Bhimsen: Episode 71

[Episode 70] [Archives]

A chance meeting with two wandering rishis gave me the first news we had of our mother.

I was supervising the clearing of a large tract of forest on the outskirts of Hastinapura. Sahadeva wanted to create an enormous central cattle shed well away from the town and concentrate all our herds there – easier to protect and to focus on the breeding, he said.

I led a small band of our troops and a large group of wood workers in the task. The troops stayed alert against the chance that we might encounter militant tribals sheltering in the woods; the workers cut down the trees they needed for constructing the cattle sheds and adjoining buildings, had them towed by elephants, and burnt the rest.

The rishis wandered up while I was working with two elephants to haul away an enormous tree we had just felled. Our uncle, aunt and mother were doing well, they said. A large number of rishis, elderly Brahmins and sages had made their home in the vicinity; great-grandfather Krishna Dwaipayana had also joined them.

Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and our mother spent their mornings in prayer and penance and their afternoons and evenings in intense discussions on karma and dharma, on why we do the things we do and whether it is all part of pre-destiny or did we have any choice in the matter…

Yudhishtira sighed when, later that evening, I recounted my conversation with the rishis. “It’s been so long — maybe we should go, see how they are doing, inquire into their well-being,” he suggested.

“And we could try once more to persuade mother to come back with us,” Sahadevan suggested.

Yudhishtira shook his head. “She won’t ever come back, child,” he said. “But… you know, that day when she first told me she was going into the forest, we had a long talk. I was angry — I said things I shouldn’t have… harsh things, the kind of things no son should tell a mother. I need to see her again, to apologize, to tell her I understand things better now…”

We set out early next morning, Yudhishtira, Sahadeva and I.  Arjuna opted to stay behind — someone had to, he argued; what if there was some sudden emergency and no one here to deal with it?

He had over time reconciled to the war, to those we had killed and those we had lost, and had plunged into the task f recruiting and training fresh soldiers for our army. But his anger towards our mother still smoldered deep within him, like live coals under ash, and there seemed no point trying to persuade him to join us.

Nakula was away at the time, touring the kingdoms south of the Vindhyas. He had been gone for some months now. Every once in a while, groups of artisans would come to Hastinapura with messages from him – stone workers, wood workers, master jewelers who could work in gold and precious stones, master carvers, painters, experts in the design and construction of weapons…

One day, a group of dancers came to our court. They were adepts at a form of dance that, they said, had been first created by the founder of our race, Bharata. Yudhishtira was so entranced by their performance he showered gifts on them; Draupadi installed them in one of them outbuildings within the palace compound and persuaded them to teach the younger maids and the daughters of the townsfolk.

It was late in the afternoon when, following the directions the rishis had given me, we arrived at the ashram. Uncle Dhritarashtra made no attempt to hide his happiness as we paid due obeisance; tears streamed from those sightless eyes as he blessed each one of us. “My child, I am grateful you came to see me,” he told me as he laid his hand on my head in a gesture that was both benediction and caress.

Mother said nothing. She sat beside aunt Gandhari, watching and listening with a smile on her face as uncle Dhritarashtra asked about how the kingdom was faring, and gave Yudhishtira advice on various matters of statecraft.

It was quite a while before Yudhishtira finally managed to detach himself from Dhritarashtra and got a chance to ask after uncle Vidura. “He left the ashram several months ago,” our grandsire, who was seated next to mother, said. “He is in the forest not very far from here, immersed in intense penance.”

Yudhishtira decided to seek him out; I went with him while Sahadeva stayed behind to talk to mother. We walked a long way into the forest until finally we came upon a gigantic peepul tree.

We didn’t immediately recognize the man who lay stretched out on the ground under its shade. A wild, unkempt beard covered all of his face except his eyes; his ash-covered skin hung loose on a skeletal frame; his breathing came slow, labored.

Yudhishtira exclaimed in shock and rushed to prostrate himself. Uncle Vidura’s hand rose weakly in a vague gesture of benediction, then fell back at his side. His lips moved; Yudhishtira bent close to listen.

“Child, I think his time has come,” Yudhishtira said. “Quick, fetch some water.”

I raced through the forest, heedless of the brambles that scoured my skin, until I burst into a clearing beside a small lake. Fashioning a little cup out of a lotus leaf, I carried the water back to where I had left my brother, and found him sitting beside the still form of uncle Vidura, staring off into the distance.

He seemed not to be aware that I had returned. I touched him lightly on the shoulder. He looked up at me. “He is gone, child,” he said.

Taking the water from my hands, he wet uncle Vidura’s lips and then his own, sighed and, seemingly in a trance, walked away in the direction of the ashram. I followed.

It was only when the ashram came in sight that he stopped and turned to me. “I had meant to tell you this before, but somehow the time never seemed right,” he said. “Vidura was my father – my real father.”

I stared at my brother in stunned silence. He shook his head, and smiled wryly. “No, child,” he said, “there is nothing in this for you to get upset or angry about, or to blame our mother for. Our father was impotent, you know that – and the practice of niyoga, of our women accepting other men in order to produce children, is common among us kshtriyas.

“I had known for a long time that King Pandu was not our father but it is only that evening, when mother told me she was leaving us, that I learnt who my real father was.”

He walked towards the ashram. I watched him go, then turned and wandered aimlessly into the forest till I came to a little stream.

I drank deep, splashed cold water on my face and body, and stretched out on the grass by the stream. I lay there for a long time, eyes closed, listening to the gentle murmur of the water and the soft rustle of the wind in the trees, trying and failing to work up the will to get up, to go find my brothers.

Thoughts whirled through my mind like dead leaves in the evening breeze. Yudhishtira… Bhima… Arjuna… Nakula… Sahadeva… sons of Pandu, the balladeers called us, the Pandavas, children of a crowned king and rightful heirs to his kingdom… uncle Vidura is dead, my brother, his son, has a funeral to arrange, he will need my help, I should go… but is he my ‘uncle’?… what is Vidura to me, what is the word I must use to refer to the father of my brother?

I did not know how long I lay there.

The light touch of a hand brushing away my tears startled me. I sat up abruptly, and found mother beside me in the gathering dark.

“Go home, my child,” she said gently. “Your brothers have left. There is nothing here to sadden you, no reason for tears — go in peace.”

“Peace?!” I jumped to my feet and stood looking down at her. “Mother – please… I have made enough mistakes, committed enough crimes… At least now, tell me who we are, tell me who I really am…”

Mother sighed. She was silent for a long, long time. Her voice, when she finally spoke, startled me: it was not the harsh, emotionless tones I was so used to but the soft, gentle tones – or so it seemed to me – of a young girl…

“Your brother Karna – he really was the son of a charioteer, a suta,” she said.

It was too dark to see, and maybe it just my fancy, but I thought she was smiling. “He was the son of Kuntibhoja’s charioteer… young… handsome… glowing like the sun…

“It was a hard life, those years I spent as Durvasa’s servant, his slave… there was no one I could talk to, no one to share my pain – except him. He noticed. He was the only one who noticed my suffering. He tried, in many little ways, to help ease my burden; he spoke to me, he listened and when I couldn’t bear it any more, when grief overwhelmed me, he held me and let me cry…”

Mother seemed lost in the labyrinth of memories.

“When Kuntibhoja told me I was to marry Pandu of Hastinapura, I was overjoyed – finally, my years of slavery were coming to an end. I was to marry a king – not just any king, but the most famous king of the time. When he came to see me, to take me to Hastinapura – he was so tall, so strong, handsome like a god…

“And then…”

Mother’s voice became thin, reedy, drenched in tears. “He loved me, at first; we spoke of the child that would be born to us, the son who would inherit the kingdom… and then, over time he began coming to me less and less. It was all my fault, he told me, though I knew different – I had already had a child and, in my shame, abandoned him in the river…

“And then one day my maid came to me, weeping, to tell me my husband had gone to Madra to marry… She was so beautiful, your cheriyamma, Madri… I watched while they greeted her at the palace gates with the traditional aarti – I should have been the one doing that, but — I was in their eyes a barren woman, inauspicious…”

The silence stretched interminably, until I felt I would burst. “Mother…?”

“It took a while for the king to realize the problem was with him, that he was impotent. No one could know, he said when he came to tell us he had decided to go into the forest. We must get children, he told us, while we were away from the kingdom — the succession needed to be secured.

“It is the fate of the Kuru women, my son – to the men of Hastinapura we are nothing but a vessel for bearing heirs. Look at you with Hidimbi, with Balandhara…. Look at Arjuna, that dearest child of mine who today cannot bring himself to look me in the face — how many women has he married and bedded and left behind full with child, without a thought, without a backward glance?”

“My eldest child would be born to rule — and a king has above all to be wise, compassionate, just, schooled in the ways of dharma. In your father’s brother I found just such a man – the incarnation of all that was good and just. I took him to my bed and Yudhishtira was born – the son, I told Pandu, of Yama, the god of Dharma and of Death…”

“And I, mother? Who was my father?”

Slowly, painfully, she rose to her feet, walked away from me and stood on the banks of the stream, looking out into the darkness. When she spoke again, it was a whisper in the wind.

“A king needs someone at his side he can trust with his life, someone strong beyond belief, unshakeable in his loyalty… someone, I used to think as I bathed in the Ganga each morning,  like Vayu, the god who wanders the earth with the seven winds on a leash.

“I prayed. For many many days and nights, I prayed with all my heart.”

Afraid to break the spell with some sudden movement, afraid to miss a word, I inched closer to where she stood.

“The king was besotted with your cheriyamma, with Madri who I called my younger sister. There was nothing for me in that lodge once my work for the day was done. I took to spending all my time in the forest looking for flowers, herbs – anything, any excuse that kept me away from them. One day I wandered deep into the forest, too lost in thought to notice the skies darkening, to see the approach of the storm till it burst around me in all its fury.

“He burst from the trees like a whirlwind… this tribal, tall and dark and powerful beyond belief… he came upon me as I cowered beneath a tree, sheltering from the storm, and without a word he grabbed me and he threw me down on the ground and he took me and when he was done with me, he left me there in the mud, his smell on me and his seed in me…”

Obeying some impulse I did not understand, I fell at mother’s feet and lay there for an eternity, chest heaving with a sadness without end.

At some point in the night, I sat up and looked around.

She was gone.

Bhimsen: Episode 69

[Episode 68] [Archives]

The throne Dhritarashtra had formally vacated loomed ahead of us as we sat discussing arrangements for our brother’s formal coronation.

Yudhishtira had summoned us to the main hall of Hastinapura. He walked in while we were reviewing the list of friendly kings to invite, and perched on a small stool beneath the dais. Typical of my punctilious brother, I thought – though he was acknowledged the new king of Hastinapura, he would not occupy the throne till he had been officially crowned.

I was wrong.

“I’ve thought long and hard these last few days, and I’ve taken a decision,” Yudhishtira said. “I called you here because I wanted my brothers to be the first to know.”

We looked at each other, mystified by the portentous note. Life had just begun to settle into a routine of sorts. The four of us had busied ourselves with an exhaustive inventory of the treasury, the stocks of cattle and the state of the various trading and artisan communities — a review we were far from completing.

Arjuna and I had taken on an added responsibility – that of figuring out how to quickly augment our dangerously depleted army. As things stood we could hardly raise a single division, and that left us extremely vulnerable to inimical kings or even to random raiding parties.

War -- Grant Morrison

War -- Grant Morrison

“Hastinapura is a nation without a heartbeat,” Yudhishtira said, breaking in on my thoughts. “Wherever I go – inside the palace, on the streets – all I see are widows, all I hear is the heart-rending sound of their sorrow. The feeling of guilt, the feeling that all of this is my fault, that none of this would have happened if I had not insisted on my right to the throne, has been growing on me these last few days.

“I have therefore decided to give up the throne and retire to the forest, where I will spend the rest of my life in penance and prayer.”

He held up a hand to silence our protests.

“No, don’t say anything – my mind is made up, there is nothing further to discuss. I have decided that our brother Bhima should be crowned king. It is fitting – it was he who led us all along, he who won the war for us, he who destroyed our enemies, and kshatriya dharma says the kingdom belongs to the victorious warrior.

“Hastinapura today is a dangerously weakened kingdom. With Bhima on the throne and with Arjuna supporting him, no one will dare take advantage of this weakness…”

I was compelled to interrupt. “I don’t agree. Kshatriyas do not fight for themselves but for their king – and right from our days as children in the forest, there has been no doubt in our minds that you are our king. We fought this war to uphold your right to the throne.”

Yudhishtira made as if to speak. I held up my hand. “No, let me finish. From the time we were children, we have been brought up to perform different functions. Arjuna and I were brought up to wage war; Nakula and Sahadeva are masters in the arts of administration; and you alone among us have been trained to rule. You speak of dharma – but how does dharma permit you to abandon this kingdom and its people at the time of greatest distress? I agree we are weak – but you have Arjuna and me to look after our security. We need you to heal the wounds of war, to bring prosperity back to this kingdom.”

“My child, did I not tell you at the outset that my mind was made up? You more than anyone else know I do not make up my mind lightly – I have thought of all of this, I have agonized over what my dharma demands of me. Know this — to be effective a king has to focus on one thing alone, and that is the welfare of his subjects. If he is tormented, distracted by doubt as I am now, he can never make a good king.”

He paced around the room, agitated, while we looked at each other in silence, unsure what we could do, what we could say.

Abruptly, he stopped before me. “I know this has been sudden, that you need time to think. I will leave you now so you can discuss this with our brothers. When your mind is made up, come to me. I have to speak to our uncle Vidura, make sure he understands my decision and gets everything ready for your coronation.”

Yudhishtira turned and strode out of the room. Arjuna was the first to break the silence.

“He is right, brother – we need a strong king now and there is none stronger, more feared than you. You have no reason to worry – not when you have Nakula and Sahadeva to help you in the task of running the kingdom, and me beside you to make sure Hastinapura is strong again …”

“In any case,” Sahadeva cut in, “our brother said his mind is made up, that his decision is final – so what is the point of discussion? He believes you are the best person to rule, and I agree — Hastinapura needs a king and if it is not Yudhishtira, then who better than you?”

I looked across at Nakula, who as usual sat silent, listening to everyone but not venturing any opinion of his own. “And you – what do you think?”

Nakula smiled. “Where is the need for me to say anything? Did you think I would have a different opinion from Arjuna and Sahadeva? Anyway, it is not as if such things haven’t happened before — didn’t uncle Dhritarashtra step down in favor of our father? And when our father thought he was unable to govern, didn’t he give the crown back to Dhritarashtra and retire to the forest?”

“Listen, brother,” Arjuna said, “there is nothing left to discuss. Our minds are made up. You need time to absorb this, so we’ll leave you alone now.”

He came up to me and bent low to touch my feet. Nakula and Sahadeva followed. I hugged all three – an embrace that contained a world of doubt, of questions, and a surge of gratitude for their unquestioning support.

I sat in the empty assembly hall, listening to the sounds of their departing footsteps and gazing at the raised platform in front of me. In the center stood the throne of Hastinapura, flanked by the two giant tusks bound in gold and crusted with precious stones. To its left was the smaller, but equally grand, throne for the queen.

My eyes fixed on the much smaller seat to the right of the throne – a seat set on a lower level of the dais, one without arms and the glittering paraphernalia of royalty.

That was my seat – the one I would, after the coronation, have occupied as Yudhishtira’s heir. Now Arjuna would sit there, to my right, and I…

I walked over to the dais and climbed up to the throne. I looked all around to make sure I was truly alone, and then I sat on the throne of my ancestors – gingerly at first, and then more firmly, with a growing feeling of belonging.

All those years ago, when as a child I had first come to Hastinapura, the first thing I had seen when I entered this hall was uncle Dhritarashtra seated on this throne – an imposing, awe-inspiring figure. From now on, it would be me they would see on the legendary throne of the Kurus. Would I look majestic, I wondered, would I evoke awe in our friends and fear in the emissaries of our enemies?

I looked to my left and, in my mind’s eye, saw Draupadi seated there, her eyes on me as I sat in state, dispensing justice.

My doubts vanished. My mind was made up. I would rule – and with my brothers beside me, I would be a good king, fair and just.

I jumped down from the dais and walked towards my own chambers, my mind in a whirl. I had to go to Yudhishtira and tell him my decision, ask his advice, learn from him all that I possibly could in the little time I had before he left for the forest.

Nakula and Sahadeva would look after the details of the coronation – but what then?

Our wealth of cattle had been depleted by the war – with our soldiers engaged and with no able-bodied men to look after them, large numbers of cattle had wandered off into the forest, and more had been taken away by the small raiding parties that infested the surrounding forests. I must remember to order Arjuna to lead an expedition into those forests, clear them of the raiders – to have them running amok, unchecked, was too big a security risk for us to take.

There was so much to do. Nakula and Sahadeva needed to take stock — we could then figure out ways to consolidate our cattle, get the breeding process started again and oh yes, horses, elephants, we needed to replenish our paddocks and I’d have to find a way to free up Sahadeva’s time so he could visit some of the neighboring kingdoms, find talented artisans to set up silk industries, metal and wood work, all the things we had done in Indraprastha to turn it into a bustling kingdom we would have to do all over again here, and that reminds me there is the question of Indraprastha and Panchala to be decided, what were we going to do with those kingdoms and I wonder if Arjuna had thought of Matsya now that Virat and his son were dead and Uttara was living under our protection, we had to urgently appoint regents who would rule the various kingdoms of our allies under our authority and oh yes I have to send a messenger to Krishna so when he comes for the coronation we can discuss this problem and decide on the right person and I needed to take my brother’s opinion as well before he went off into the forest and out of my reach oh and while on my brother I wonder if we should do the Ashwamedha, in one sense it would mean that everyone accepts our sovereignty and I could rule without the constant threat of war hanging over us but then again there was the risk that if we embarked on the Yaga it could give other kings an excuse to gang up against us at a time when we were not particularly strong, I must ask Yudhishtira what he thinks of this…

I walked on in a trance, my mind whirling with thoughts of all that I had to think of and do, and almost missed the light tinkle of anklets that told me I was no longer alone.

Draupadi -- Grant Morrison's visualization

Draupadi -- Grant Morrison's visualization

Draupadi walked out of the shadows and bent low to touch my feet. She must have heard, I thought – while she was always careful to greet Yudhishtira in this fashion, she had never done this for me or any of my other brothers until now.

“So have you decided on the date of the coronation?” she asked.

“Yudhishtira has made some decisions, but I am yet to make up my mind,” I said, hiding my elation under an off-handedness I was far from feeling.

“I heard,” she said. “That is why I came.”

To my surprise I saw a glint of tears in the eyes she raised briefly to meet mine before she looked down again.

“All those years I slaved in the forest, and that year in Matsya when I hid in the disguise of a maid, I always consoled myself with the thought that my time would come.” Her voice throbbed with the weight of unshed tears. “I would remember Krishna’s promise that he would one day see me seated on the throne of Hastinapura, and I’d dream of the day my husbands would win a kingdom for me and finally, I would be the queen I was born to be…”

She sighed, a wealth of weariness, of helplessness in the sound. “Maybe it is my destiny to live always in the forest, to live always as a slave…”

“Live in the forest?!” I exclaimed in surprise. “But why..?”

“What then? Would you have me live here instead as serving maid to your queen, to do for Balandhara what I did for Sudeshna?! Is that what you wish for me – me, Panchali, daughter of Drupada, sister to Dhristadyumna, wife to the Pandavas?”

“Balandhara…? But… it is you who will rule here beside me, on the throne of Hastinapura …”

“Fat fool, they call you – and fat fool you are!” The scorn in her voice scoured me like a whip. “I was married first to Yudhishtira – it is he who has the first claim on me and if he goes into the forest, then I must go too, even if I am too young for vanaprastha, even if my mind and heart are not ready yet, not prepared yet to turn my back on life…”

Abruptly she turned and vanished into the shadows, leaving behind a long, shuddering sob that bounced off the walls and echoed down the corridor.

Sick at heart, unsure of what I must do, I hurried to my chambers. I needed to be alone… I needed to think… Balandhara my queen… Draupadi in the forest, wearing the deerskin and bark robes of vanaprastha… how had I overlooked this?

The maids had not yet lit the lamps. In the gloom, I saw two figures waiting for me – uncle Vidura and behind him a woman, her robe pulled over her head to cover her face.

“So your brother wants to go to the forest to do penance?”

It was mother.

“I heard he has decided on vanaprastha – uncle Vidura did his best to persuade him against it, but he seems to have made up his mind.”

I stood there, silent, waiting. She had clearly come for a purpose – and she would get around to telling me about it in her own way.

“The people of Hastinapura have lost everything, my child – and now they are about to suffer their biggest loss.

“Do you remember the day I brought you children here, to the gates of Hastinapura, for the very first time? The people thronged the streets in their thousands then, flowers in their hands, waiting for their first glimpse of the prince who was born to rule them.

“And they have been waiting ever since for the day Yudhishtira will be crowned their king, the day the rule of dharma, of righteousness, will be established in Hastinapura. They have lost everything they had – and now they will lose the one hope that has sustained them all these years…”

I felt the sudden sharp sting of tears, and ground my nails into my palms – a physical pain to take away the sudden sharp agony in my heart as I realized what she had come here to say.

“What do you want me to do, mother?”

“Your brother must become king. You are untrained in the shastras, in dharma shastra and rajya shastra – you are not fit to rule. It is not just me, child – your uncle also thinks as I do. Go to your brother and tell him that – tell him that under no circumstances will you sit on the throne.”

I took a deep breath, fighting back the haze that clouded my mind. And then I laughed – loudly, uproariously. I sank down on a seat and laughed still, slapping my thighs and drumming my feet on the floor.

“Mother,” I gasped, “don’t you know my brother yet? Don’t you know it is just his sense of humor at work, this notion of me – what is it you always called me, fat fool? – as king of Hastinapura? Did you think he was serious?! Don’t worry – Yudhishtira will sit on the throne, you have my word.”

Vidura smiled in sudden relief. “God bless you, child,” he said as he turned and walked away.

Mother eyes were shadowed with doubt, but then she too touched my head in benediction and walked out after my uncle.

Alone in the dark, I thought of that brief moment in the great hall of Hastinapura when I had sat on the throne of Hastinapura — that one fleeing moment when I was king.

And I laughed, loud and long.

I was Bhima, the mightiest warrior of my time. I would not cry.

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.