the other hand, John Grisham’s faint praise seems even more damning, somehow. The money quote is right upfront:

“I know that what I do is not literature,” says Grisham, who has sold more than 250 million copies of his legal thrillers such as The Pelican Brief and The Firm.

The Trial of the Century: In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik in an extended essay on Louis Begley’s new book Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters. A taste:

The Dreyfus affair matters not because of the parallel with our time but because it was one of the first tests of modern pluralist liberalism and its institutions—a test that those institutions somehow managed to pass and fail at the same time. In France a century ago, the system finally worked, as they used to say after Watergate. The good guys rallied around, the courts did their job, Dreyfus was vindicated and came home to his family. Yet what the system exposed as it worked was, in a way, worse than the injustice it remedied. It showed that a huge number of Europeans, in a time largely smiling and prosperous, liked engaging in raw, animal religious hatred, and only felt fully alive when they did. Hatred and bigotry were not a vestige of the superstitious past but a living fire—just what comes, and burns, naturally.

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India: In an essay for FT.com, William Dalrymple on one of the oddest book-promotional tours of our time:

At the end of this week I will be setting off on a bus full of ganja-smoking tantric madmen from rural Bengal. Also on board will be a Keralan dancer and part-time prison warder who is widely believed to be the human incarnation of the god Vishnu; five fakir monks from the badlands of Pakistan who sing in a sort of castrati falsetto; a smoky-voiced Tamil diva who has helped to keep alive an ancient but dying sacred song tradition from the temples of southern India; and an anthropologist of Sufi mysticism who does amazing Jimi Hendrix-ish things with his guitar. It’s going to be an interesting few months: Spinal Tap on a potentially fatal collision course with the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage.

In passing, Dalrymple mentions a Salman Rushdie letter to the Guardian: here it is; I had at the time saved it as an exemplar of the petty issues big-name authors appear to get preoccupied with. And while on the literary festivals that Dalrymple talks about, here’s an archival piece from Granta, by Anita Sethi.

In Outlook, a brief interview with author Ruchir Joshi on his recently launched collection of erotic stories. While on this book, Nilanjana has a mini-review on her blog; the bonus is this extensive, very readable excerpt from Joshi’s introduction to the book. A clip:

One senior Indian writer, who writes brilliant erotics, disdained to even answer my email. Three others did variations of spluttering into their beer, ‘Me write porn for you!?! No fucking way!’ and promptly crossed their legs, all three. One star of the firmament smiled very sweetly and said, ‘If I find the time, I’ll certainly think about it.’ If I had such a thing as a Wall of Rejections, and if there had been a way to collect that smile, it would certainly have had pride of place. Another writer couched his refusal in the form of a tough question: if it wasn’t to be porn, surely a passage about sex and desire had to be an organic part of a larger narrative about something else? In setting out this model wasn’t I, in fact, inviting sex writing for the sake of sex writing, i.e. that highly undesirable substance called ‘bad sex writing’?

While the putting together of this book, I’ve kept that question firmly in mind because it is a very good question.

When I got the tough question, I had several arguments crowding my head:

What’s wrong with a piece of writing that’s written primarily or solely to excite sexual desire? Surely, as in the eating of puddings and the making of love, the proof lies in the actual experience of the act rather than any a priori idea or theory? Surely, if the writing was good enough, it could transcend grosser examples of whichever genre? Some of our greatest miniature paintings are the porn comic-strips of their day; Anais Nin wrote The Delta of Venus to pay the rent, at the rate of so many francs per page, and it’s a fulcrum

The first in the series

The first in the series

work of twentieth-century literature; one of the best film directors working today, Pedro Almodovar, cut his teeth in the Spanish porn film industry and imported many of the industry’s tropes into his mainstream films; and so on and so forth.

And to round off this post on reading in the room with a view — I finally got down to starting Valerio Manfredi’s [wiki] series of three novels on the life and times of Alexander of Macedon. I’m some 200 pages into the first, Alexander: Child of a Dream, and from its opening passages that involve a mysterious wind, and real or imagined coitus with a giant snake, its an enchanting, evocative time machine ride into a storied past. A couple of comments, and several emails, in response to an earlier post on historical fiction had asked for additional recommendations. So here you go — Manfredi is a superb read.

Babur Namah

I became a fan of historical fiction thanks to an attack of smallpox when I was 12.

Dad and mom went off to work leaving me in my sick bed, protectively buffered by layers of neem leaves and watched over by a maid. To alleviate the crushing boredom, I raided dad’s bookshelf and, since I was growing up in the Tamil Nadu of M G Ramachandran, got attracted to a book with a sword-wielding swashbuckler on the cover.

Relevant digression: I had a horror of having my teeth pulled. So whenever such removal – most often accomplished through the medium of a string tied to the base of the tooth, and the insertion of a spoon at the strategic moment – became necessary, the deal was if I submitted quietly and refrained from biting dad’s finger off, I would be treated to an MGR movie. Most MGR movies of the time involved swords.

The book that hooked me

The book that hooked me

So. Samuel Shellabarger’s Prince of Foxes was the ideal antidote to the pain of pox; I followed it up with Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche and Captain Blood [Three weekends ago, I spent a lazy Sunday afternoon re-reading Fortune’s Fool] and by the time I was back on my feet, had become addicted to period dramas.

Still am. Favorites include in no particular order all the works of Alexander Dumas pere [not fils who in any case was a playwright and wrote only one novel]; the historical plays of William Shakespeare; Conn Iggulden’s Emperor quartet on the Rome of Julius Caesar and his more recent Genghis Khan series, now three books and counting; Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series [in which three of seven books remain unread]; Tariq Ali’s Islam quartet [Shadows of the

The face that launched a thousand books

The face that launched a thousand books

Pomegranate Tree, The Book of Saladin, The Stone Woman and Sultan of Palermo]; Margaret George’s ‘autobiography’ of Henry VIII and her other novels Mary Called Magdalene, The Memoirs of Cleopatra and Helen of Troy… [Add the Elizabethan romances of Georgette Heyer, repetitive though the plotlines are; the HBO television series Rome and the Showtime series Tudors..]

Warning: the sex scenes are in surround sound. Mute. Or turn it up and let the neighors sweat.

Warning: the sex scenes are in surround sound. Mute. Or turn it up and let the neighors sweat.

Their subjects vary, ditto treatment, but all these writers are linked by certain common traits: an infinite capacity for research [it is a different matter that some adhere to the history they have delved into while others permit themselves varying degrees of freedom to reinvent]; vivid imaginations that permit them to make a long dead past come alive in glorious color, light and sound; superb narrative technique; an educated eye for the telling detail and a cultivated year for pitch perfect dialogs…

All of them take seminal events and transformative personalities of the past as the base for their narratives and, in the hands of the really skilled writers, the events come alive as avoidable tragedy or inevitable triumph.

These books take you out of the present into a fabled past and allow you to inhabit it; some even pull off the delicate act of using the prism of the past to address contemporary concerns. One of many possible examples is Robert Newton Peck’s Hang for Treason. Writing in the mid-seventies against the backdrop of nationwide angst over the Vietnam war [I stumbled on a copy somewhere in those eight miles of books that make up NY’s Strand bookstore, and read it some four months after the start of the war in Iraq], Peck reinterpreted the career of American revolutionary hero Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys and spun it into the prevailing zeitgeist; thus, in Peck’s telling Allen and his band were motivated not so much by a driving desire for liberty as they were for a selfish, greedy hunger for land; their story in Peck’s telling was not a noble struggle for liberty but terrorism, pure and simple.

Even as I continued to enjoy the historical romances, it bugged me no end that fiction based on Indian history is almost non-existent, at least in the English language [if you have recommendations, appreciate it much].

Our history is a vast untapped mine for fiction, but given the national proclivity to take offense at the slightest – or even no – provocation, attempting fiction based on Indian history is the modern equivalent of the time-honored Japanese practice of sepukku.

A welcome addition to the limited canon is Raiders From the North, the first in what is planned as a five-book series on

The first Moghul

The first Moghul

the Moghuls by ‘Alex Rutherford’, the nom de plume of English husband and wife team Michael and Diana Preston [‘Alex Rutherford lives in London’, is all it says on the inside dust jacket].

In terms of narrative skill, I’d rate ‘Alex’ fairly low down in the list above. But the authors have a lot going for them — not least a story with immense scope and sweep which they tell through the eyes of people, some real, some imagined, who are in close proximity to the protagonist, Babur. Nilanjana Roy has a full-sized review of the book on her blog, so I’ll leave you with that. It made my weekend. Next up, Humayun – can’t wait for it to hit the shelves.

And now I have no more excuse for putting off the mystery of the misplaced symbol – while on which, you might enjoy this Telegraph list of what in any other writer would be outright howlers, but what in Dan Brown is the highlight of his ‘style’.

The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.” On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly. Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils.

A silhouette with white hair and pink irises stood chillingly close but 15 feet away. What’s wrong with this picture?

We can likely come up with 20 times 20 high quality howlers, but think the readers care? Publisher Sonny Mehta is over the moon that the book broke existing first day sales records; and Amazon has the best of both worlds, selling both the hard cover and the Kindle version with the latter outpacing the former [Amazon shares went up $7.75].

So what, sniffs MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman – they’ve already begun discounting the book. And the Telegraph tells you what the problem with that is:

But, as happened with J. K. Rowling’s books, heavy discounting means that the real financial bonanza is likely to be limited to Brown, his agent and his publishers (Transworld in the UK; Doubleday in the US) rather than booksellers.

Supermarkets, internet retailers and the big chains are selling it at around half price (although Waterstone’s claims that it can still make a profit doing that). Most independent bookshops will simply not compete.

PS: Back here Wednesday.

Add Bhim

Following on from an earlier post about media response to former colleague Chindu Sreedharan’s Bhim-centric narrative on Twitter, here’s more — this time a story, and an interview, from Reuters.

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.