Bhimsen: Episode 67

[Episode 66] [Archives]

Duryodhana leapt high. I bent at the knee, going low in a counter.

In a move I had never seen before, his left hand came off the mace. The right hand slid down the handle till his fingers held it by the tip, and then he flicked it at my face like a whip.

I blocked it with ease – and realized too late that the move was meant to distract, not hurt. Even as I moved to defend, Duryodhana lashed out with his leg, smashing his heel against my shoulder and sending me staggering backwards.

We had been fighting for a long time. Or maybe it just felt that way. Early into our bout, I realized that Duryodhana’s mace – his favorite one with the gold-plated handle and the wickedly sharp spikes along the head – was considerably lighter than mine. Whatever it lost in power, it more than made up in the speed with which he could wield the lighter weapon.

All those years ago, when we fought for the first time during the trial of strength, I had won by using my strength, hammering my mace repeatedly against his to tire his wrists and arms.

Thinking to repeat that tactic, I went at him hard from the moment Balarama finished his little speech. “Just in time to watch your two disciples in battle,” Krishna had said as Balarama’s chariot rolled into the glade.

Balarama always spoke of impartiality, of how the Pandavas and Kauravas were equally dear to him and how he wanted no part of our quarrels – but for all that, he had over the years favored Duryodhana, taking him under his wing and teaching him the tricks of the mace.

When war seemed inevitable, Balarama had gone off on an extended pilgrimage to avoid taking sides – but only after he made sure the bulk of the Dwaraka army would fight under the Kaurava flag.

I had listened to his little speech about fair play, about the rules of combat and about making him proud of us, with growing disbelief – did he think this was some contest got up for his amusement?

Duryodhana swung at me – a powerful, underarm swing aimed at the right side of my chest; as my mace met his in a block he disengaged, spun in reverse with startling speed, and swung at my left.

There was no time to bring my mace around. I smothered the impact by stepping into the blow and blocking the handle with my body — but even so it stung, driving the breath out of me and forcing me to one knee.

Duryodhana roared in triumph and charged, swinging; I parried and, still on my knee, spun around with a sweeping strike at his legs that forced him to jump back, giving me room to recover.

What had started off as a contest of speed and strength was slowly turning into a battle of skill and wits. My arms were beginning to feel the strain; I was gasping for breath and struggling with the sweat that poured down my face and into my eyes – and by the look of him, he was as drained as I was.

I sensed desperation in him as our battle dragged on. There was an increased frenzy to his attacks. He must have known his best chance was to finish me off quickly, before my strength and endurance began to wear him down.

I realized I had to change my tactics, find his weakness and figure out how to exploit it.

Duryodhana jumped high, as he had repeatedly done since our battle began, using his lighter mace and his agility to advantage. What made his tactic dangerous was that he kept changing the angle of attack – sometimes he jumped high and swung down at my head; at other times he feinted, forced me into a defensive posture, then waited till he was on the way down to attack me from an angle lower than I was prepared for.

With sudden clarity, I saw the flaw in his tactics – and what I had to do.

I breathed deep to center myself, and settled down to a calculated defense, blocking his attacks without launching any of my own, conserving my strength and waiting for my opportunity.

I had to make him think I was more tired than I was, that my reflexes were slowing down, that it was all I could do to defend — and that he had no reason to fear a sudden counterattack.

Duryodhana changed tack and launched a series of swift attacks, swinging the mace to the left and right with great dexterity and putting all his power into each strike. I countered with force; our maces struck sparks off each other.

Seemingly hard-pressed, I staggered back, letting one hand come off the handle and taking one of his strikes on my body.

Dimly, I heard my brothers yelling encouragement. I shut it all out – their shouts, my rage, the memories of all the insults Duryodhana had visited on us…

It was only a matter of time, I knew, before Duryodhana would go airborne again. This time, as he reached the apex of his jump he swung from the right, aiming for my shoulders and chest. I made as if to block, waited till he was committed and then pulled out of the feint.

To exploit the weakness I had spotted, I knew I had to take a serious blow – and this was it. I did the best I could to minimize the impact, but even so his mace landed on my side with a thud that drove the breath out of me. I bit down hard on the searing pain, spun around and using the momentum of my turn and the full strength of my arms, I smashed my mace against his momentarily unprotected ribs.

The crack of breaking bones as the head of my mace smacked into his side told me all I needed to know. Duryodhana crashed to the ground, the mace flying out of his hand.

Vaguely through the percussive pounding of blood in my head, I heard the voices:


“Bhima, he is unarmed, you have won …”


Almost as if it had a will of my own, my mace rose high overhead. Duryodhana raised his legs in a desperate attempt to block. I adjusted and smashed the mace down against Duryodhana’s thigh, just below his waist.

“What have you done?!” Yudhishtira rushed up to me. “He was unarmed – to hit him then… it was wrong!”

I stared at my brother in disbelief, amazed –not for the first time – at a sense of wrong and right that he seemed able to switch on and off at will.

Just yesterday, he had danced with glee when Arjuna felled Karna.

Karna had voluntarily put down his weapons; Duryodhana had lost his in a battle that had not yet ended – that was right, this was wrong?!

I looked away and caught Balarama’s eye. His face contorted with rage, he was straining to get away from Krishna and Satyaki, who struggled to hold him back.

“Coward!” he screamed. “Duryodhana was the better fighter — you tricked him and then, when he was unarmed, defenseless and hurt you hit him! Your act was against dharma, against the laws of combat! Coward!”

Deep inside of me, something snapped. Duryodhana was finished – I knew that he would die of his wounds even if I didn’t lay another finger on him. But this – this was more than I had the fortitude to bear.

“Let him go!” I roared at Krishna. “I vowed to kill Duryodhana – and kill him I will, right here, right now. I know no kshatriya dharma greater than that!”

I raised my mace high overhead.

“Anyone who thinks to stop me can step forward now and try!”

I waited, mace poised, as Krishna and Satyaki let Balarama go and stepped back. He took a step towards me, then another, his eyes locked on mine.

And then he stopped.

I held his eyes with mine as my mace came down with all my strength, crashing into the side of Duryodhana’s head. Almost in continuation of that blow, I flung my mace away. I had no further use for it – my war was over.

For long moments I stood there, mentally and physically drained by the toughest battle I had ever fought in my life.

I felt their eyes… my brothers’, my kinsmen’s, my friends’… eyes that looked down on my dying enemy with pity… eyes that lacerated me with a scorn I had done nothing to deserve…

I walked over to where Visokan waited with the chariot, and painfully hauled myself in. On the deck, I saw my blood spattered mace.

“It is a good weapon,” Visokan said gently, as he held out a cloth for me to dry the sweat that poured off me in an unending stream. “What does it know of dharma and adharma? What does it care?”

He drove slowly towards the river. I threw away my robes – and felt the soothing, healing caress of a gentle breeze.  My ‘father’, Vaayu – where were you when I was all alone, when my enemies covered me with their arrows and my friends with their contempt?

As I dived into the river, I heard the sound of Visokan driving away.

I floated in the water, letting the gentle eddies rock me like a baby in its cradle, and thought back to what I once was – the little boy who, every evening, would come to the riverbank looking for his father… the boy who, on feeling that first gentle touch of breeze on skin, would pray with all his heart to become the strongest, the bravest, the best warrior of all time.

That prayer had come true. I had grown big and strong – there was in my world no warrior to equal me, no one who had ever bested me in combat. I had fulfilled my vows, every last one of them; my last remaining enemy lay breathing his last in the dust, the thigh he had slapped in a lascivious invitation to my wife a bloodied, broken mess.

I had become what I wanted to be, done all that I vowed to do — and yet, what did I have? A wife I shared with four others… two other wives whose faces I couldn’t remember… a son who had given up his life for those who had delighted in his dying, two other sons who I did not know… and brothers who could never appreciate the depth of feeling I had for them…

Evening gave way to the pitch black of night, matching the darkness that swamped my mind, my heart.

I sat there for a long, long time. At some point, I thought I smelt smoke…

The urgent clatter of horses’ hooves woke me from my reverie. I looked around for my robe as Visokan drove up at reckless speed.

He jumped down before the chariot had come to a halt and ran towards me, sobbing.

“They are dead… Ashwathama… he came in the night, like a thief… he set fire to our camp… he killed them all while they slept…”

He collapsed to the ground, sobs wracking his frame.

From the depths of a heart grown suddenly cold, a question welled up and lodged in my throat: who?

My brothers had gone off into the forest to celebrate the victory, with them went Krishna and Satyaki. Dhristadyumna broke away from the party – I want to celebrate with the first good night’s sleep I have had since this started, he told them.

Ashwathama came in the middle of the night. With him was Kritavarma, and Kripa – the guru of our race. They set the camp on fire – that must have been the smoke I sensed, and ignored… as our people woke to this conflagration and rushed out in panic, Ashwathama cut them down one by one in the dark.

Dhristadyumna… our children, Draupadi’s sons… Prativindhya, Suthasoma, Shrutakirti, Shatanika, Shrutakarma… my son Sarvadha, who had become inseparable from his cousins…

Young men… boys, really – the future of the Kuru race, for whom we had slaughtered our kin and won a kingdom…

All dead.

I looked down at hands that seemed suddenly drained of their strength.

The war was over, but the enemy still lived.

The enemy never dies…

Bhimsen: Episode 66

[Episode 65] [Archives]

“They saw three men standing by the lake, talking,” Visokan told us with the air of having penetrated some deep mystery.

Dhristadyumna and I were resting in my lodge, talking desultorily of all that we had been through. The war was over – it had officially ended the moment Shalya, the latest commander in chief of the Kauravas, fell to Yudhishtira’s arrows.

When our uncle led the tattered remnants of the Kaurava troops out onto the field that dawn with only Shakuni among the major warriors for company, it was obvious he was prompted not by any expectation of victory as by his own notions of kshatriya dharma, the belief that a kshatriya who once sets foot on the field of battle cannot turn back until the war is won or he is killed.

Arjuna and Dhristadyumna, exhausted from their revelry of the previous night, did not bother to take the field. Sahadeva replaced me at the head of our forces and, as soon as the bugles sounded, headed straight for Sakuni’s position.

I saw no sign of Ashwathama and Duryodhana in the Kaurava ranks, and decided to stick close to Yudhishtira, to guard against some last minute surprise.

A messenger came with news that Shakuni had fallen. So many years ago, while waiting for the final throw of dice that would send us into exile, Sahadeva had told me he would one day seek out and kill Shakuni – another promise fulfilled and one more left, looming ever larger in my mind.

Off to one side of the field, Nakula had engaged Shalya. Yudhishtira headed in that direction, seemingly intent on battle. Over the last 17 days he had never once been part of any decisive battle involving a major warrior on the Kaurava side; he alone among us had no deeds the balladeers could praise in song.

My brother seemed bent on redressing that. Racing his chariot past Nakula’s, he challenged Shalya to direct combat. I maintained position to his left and a little behind, from where I could keep an eye on the field and intervene if necessary.

Yudhishtira seemed to be managing well enough against our uncle. My brother was fairly skilled in fighting from the chariot, but Shalya was his equal or better – and unlike Yudhishtira, our uncle had a lifetime of experience to draw on.

Discreetly, without giving my brother reason to suspect I had taken a hand, I used a few cleverly placed arrows to cut the traces of Shalya’s chariot. The suddenly freed horses bolted, bringing the Madra king to a standstill. I fell back to await the inevitable outcome; sure enough, Shalya soon fell before Yudhishtira’s arrows.

Our troops roared in celebration as the Kaurava army, now bereft of leaders, turned tail and ran. The war was, finally, over.

“Duryodhana still lives,” I reminded Yudhishtira as we headed back to camp.

“I saw him fleeing from the field, heading in the direction of the river,” Visokan interrupted. “He was alone and on foot.”

When we reached camp, Yudhishtira summoned Yuyutsu and charged him with rounding up a few boats and conveying our womenfolk to Hastinapura. Born to Dhritarashtra through a serving maid, Yuyutsu had abandoned the Kaurava side after the events in the assembly hall and, once our term of exile was over, joined our camp.

With Nakula and Sahadeva to help, Yudhishtira immersed himself in the task of breaking up the camp and preparing for our return. I left them to it and went back to my lodge; Dhristadyumna found me there a few minutes later, and it was as we were sipping from a skin of sura, talking of all that we had been through, that Visokan entered the lodge with two tribals in tow.

“These are hunters who live in the forest here,” Visokan told us. “They saw three men standing by the river bank, talking.”

Three men talking by the riverbank – what, I wondered, was Visokan fussing about?

“They say these three were talking to a fourth person who couldn’t be seen…”

“Duryodhana!” Even as the realization dawned in me, Dhristadyumna raced out of the lodge, yelling instructions to the soldiers.

Within minutes, a force mounted on horseback raced in the direction of the river with instructions to flush out the fugitive.

“We’ll go see if we can pick up his trail,” Visokan said, running towards my chariot with the two tribals in tow.

The hubbub had alerted everyone in our camp. I climbed into Dhristadyumna’s chariot and we set off after Visokan; Arjuna, Krishna, Yudhishtira and the others followed in our wake.

A tribal was waiting at the river bank to guide us; at his direction, we moved away from the river and through the woods until we came upon an immense lake that, the tribal told us, was known locally as Dwaipayana.

Visokan was waiting for us. “He is hiding in there,” he told me. “We tracked him from the riverbank to this place. These men are sure he is in there somewhere – they think he could be hiding in one of the subterranean caves.”

The lake stretched in front of us, calm, placid. Amidst the rushes near the bank, a few boats bobbed about.

“It is not possible to find him – we don’t know where to start looking. The only thing to do is shame him into showing himself,” Krishna suggested.

Yudhishtira approached the bank of the lake. “Duryodhana! Coward! You wanted this war – you wanted the kingdom for your own, so come out and fight for it like a man!”

“Is it manly for so many of you to surround someone who is exhausted, and defenseless?” The voice came to us from amidst the rushes. Duryodhana was hiding in their midst, sheltered from sight by the boats.

I toyed with the idea of diving in, and going after him.

“I have had enough of this war, enough of Hastinapura,” Duryodhana’s disembodied voice floated out to us. “My brothers are dead, my friends are dead, what is there left for me? Of what use to me is a kingdom of widows? I give it all up — let me go, I will retire to the forest and do penance for the rest of my life…”

“Have you no shame?” My brother seemed inspired by a rage he was no longer in control of. “You send your brothers, your friends and relatives to die for the sake of your greed, your selfishness – and all you care about now that they are dead is saving your own skin?!

“I will not take the kingdom without defeating you. Come on out and fight – it is the least you owe those who died for you. Pick any one of us — single combat, your choice of weapons… if you win, Hastinapura is yours!”

I chanced to glance at Krishna, and saw his face crumple in dismay at these words. “Are you mad!” he muttered in disgust. “What if he picks you or Nakula or Sahadeva – and chooses to fight with the mace?

“Apparently the sons of Pandu are destined to spend their entire lives in some forest or other, because this man is at heart a gambler!” Krishna walked off, muttering to himself.

I noticed movement among the reeds. Duryodhana emerged, caked in mud from head to toe, his favorite mace with the golden handle in his hand.

“I accept!” I saw the glimmer of hope in his eyes as he walked towards Yudhishtira.

My brother stood there crestfallen, unable to take back the words he had spoken in a moment of unthinking arrogance.

I stepped forward.

“We have a history between us, Duryodhana – and many, many debts to settle,” I said, eyes locked on his. “Let’s settle it all right here, right now. Maces – and only one of us walks out of here alive.”

“The man who can defeat me with the mace is yet to be born, you fool!” His voice was harsh with contempt.

I laughed in his face. “That’s right — I remember now. The first time we met, during the trial of strength, Drona had to stop me from killing you. And the last time we met, on the field of battle, you ran like the coward you are!”

He hesitated; it seemed to me that for that one instant in time, he was contemplating the escape route Yudhishtira had so carelessly offered him. And then something snapped; his arrogance — and the contempt he always had for me — kicked in, as I had hoped it would.

“Come!” he said. “Our battle will be one for the gods – and when I am done with you, your brothers can wander in the forest for the rest of their lives, knowing you died in vain.”

My trick had worked, just when all seemed lost. I had him now.

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 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 64

[Episode 63] [Archives] [Complete PDF]

War is all consuming – every minute of your time, every corner of your mind, is filled with the enemy who comes at you in endless waves. The days pass by not in minutes and hours but in the blood of the enemy you just killed so you can move beyond him to the enemy you must kill next.

It was as I took position at the head of our formation on the morning of the 17th day that I realized just what all those many moments added up to. Sixteen days ago when I had stood in this identical position and looked ahead, it had seemed as if we were confronting an enemy without end. The Kaurava forces had stretched out in front of us, as far as the eye could see and then beyond.

I realized with a start that today, from that identical position, I could see where the Kaurava troops began – and where it ended; beyond the last enemy I could see the expanse of the Kurukshetra battlefield, now shorn of so many of the soldiers that had once covered it.

The view brought home to me with great clarity that the war was effectively over — we had the greater troop numbers left standing, and there was no question that we would prevail if only through sheer numbers. Yet the killing would not stop — not until Karna, Duryodhana and Dushasana lay dead on the field.

Those deaths had to happen, and of them I would regret only Karna’s – but that wasn’t something I could tell my brothers, even during that endless night I had just spent with Yudhishtira and Arjuna.

Of the two, Yudhishtira was the easier to convince – when I left Krishna and went to his lodge, I found him already regretting his ill-considered words.

“I wish I could take it all back,” he told me even before I could sit down. “I don’t know why I said what I did – the humiliation of defeat at that suta putra’s hands, added to finding Arjuna here in the lodge and not on the battlefield facing Karna – I must have hurt our brother grievously…

“Ask Arjuna to come,” Yudhishtira told me. “I must tell him how sorry I am, I must take back my words….”

“Why?” Arjuna demanded when I went to his lodge with the message.

“He insulted me, abused me without cause — and now because he has had a change of heart, I have to go to him so he can be magnanimous and tell me how sorry he is?”

“Go to him, don’t go – I’m beyond caring,” I said and stormed out of the lodge, knowing even as I put on that display of calculated anger that it was the one thing most likely to force my brother, in his present mood, to listen to me.

I wasn’t wrong — Arjuna came running up as I strode through the empty lane. “Brother, if it had been you who said those things I would not have reacted as I did – but this man who hides behind our army, behind the strength of your arms – he had no right to accuse me of cowardice. How can I now go to him?”

“Because he is your elder brother,” I told him. “Because he is your king – and the reason you are fighting this war. You could die tomorrow and so could I – and it won’t matter because as long as Yudhishtira lives, the throne of Hastinapura remains at stake.”

Words tumbled out of him then – hot, bitter, angry. So many years had passed, so much blood had been shed since the day he had, in Drupada’s court, bent his bow and hit the target – yet even today, it was the one thing that rankled above all others.

“Yudhishtira lusted after Draupadi from the moment he set eyes on her, yet he didn’t lift a finger to try and win her; instead he tricked our mother, he manipulated us all just so he could enjoy her… What kind of elder brother is he that he could do that, what kind of king is this we are hell bent on making, who can subvert justice for his own pleasure?!”

I listened in silence, fighting down my rising impatience – an impatience exacerbated by the fact that I felt the justice in some at least of his criticism. This was my kid brother, the one person closest to me. Clearly he needed to vent; as clearly, I was the only one he could say all this to – knowing him as I did, I knew that loyalty to family would prevent him from speaking in such terms even to Krishna, his dearest friend.

I had no choice but to stand and to listen as years of accumulated angst poured out of him in a tidal rush.

And then he stopped, all talked out and looking drained, spent. He had nothing more to say, and now he did not know what to do.

What could I say to him? It was not, I realized, in me to suggest that he should seek out our brother – while I understood the deference due to the eldest, I couldn’t help thinking that as the older brother, it was Yudhishtira’s responsibility to care for the feelings of his brothers — and besides, he was clearly the one at fault.

“Brother, I agree with much that you say; times without number during these last few years I have felt that our brother was wrong to do what he did or to say what he had. I cannot ask you to go to him now, to make peace when the quarrel was not of your seeking.

“But this much I know – I cannot now abandon this war. Before it began, I made two promises. I promised mother that I would see our brother on the throne of Hastinapura or die in the attempt. And I promised myself that I would kill every one of those who that day insulted Draupadi in open assembly. I will not live with the knowledge that I went back on my promises – so if you withdraw and I have to face Karna at dawn, to kill him before I can get to Duryodhana, then so be it — I will kill Karna, or die trying.”

I walked away.

When I reached my lodge, I glanced back over my shoulder – and saw Arjuna walking slowly, painfully, in the direction of our brother’s lodge.

Filled with a sense of portent, we moved into formation even before dawn. As they passed my position, Krishna stopped the chariot. “Brother,” Arjuna said to me, “today only one of us, Karna or I, will leave the field alive.” He jumped onto the deck of my chariot, hugged me with a sudden fierceness, and was back in his chariot before I could react.

The heralds sounded their trumpets. Arjuna’s chariot darted forward, heading straight to the focal point of the Kaurava formation where Karna had taken position, with Dushasana protecting his left flank and Ashwathama his right.

With the field denuded as it was, I found it easier to sense what was going on across the two formations. I saw Satyaki dashing up to challenge Dushasana and ordered Visokan to drive at an angle, cutting across his path. “Help Dhristadyumna against Ashwathama,” I yelled as we crossed. “Dushasana is mine.”

Visokan was at his best – weaving the chariot deftly through the Kaurava lines, he cut in at an angle that separated Dushasana from Karna.

Finally, I exulted as I roared out my own challenge – finally, a chance to fulfil a vow I had made so many years ago.

There is something impersonal about fighting from a chariot – you fire your arrows, the enemy fires his, the charioteers manipulate the horses, and all you can do is wait for the enemy to make a false move, to expose some chink you can exploit.

The rage I had nursed deep inside of me for close to 14 years needed more – I needed the immediacy, the physicality of hand to hand combat.

Dushasana had a weakness he was not aware of – he was always just that little bit jealous of his elder brother. The world acclaimed Duryodhana as peerless with the mace; deep inside, Dushasana always thought he was as good or better.

I threw aside my bow and quiver, picked up my mace and vaulted onto the ground, roaring a challenge I knew he would be unable to resist.

I knew I could defeat him – he was not half the fighter he thought he was. But I wanted more – I had to humiliate him, I needed to confront him with the fact of his own death before I dealt the killing blow.

He swung his mace, a powerful overhead swing at my head, trusting to his strength to somehow smash through. It was a blow of anger, not sense, and easy enough to block. But instead of blocking his blow overhead, I skipped out of line and, as the mace whistled past me, swung my own mace in a short, hard stroke powered by every ounce of muscle in my shoulders and arms. My mace smashed into his. He fought to control it and swung at my ribs; again I hit him with the double strike, the first one a defensive tap to push his mace out of line and the second a powerful crash of my mace on his, forcing him to exert all his strength to keep the mace from being wrenched from his grasp.

I saw the sweat break out on his brow as Dushasana backed up, looking bewildered. He charged headlong, mace held in front of him. Exulting in my knowledge that he was finished, I sidestepped and again, smashed his mace with mine; this time, I followed up that blow by pressing my attack, aiming not for his body but for his mace, which I bludgeoned in short, hard strikes.

Dushasana backed away, gasping for breath; I noticed him flexing his arms, where the strain had begun to tell. I threw my mace away. “Bare hands, Dushasana,” I roared. “Your hands were strong enough to drag Draupadi to the assembly – now show me what you can do to me!”

He ran at me, more desperation than skill in the charge. It was a lesson I had learnt a long time ago – when fear swamps your senses, the techniques you had learnt are always the first casualty. With clenched fists, he struck at me – blows that were badly timed, lacking in any real power.

I absorbed his blows, taking them on the body and on my shoulders – and laughed loudly, deliberately, in his face. I saw the first hint of fear dawn in his eyes – and switched from defense to attack.

In continuation of a block, I smashed the heel of my palm up under his chin, jolting his head back in time for my left elbow to crash into his exposed throat. As he fought desperately for breath and balance, I hammered my open palms into his ears. He reeled back; I turned sideways and drove the heel of my foot hard into his stomach.

He stumbled, staggered backwards – and fell. In an instant I was on him, my knee on his throat, bearing down while my hands hammered down at his ribs. My hands splayed, fingers curved to hook into his ribcage, I gradually brought all my strength to bear on his lower ribs.

I took my time, increasing the pressure gradually and ignoring his feeble struggles. I waited to see the realization of death in his eyes – and bore down hard.

It was as if the world around us didn’t exist anymore – my whole being was consumed with the lust for a revenge I had long dreamt of.

With a sudden crack, his ribs gave way. I pushed down harder, driving the broken bones into his lungs, his heart.

A great gout of blood gushed up from his shattered chest, drenching my face.

Involuntarily, I licked my lips.

The metallic, slightly sour taste of warm blood reminded me of that day in Hastinapura. I will drink your blood, I had vowed then as I watched Dushasana dragging Draupadi to the center of the assembly, the blood dripping down her legs.

I licked my lips again – this time slowly, deliberately, lingering on the taste of revenge.

In a daze, I walked towards my chariot, my thoughts on a woman waiting somewhere on the other side of the river – a woman with skin of gold, with hair that hung down her back like a black waterfall… a woman who loved to hear of battles, whose lips would part and breasts heave as she listened to stories of killing, of blood.

“Go,” I told Visokan. “Go to Draupadi. Tell her Dushasana is dead… tell her I’ve killed him and drunk his blood. Tell her from me that she can tie her hair up again…”

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.