Bhimsen: Episode 65

[Episode 64] [PDF Archive]

Sounds of unbridled revelry came to me as I lay in my bed late that night, trying without success to shut out thoughts of all that had happened that day.

Drums thumped and trumpets pealed; balladeers – with an enthusiasm fuelled in equal parts by sura and silver coins – sang incessantly of the greatest archer the world had ever seen. And from the lane outside came the sounds of soldiers celebrating the knowledge that their war was over, that they had escaped death.

Noise is good, I thought as I lay in the dark, staring into the blackness – it anaesthetizes the senses and inhibits thought.

The prevailing mood appeared to have seized even Visokan. When he asked me for the third time in less than an hour if I needed something, I snapped at him. “Go join in the celebrations, get yourself drunk,” I told him. “I don’t need you — I don’t need anyone around me tonight.”

He gave me a strange look, and wandered off into the night. Moments later Arjuna and Dhristadyumna rushed in, and it was hard to tell which was the more boisterous, the more drunk.

“Why are you here by yourself?” Arjuna demanded, grabbing an arm and trying to pull me to my feet. “Come join the fun – Yudhishtira is actually singing and dancing, you must see this!”

What could I say? “You killed our eldest brother today – what is there to celebrate in that?”

I bit down on the thought before it found voice.

The thought had first come to me when, after Visokan left me beside Dushasana’s body, I commandeered an elephant and from its back, surveyed the field.

Off in the distance, I could see the distinctive white horses of Arjuna’s chariot and the golden chestnut ones of Karna’s, whirling in and out of a swirling dust cloud.

Either way, I thought to myself as I guided the elephant in that direction, a brother will die today. Strangely, it didn’t really  matter which one it was — I knew I would feel equally devastated.

From my vantage point the duel seemed to be as much about Krishna and Shalya as it was about my brothers – the two demonstrated unbelievable skill, piloting their chariots in a dazzling series of moves and countermoves, each striving to gain some little advantage over the other.

Karna and Arjuna were evenly matched in strength and, as far as I could see, in skill. As I neared the combat zone, I saw Karna in a brilliant move fire a stream of arrows high up in the air. As they curved through the air and came down towards Arjuna, Karna fired a series of arrows in a straighter line, forcing Arjuna to defend at two levels – the ones coming down from above and the ones coming at him straight.

All those years ago, when we were still young boys learning the art and craft of war and Drona had called for a trial of strength, Arjuna had dazzled the spectators with a trick. At blinding speed, he had shot a stream of arrows high into the air; as they came down, he fired a series of white-painted arrows into their midst to conjure the effect of lightning flashes amidst rain.

What was the point, I thought at the time, of endless hours spent practicing such tricks? After each attempt he had to painstakingly gather up his arrows, re-pack his quiver, and then do it all over again — for what? To amuse people with nothing better to do? What I practiced with the mace, the bow and arrow and in the wrestling pit, had a point to it — the skills I was practicing to perfection were the ones I would some day use in actual combat…

Now I saw the point — the “tricks” that amused crowds at a martial arts exhibition were the very ones that, used in deadly combat as Karna was doing now, could force the enemy to confront different challenges.

As I urged my elephant closer to the scene of the duel, I saw Arjuna do something I had never seen before — firing continuously with his right hand and establishing a line of attack, he switched suddenly, seamlessly to his left and used what seemed to me some special arrows. These must be poison tipped, I thought; they were so thin, almost like needles, that he was able to notch five, six of these arrows onto the string at the same time and fire them simultaneously, multiplying the danger to the enemy.

Around them, the fighting had come to a standstill as everyone in the vicinity gathered to watch the duel of the master archers. With each side cheering on their champion and jeering the opponent, the atmosphere was incongruously festive.

Their battle must have been going on for a long time — Arjuna and Karna were both bathed in sweat and streaked with the dust raised by their chariots.

There was no way I could make a path for my elephant through the milling crowd. I jumped down, hoping to push a way through the crowd – and even as I straightened, a groan of despair went up from the Kaurava ranks.

Over the heads of the crowd, I saw the white horses standing stock still. Arjuna stood on the chariot deck, face grim, bowstring drawn taut. I could see the chestnut horses and the head of Shalya in the charioteer’s seat, but there was no sign of Karna.

Using my arms and lowered shoulders to smash a way through the crowd, I got to the front — and saw Karna down on one knee, desperately trying to lift the wheel of his chariot out of a rut it appeared to have gotten caught in. Shalya was furiously whipping his horses but strain as they would, the wheel refused to budge.

“I am unarmed,” I heard Karna say. “Wait till I free the wheel – kshatriya dharma demands that you allow me that…”

Arjuna looked confused; eyes fixed on Karna, he gradually lowered his bow.

Kshatriya dharma!” Krishna’s voice cut through the hubbub, dripping scorn in every syllable. “This from the man who sneaked behind a sixteen year old boy and cut his bow string from the back!

“Since when did Adhirata’s son, this suta putra, have the right to rank himself with kshatriyas and to invoke our dharma?!” Krishna demanded, turning to Arjuna.

“What are you waiting for? The sworn enemy of the Pandavas, the killer of your son, stands before you – do your duty!”

Just then, a passing cloud obscured the sun, throwing the scene in gloom.

His head tilted to one side and his eye fixed on Arjuna, Karna put his shoulder to the wheel and his hands on the hub, and strained mightily.

I saw despair in his eyes and took a hasty step forward, not quite knowing what it was I intended to do. Help Karna free the wheel of his chariot? Stop Arjuna from killing his eldest brother?

It was all too late – Arjuna’s bow flashed up, an arrow thudded into Karna’s shoulder and, as he turned under the impact, another burst through his breastplate. I saw the sudden gush of blood as the arrow drove deep; an instant later, Karna slumped backwards against the wheel, a third arrow impaling his throat.

A blast from Krishna’s conch was drowned by Arjuna’s triumphant roar; an instant later, Yudhishtira jumped down from his chariot and rushed forward. “Karna is dead,” he yelled, hands thrown up in triumph. “There he lies, the suta putra who caused this war.

“Where are the musicians, the singers?! Let them sing to my beloved brother, to the peerless archer, Arjuna, the equal of Indra himself!!”

Arjuna spotted me and rushed up, arms spread wide. “Brother,” he shouted as he folded me in a hug, “I did it – I’ve killed Karna like I promised I would!”

He danced away into Krishna’s embrace; Dhristadyumna, Nakula and Satyaki all ran forward to add to the acclaim.

The heralds had blown the end of combat. My brothers got in their chariots and drove towards our camp, in a hurry to celebrate; Dhristadyumna, Satyaki, Nakula and others raced to catch up. In their excitement, no one noticed me standing off to one side, eyes fixed on Karna’s lifeless form.

Around me, the dejected Kauravas gradually drifted away, leaving my brother’s body there for the chandalas.

I stood there, not moving, not thinking, not feeling – just waiting until, finally, I was all alone. And then I walked up to where Karna lay.

As gently as I could, I pulled out the arrows that had impaled his shoulder, his chest, his throat. Responding to the promptings of some inner need, I arranged him so he was comfortable — his legs stretched in front of him, the wheel of his chariot supporting his back. With my robe, I wiped the sweat and the blood off his face.

And then I bent low and touched his feet — seeking from him in death the blessings I had never been able to get in life. And even as I did, I cringed at the cowardice that made me glance hastily around to make sure I was alone, that no one had seen this act of mine.

Bhimsen: Episode 63

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bhimsen: Episode 60

[Episode 59] [Archives]

I returned to my lodge after offering prayers at the yagna shala and found Visokan waiting for me with the kind of metal body armor I hate to wear.

People always speak of my strength but in my own mind, it was speed that was my greatest asset — and going to war in a bulky metal breastplate and arm guards was not conducive to the kind of quick movement that gave me my edge.

“What happened to my usual armor, the one of cowhide?”

“Have you heard anything of Karna’s secret weapon?” Visokan asked seemingly at a tangent. “Some say it was gifted to him by Indra, king of the gods.”

Not for the first time, I marveled internally at his ability to keep abreast of all that was going on. There was no one in the vicinity when Dhristadyumna had asked me to challenge Karna, and yet here was my charioteer discreetly hinting that he knew what was in the wind.

I shrugged. They also say Arjuna had weapons gifted by Indra, by Shiva, by Agni and Vaayu and other gods – stories that we had carefully spread through our own balladeers and spies as part of the tactic of demoralizing the enemy.

It was, I knew, perfectly possible that Karna had some kind of special weapon — the best warriors always save such for special enemies, or for those dire situations when they find themselves in trouble.

I had the iron javelins made to my specifications; Arjuna had several special arrows that I knew of. It would have been surprising if Karna, who had been preparing for this war for a long time, didn’t have some secrets up his sleeve as well.

“The story is it was actually created for him by a master engineer in Anga,” Visokan told me. “I haven’t been able to get much detail yet, but from what I hear I think it is a javelin, fired from some sort of mechanical contraption anchored in his chariot. Those who speak of it call it the Shakti.”

Possibly, I thought, a version of Arjuna’s Pasupathasthra — which, we had got the balladeers to sing, was gifted to him by Shiva himself. In actual fact, Mayan had fashioned for my brother a special arrow with a diamond tip capable of penetrating any armor. Just below the detachable tip, the wood was carved in the shape of a hollow bulge into which snake venom was filled before the head was screwed back on. The arrowhead was fashioned in such a way as to break off inside the body — you couldn’t pull it out, and the venom would do the rest.

“Very effective, but you can only prepare so many of these,” Arjuna once explained while showing off the weapons he had acquired on his travels. “The venom loses its potency within hours, so you need to fill it afresh each time – and you can’t go around with a basket of snakes in your chariot to draw venom from!”

Karna’s weapon was likely a spear, a larger weapon built on the same lines. In any case it was all speculation, and I didn’t see much sense in getting worked up about it.

“I was just thinking that maybe he will have to use that weapon today,” Visokan said. “I heard you are going to challenge Karna to battle…”

Ignoring his circuitous hints, I strapped on my favorite cowhide breastplate and arm guards and went out to supervise how my weapons were arranged on the deck of the chariot.

Dhristadyumna’s guess proved correct: Drona arrayed the Kauravas in the ultra-defensive Kamalavyuh, with each petal of the lotus formation led by a master warrior and comprising all three wings of the army. Jayadratha had been secreted in the center of the formation, the bud. The advantage was that no matter which point Arjuna attacked, the other petals would instantly close, creating a tight defensive shield around the target.

In the event I didn’t have to challenge Karna — it was he who found me as I drove diagonally across the field, heading towards where Arjuna was battling mightily to break through. An arrow flecked with peacock feathers embedded itself deep in my flagpole as a sign of his challenge; as I turned to confront him, two crescent-headed arrows pierced my breastplate.

To the acharyas, I did not rate as an archer on the same scale as Arjuna and Karna, but I had one thing going for me: power. And importantly, Visokan knew my strengths as well as I did. He needed no prompting; swiftly, he backed up the horses and drove away at a diagonal, putting distance between us.

“Coward,” Karna’s voice cut across the din. “Stand and fight!”

An instant later he was staring down at his bow, which I had cut in two. From this greater distance, the power of my arms and shoulders gave me the edge — I could shoot arrows further, and with greater force, than Karna.

I had a stock of specially prepared arrows — longer and stronger than the conventional ones, these were much harder to draw and release, but their heft gave them additional range and power the conventional arrows Karna was shooting at me did not have.

Realizing the danger, he kept trying to close the distance; with effortless skill, Visokan danced our chariot out of the way, maintaining the distance and constantly maneuvering so I had a clear view of my target.

I wanted to tire Karna out before I closed with him. My arrows thudded repeatedly into his breastplate and onto the wheels of his chariot; his armor was strong, but the repeated impact of the arrows created an additional physical hardship for him.

Thrice in succession, I cut his bow in half. As he bent to pick up a fourth, I noticed the first signs that he was tiring, and pressed my attack harder. A lucky shot took him dead center in the chest; he reeled, and grabbed hastily at his flagpole for support.

My time, I realized, had come. I picked up the arrow I had been saving — a long, extra thick one fitted with a crescent-shaped head and flecked with pigeon feathers — and carefully fitted it to the string.

Karna fired a volley at me; I shrugged them off and, as he bent to replenish his quiver, gave the word: “Now!”

I expected Visokan to spring the horses forward at speed to reduce the distance; I was poised to send the arrow straight at Karna’s throat. To my surprise, Visokan did the exact opposite — he drove diagonally away, putting even greater distance between us.

The moment was lost, and I was furious.

“You cannot kill him — it would be a huge sin,” Visokan said.

“He is your brother!”

The bow fell from my suddenly nerveless fingers; my limbs felt paralyzed. I willed myself to bend and pick up my bow again, but collapsed instead to the deck of the chariot, reeling under a shock far harder to absorb than the worst Karna had thrown at me.

“Karna is your mother’s eldest son.” Visokan’s words came to me as if from a great distance. I pulled myself back onto to my feet — and recoiled as Karna, who seemed to have gotten a second wind, drove his chariot close to mine and poked me in the chest with the tip of his bow.

“Fat fool!” he sneered. “You are only fit to wrestle in the mud with people like you — don’t ever make the mistake of thinking you are an archer.”

Words were always Karna’s sharpest weapons. He appeared to have forgotten that he had been just an instant away from death — or perhaps he hadn’t realized the extent of the danger he was in.

“I promised your mother I would kill only one of her sons, and you are not him. Get out of my sight before I change my mind.” With indescribable contempt, he flicked me in the face with the disengaged string of his bow and drove away without a backward glance.

Around me the battle surged, but my senses refused to take any of it in.

Visokan drove away to the edge of the field and, finding a quiet corner, stopped the chariot.

“It was when I was coming from Kasi to join you,” he said. “Since Queen Balandhara and your son Sarvadhan were with us, our force was travelling in slow stages and at one point, we made camp on the banks of the Ganga.

“I never meant to eavesdrop,” he said. “It was early morning and I was heading to the river for a bath. I saw your mother by the river bank and went towards her, meaning to pay my respects. It was when I got closer that I saw the man who was seated, in padmasan, before her.

‘I was unmarried, my child — what else could I do?’, Visokan heard my mother say.

“Karna laughed, and there was a wealth of bitterness in his laugh, a world of hurt,” Visokan told me.

‘I was brought up by a charioteer and his wife, and I always was, and always will be, their son,’ Karna had told my mother. ‘I will not now give up the identity I have lived under all these years, I will not give up those who were my friends when your sons taunted me as an outcast and you stood silently by, never once giving me the protection of your name.

‘But for you, I will do this — I will only kill one of your sons. Whatever happens, Queen — I wish I could call you mother but I just cannot think of you that way — whatever happens, you will have five sons.’

My mind whirled with the possibilities. Karna the eldest Pandava — rightful heir to the throne of Hastinapura?! How vastly different things could have been…

Every trick, every stratagem Duryodhana had launched against us had been with the knowledge of Karna’s backing — if Karna, Arjuna and I stood together, would our cousins ever have dared treat us the way they did?

Would they have dared deny us our due, knowing that the three of us in alliance could have annihilated them in an instant?

The fatal game of dice that had led to this disastrous war — would it have happened? Karna, not Yudhishtira, would as the eldest have received the challenge, and by no stretch of the imagination did I see him accepting, and falling into Sakuni’s trap as Yudhishtira had done.

And the Swayamvar? There was no doubt in my mind, as I recalled the events of that day, that Karna would have hit the target — I still recalled vividly the skill with which he had strung the bow, before Draupadi contemptuously rejected him as a candidate for her hand. If only my mother had spoken out, if only she had told us the truth, it would have been Karna who won her hand…

“Not now!” Visokan said, jolting me out of my reverie. “Dusk is approaching… Arjuna will need help…”

He raced the chariot across the field and through the massed Kaurava forces, the swords attached to the hubs of my chariot cutting brutally through flesh as we dashed headlong towards Arjuna. I grabbed my mace and vaulted out of the chariot, needing the bloody immediacy of hand to hand combat to overcome the demons of the mind.

Karna — the eldest Pandava. My brother and my king…

Ranging ahead of Arjuna’s chariot, I killed mindlessly, brutally, my mace mechanically rising and falling, breaking limbs, crushing skulls as I fought to clear a path for my brother. And yet, I thought, it was all going to be too late — the sky was darkening around us; any minute now the bugle would blow to signal dusk, and the end of hostilities.

Ahead of us, buffered by a massed array of archers and swordsmen, I could make out the chariots of Karna, Duryodhana, Sakuni, Dushasana and Drona. Somewhere in their midst would be Jayadratha, totally insulated from Arjuna’s revenge.

My brother would lose — there was no way we could bridge the distance in time. Arjuna would die on Abhimanyu’s funeral pyre  — and with that, our hopes of winning the war would go up in flames.

The sky went dark.

A massive roar went up from the Kaurava ranks. The rank and file threw their swords and bows and arrows up in the air; ahead of me I saw Drona, Duryodhana and Karna join the cheering throngs.

I glanced over my shoulder at Arjuna. Krishna had let the reins drop; on the deck of the chariot I saw Arjuna, head hanging in despair, slowly unbuckle his quiver and throw it down.

“Get in!” Visokan’s voice in my ear startled me out of my stupor.

“It is not over yet,” he said as I vaulted into the chariot. “Look up — it is the surya grahan, the eclipse…”

Realization hit me like a jolt — so that was why Krishna had spent the night closeted with the astrologers. Krishna bringing the chariot to a halt… Arjuna’s seeming despair… it was all part of a plan, and I didn’t need anyone to tell me it had originated in Krishna’s fertile brain.

I grabbed up my bow and quiver; even as I straightened, Visokan yelled “Now!”

I fought to balance myself as the chariot jumped ahead, smashing through the celebrating Kaurava hordes. But quick though Visokan was, Krishna was unimaginably quicker. The white horses of my brother’s chariot passed me in a blur; Krishna manipulated the team with extraordinary skill as he cut right across the field, towards the celebrating generals who were crowding around the triumphant Jayadratha.

Visokan accelerated, staying close to Arjuna’s flank. I trained my bow on the Kaurava generals — it would be cruel irony if Arjuna managed to fulfill his vow only to be cut down by the others.

The sky cleared.

Just ahead of me and to my right, Arjuna stood tall on the deck of his chariot, the light glinting off the diamond tip of his arrow. The twanggg of his release sounded above the din of the as-yet unsuspecting Kauravas; I watched the flight of the arrow as it shot across space and, with unerring aim, smashed deep into Jayadratha’s throat.

I heard the triumphant notes of Devadutt, Arjuna’s conch; an instant later, Krishna’s Panchajanya joined in.

Dusk fell. The trumpets of the heralds blared out, a high note dropping off in a diminuendo to signal the cessation of hostilities.

As the flames of Abhimanyu’s pyre burnt bright against the sky, I stood looking out across the river into the darkness beyond. Somewhere out there, in one of the lodges reserved for the womenfolk, sat my mother.

I wondered what she was doing, what she was thinking. She would, I knew, be calm, tranquil even in the face of the news of death and devastation ferried over by our messengers.

Maybe she was talking to Draupadi, or to Balandhara who she had invited to stay with her. Or maybe she was with Uttara, consoling the young princess even as the flames consumed her husband’s body on the other side of the river.

My mother — who, married when young to an impotent man, had manged to produce three children.

My mother — who, even before her marriage, had managed to have a son she had told no one about.

Who knew how many more secrets lay buried in her heart?

PostScript: A very busy weekend and a busier Monday ahead, folks — so, this episode ahead of schedule. The next one will be up Tuesday/Wednesday.

Bhimsen: Episode 59

[Episode 58] [Archives]

A jackal howled in triumph as it found some overlooked scrap of human flesh; its fellows joined in the demoniac chorus, while vultures wheeled and circled overhead.

Abhimanyu is dead.

The thought echoed in my head as I walked on through the pitch black night, looking for some sign of where it had happened.

Abhimanyu is dead.

Never again would he walk into my lodge late in the evening, still fresh after a day of performing prodigies on the battle field. Never more would I hear that call I had grown to love:


Over the course of the saddest day of my life, we had pieced together details of how he had been killed, but I still felt the urge to visit the scene, to see for myself where that boy, so dear to me, had breathed his last.

Drona had taken over command of the Kaurava army. Bhisma was still clinging to life; the Kauravas had laid him out in state in one corner of the battlefield, surrounded by an honor guard. Karna had given up his sulks and joined the Kaurava ranks; his presence in the field had given a fillip, a  fresh impetus, to the enemy.

The 13th day of the war was very nearly fatal for us. The army that confronted us that dawn was arranged in a defensive quarter moon formation but once battle was fully joined, it swiftly rearranged itself in the concentric circles of the Chakravyuh, that legend said was impenetrable, with Drona and Karna at its center.

Drona, our spies warned us, had promised Duryodhana he would end the war that day by killing or capturing Yudhishtira. Engrossed in the immediacy of combat, I hadn’t realized the change in Kaurava tactics; it was when a messenger came up to warn me that our center was in danger of buckling that I rushed over in support. Nakula, Sahadeva, Drupada and others were also riding up to help contain the Kaurava charge.

There was no sign of Arjuna, but I had no time to worry about that. The Kauravas in their circular formation pressed us hard. The battle raged with an intensity I had never seen before, and when it looked like we might be overwhelmed, I persuaded Yudhishtira to withdraw from the field.

When you are in the thick of battle, it is difficult to get a sense of what is happening across the field – there is just you and the next person to kill, or to be killed by. Even so, I got the feeling that something had happened to change the dynamic. The Kaurava charge seemed to lessen in intensity. I saw no sign of their main warriors in our immediate vicinity – I wondered if they were facing their own problems elsewhere on the field.

I thought to seize this opportunity, get a sizeable troop together and launch a counter-offensive. Just then, a stray arrow pierced deep into my right forearm. Rather than fight on, I signalled Visokan to drive off the field so I could get the attendants to clean and bind my wound.

“Something bad must have happened,” Visokan said as we drove into camp, pointing his whip at the chariots drawn up in front of Yudhishtira’s lodge.  I hurried inside.

“Abhimanyu is dead!”

Krishna’s face was ashen; for all the philosophies he had spouted about life and death being an illusion, the loss of the nephew he had brought up as his own son appeared to have hit him hard.

Arjuna was slumped in a corner, staring fixedly into the fire and seemingly oblivious of the tears that streamed down his face. A grim-faced Sahadeva sat beside him, a hand on my stricken brother’s shoulder.

Through the rest of that awful day, we waited in Yudhishtira’s lodge as a succession of spies passed through with details of what had happened.

Drona had waited until Arjuna was busy coping with a challenge by Bhagadatta, backed by a large force of Samsaptakas. From our spies, we had heard about this group of mercenaries who had been formed with the sole intention of harassing and containing Arjuna.

Once Arjuna was fully occupied in dealing with the challenge, Drona switched formations and launched his own attack. Abhimanyu, who was at point in our own formation, realized what was happening and decided the best counter was to break the Chakravyuh and take the attack to Drona himself.

“We told him to wait, we told him we would send messengers to Arjuna to warn of the danger and bring him to the front line,” Satyaki said, his voice hoarse with grief. “The boy wouldn’t  listen. He mocked us for being cowards; he said if we waited it would be too late; he said if we didn’t back him, he would go in there alone…”

It takes considerable skill to break the Chakravyuh — I think Arjuna was the only one of us who had perfected that skill. Abhimanyu managed to smash through the outer wall of the Kaurava formation. The plan was for Drupada and Satyaki to follow in his wake, backed by the rest of our cavalry. Once inside the enemy formation, Abhimanyu would lead the charge to smash through the concentric rings that comprised the formation, and attack Drona and Karna directly.

“It was Jayadratha who blocked us,” Satyaki said, tears streaming down his face. “Abhimanyu had penetrated inside and I was following immediately behind when the Sindhu king drove into the breach, crippled his own horses and overturned his chariot. He sealed the breach before Drupada and I could break through, and then he escaped into the melee.”


“The man you pardoned,” I reminded Yudhishtira. This was perhaps not the best time to upbraid my brother, but I didn’t care – I had just lost a boy I cared for more deeply than anyone else, even my own sons.

“His crime merited death, but you ordered us to let him go. You said we could not be responsible for making our cousin Dusshala a widow! Thanks to your generosity, Abhimanyu is dead and now Uttara is a widow – who among us has the courage to tell her that her husband of four months is dead?”

My brother kept his eyes fixed on the floor; if he heard my recriminations, he gave no sign, he didn’t say a word.

What was there to say? Abhimanyu was dead.

Over the past 12 days, the boy had already done enough to overshadow the reputations of the great warriors on either side – the deeds of Bhisma, Drona, even Arjuna himself had paled in comparison. But on this day, trapped in the midst of the massed Kaurava forces, he excelled himself.

“There is no celebration in the Kaurava camp,” one of our spies reported. “Even their own balladeers are praising Abhimanyu. The very gods came down to watch, they are singing…”

For once, I thought, the balladeers didn’t exaggerate – even the gods would have wanted to watch this boy. Having seen him in action, I knew that even overwhelmed as he was, he would have fought with joy, with the exuberance that was so uniquely his, without a shadow of fear or doubt.

Shalya and his brother Rukmaratha had tried to stop his progress; Abhimanyu killed Rukmaratha and forced Shalya to retreat.

Dushasana engaged him and, overwhelmed by the supreme skill of the youngster, fell fainting on the deck of his chariot. Karna drove out to check him and, wounded in combat, was forced to scurry back into the safety of the center.

Abhimanyu then did what no one believed was possible – alone, surrounded on all sides by hostile troops, he smashed through the supposedly impregnable formation and penetrated to its heart.

Each time a spy came to us with some fresh narrative, we grieved anew – but at no point did sorrow threaten to completely overwhelm me as at this moment. It must have been Abhimanyu’s audacious assault that blunted the edge of the Kaurava attack – preoccupied with trying to stop the boy from winning the war single-handed, the Kauravas didn’t have the space to push their own attack through.

I had sensed that diminished intensity, I had realized that the Kauravas had been blunted. Yet it never occurred to me to wonder why – instead, I had driven off the field to rest. Had I only known… had I thought to ask, to check… had Satyaki or one of the others thought to send messengers…

Unable to contain his brilliance, the Kauravas were forced to try and overwhelm Abhimanyu through sheer weight of numbers.

Drona, Kripa, Shalya, Ashwatthama, Duryodhana, Karna – vaunted warriors all – surrounded him. A revived Dushasana and his son came up in support.

Even so, Abhimanyu held his own,  until an increasingly desperate Drona, seeing his carefully planned strategy reduced to ruin, signalled to Karna to attack from the rear.

While Drona and Ashwatthama drew Abhimanyu’s fire, Karna slipped behind him and cut down his bow. Dushasana and Duryodhana, mounted on elephants, combined in a flanking attack to smash his chariot.

Abhimanyu fought on with his sword until he was disarmed; bleeding from a thousand cuts, he picked up the wheel of the shattered chariot and fought on while the Kauravas fired at him from all sides.

When the boy finally collapsed under the weight of his injuries, Dushasana’s son had slipped in behind him, and crushed his head in with a mace.

Unable to sit still under the burden of grief, I wandered out into the now deserted battle field, seeking some sign of where it had all happened. The chandalas had done their job well – there was nothing: no smashed chariot, no shattered arms, no chariot wheel with which he had fought his last fight.

Nothing, except the memories that pierced my heart.

Abhimanyu’s smile.

Abhimanyu’s eyes on me, shining with pride at my skill.

Abhimanyu’s voice, in the timbre of which man and boy met so nicely, calling out to me.


Had he, I wondered, in those final moments called for help? Had he longed for  his father? He had once come to my aid unasked – did he, as he fell before those cowards, wonder why I wasn’t at his side when he most needed help?

“I was looking for you,” Dhristadyumna’s voice interrupted my thoughts as I walked past the door of his lodge. His eyes were bloodshot with alcohol and with grief; he was sitting on the step, drawing aimless patterns in the dust with the tip of his spear.

“Challenge Karna to a duel tomorrow – he will not refuse a direct challenge,” Dhristadyumna said. “Drona is my problem and I’ll deal with him – but if we are to win this war then one of us needs to take out Karna before he can do too much damage, and the only one who can is you.”

“Arjuna has vowed to kill Karna,” I reminded him.

“Vows are cheap – there are far too many of them already. And besides, where does he have the time? He is preoccupied with other things – he has vowed that he will kill Jayadratha by dusk tomorrow.”


“Your brother, who else?! In full hearing of our soldiers, Arjuna swore that he would kill Jayadratha before dusk, and only after that will he perform Abhimanyu’s last rites. Failing that, he said, he will immolate himself on the funeral pyre of his son.

“How could he have been so criminally stupid?” Dhristadyumna said, after a long pause. “Drona is no fool. He will put Jayadratha at the center of his army, surround him on all sides with his best warriors and keep him safe through a day’s fighting – and we will use our best warrior to his own stupidity.”

“Where is Krishna? Why didn’t he stop Arjuna from making such an impossible vow?”

Dhristadyumna snorted with impatience, took a long swig of sura and passed the goatskin to me. “Oh, Krishna—he is busy. He is consulting priests and astrologers.”

“What?! Why?”

“How would I know? He didn’t take me into his confidence – he summoned the priests and our astrologers, and has been meeting with them in Arjuna’s lodge. What a time to consult omens!”

I walked away, too disturbed in mind and restless in body to seek the comfort of my bed. As I neared the river, I saw etched against the night sky the silhouette of a single chariot drawn up on the bank. Someone was perched on its shaft, staring out across the river.

“Abhimanyu is dead,” Ghatotkacha said as I walked up.

“No one – not your brothers, not your other sons, not Dhristadyumna or Krishna or any of the great kings who have come to fight for you, have ever treated me and my men like human beings,” he said, jumping down from his perch and standing there, staring off into space.

“For all of you, we are just tribals. What does that king, your brother for whom we are shedding our blood, call us? Rakshasas?! We are fit only to kill for you, but not to be treated as one of you. Abhimanyu alone…”

His voice broke; he fought for control while I stood there, feeling the truth in my eldest son’s words scour me like a whip.

“Abhimanyu alone, from that first day we met in your lodge, treated me like an equal, like a brother. He sought me out each day, he asked about my comfort, he mingled with my men, he praised my skills, he told me he had never seen a greater fighter and how proud he was that I was his brother…”

I had never known any of this. In the 11 days since he had come to join us, I had never thought to seek out my own son, to find out how he was doing. He had once rescued me from dire peril; even then, I had never looked for him after the day’s battle to utter a word of praise, of thanks.

How many lessons did I still have to learn? In how many more ways would Abhimanyu continue to prove that he was better than all of us combined?

“And now he is dead! Abhimanyu is dead! They surrounded him like jackals and brought him down – all those great warriors, those acharyas, behaving in a fashion we tribals would scorn…”

In the darkness, his sword flashed fire – a world of pain and anger powered his arm as the sword bit deep into the shaft of the chariot.

He looked down at his weapon as if he had never seen it before.

“My spy in the Kaurava camp tells me that Drona is planning to fight at night – the fool! That is just what we like, us tribals. Rakshasas!” The way he spat out that last word was an insult to us.

“Night is our time – they will not see us come, they will not see their death till it is too late.”

His laugh rang out, a sound more blood-curdling than the howls of the jackals that occasionally pierced the stillness of the night.

“From now on when I kill, it is for him, for Abhimanyu. I will write the story of my brother in the blood of the cowards who brought him down!”