The New Leader

News of Karna’s death percolated into the Kaurava camp. While there was a general sense of sadness, nobody seemed too surprised. By the seventeenth day, it had become fairly apparent that it was only a matter of time before Yudhishtira and his brothers would prevail in this war. Arjuna had wiped out all but a few of the eleven akshauhinis of Kaurava army. Two commanders were killed and the third lay on his death bed, awaiting an auspicious time to let go of his life.

Duryodhana was nowhere to be found, having gone into depressed hiding. As the leading warriors assembled in the camp, Kritavarma and Kripacharya looked to Shakuni to provide guidance on whom to nominate as the new commander. There was a war to be fought on the morrow, and they needed an able hand.

Kripa suggested Ashwatthama. Dronacharya’s son was powerful as he was astute. Ashwatthama also had extensive knowledge of weapons and weaponry, having learnt from his own father. Kripacharya also believed that Ashwatthama was not weighed down by any emotional attachment to the Pandavas, unlike the ones that perished so far. Bhishma and Drona loved the Pandavas excessively, and Karna hated them equally. He thought perhaps Ashwatthama would bring about a balance, and lead impartially.

As soon as his name was proposed, Ashwatthama stood up. His tall stature and broad shoulders towered over the rest of the warriors. He looked around and spoke firmly.

“I am honored that this body has found me worthy of undertaking such a privilege. Leading this Kuru army is indeed an honor. We have lost three of our best. The three that we all believed would lead us to glory in this war. Three of the most respected leaders this sacred land has ever borne. Stepping into their shoes would be a celebration for me”

Hopes arose among the various satraps as Ashwatthama began. Many of them knew his destructive capability, and others knew he had secret weapons that he could invoke, weapons of total annihilation. Those that knew his secret weapon also knew his one weakness – when pushed to the brink, his anger would get the better of him, and he would not hesitate to put the life of common folk in danger, in order to survive or seek revenge. That one indiscretion made him extremely flammable. While such a lapse of judgement would ensure victory for the Kauravas, nobody would survive the catastrophic effects of his usage of the weapons, not even his own army. It would devastate the land for generations to come. Bharatavarsha as a notion would cease to exist.

Among those that knew this secret, was Shakuni. He salivated at the thought of Ashwatthama becoming the commander. His own revenge would be best served under Drona’s son. And the most wonderful outcome of this: nobody would suspect him. He would go down in history as a victim of Ashwatthama’s mistake.

He smiled and rose from his seat. He walked to the table at the center of the room, picked up a two chalices and poured copious amounts of Soma into them. He handed one over to Ashwatthama and spoke, out of turn.

“This is such a welcome development, For seventeen days we have fought this war. Even with our superior numbers and strength, we have been kept at bay by these wretched Pandavas. One after the other, our commanders have been killed or incapacitated, not so much because of Pandavas’ excellence but because of that devious Yadava, who has employed every ruse under the sun to cheat. The rules of engagement have been broken every time our commander fell, from using Shikhandi agsainst Bheeshma to lying about Ashwatthama himself, to killing an unarmed warrior. But in Ashwatthama we have a leader who will not fall to such cunning, because as you know, he is a chiranjeevi, an immortal. He commands his own death. And tomorrow, he will command the death of the Pandavas”

He raised his chalice and cried out loud, “All hail our new commander!”

But Shakuni, in a moment of lapse, underestimated Ashwatthama’s intelligence. His sudden burst of ebullience alerted the acharya’s astute son, and he remembered his father’s sage words, “Son, praise must always be examined. Coming from a humble man, it is earnest, and you must be authentic in your thanks. But when a slick and devious person begins to praise and back you, you are doing something wrong. Peel yourself away from that situation, and contemplate your actions”

He made an instant decision. He took a long gulp of the Soma and spoke.

“But, I must respectfully decline the honor. There are more deserving and more capable warriors in this tent tonight that can lead the Kaurava army with better ability, intelligence, and stability”

Sitting right across was the Madra king Shalya, who looked up at Ashwatthama at the same time, his face betraying an admiration to the decision just made by the young man, who gave up a position coveted by many.

The moment was perfect. Their eyes met, and for a moment Ashwatthama saw his father in Shalya, the same sage like composure, and the same paternal admiration. He spoke.

“I cannot think of any other warrior than the wise and elderly Shalya. He has the stature, the experience, and the knowhow to lead this army. I pledge my allegiance to him, and propose his name to be the commander in chief of this army starting sunrise on the morrow”

The abrupt turn of events threw Shakuni off for a few moments, as his scheme came crashing down. He did not dislike the choice of Shalya. He also realized that picking anyone from the second rung of leaders, like Shalya was, only delayed the inevitable. He turned, faced his new commander, smiled and nodded.

As Shalya rose and started to detail his plans for the next day, the old man in long beard sat back and inhaled deep on his pipe. As the medicated smoke filled his lungs, he closed his eyes, and appeared lost in deep contemplation.

Kripa knew, that by this time tomorrow, these tents would be empty with melancholy, and that he would be packing his belongings and heading away, from the battlefield, into a reclusive life until death.

The Hope Falls

Continued from here

The duo made quick inroads into the Pandava formation, with Shalya focusing solely on the reaching Arjuna’s chariot, as quickly as he could. They encountered other Pandava warriors on the way, but Shalya skirted them adeptly.

Krishna kept a close eye on the approaching flag with the white conch. He had to time his movements right, if he was to lead Karna into the swampy area. He looked at Arjuna and asked a strange question, “Partha, do you trust me?”

Arjuna, caught off guard with that question said, “Of course Madhava, why do you ask?”

“Lower your intensity for a bit. Take a breather. I see Karna approaching. He will be gunning for us today. I have no doubts in my mind who will be victorious. But remember, the ground is treacherous today. As we duel with them, we will be running around the battlefield. to keep the horses safe. There will be lots of tossing around. So take it easy for a few moments”

As they were taking it easy, Karna spotted them, and drove a volley towards Kapi Dhwaja. On Krishna’s insistence, Arjuna ignored the volley and did not engage. He picked on smaller warriors instead, cutting them and their companies with a vicious barrage. Krishna steered deeper into the skirmishes, and away from Karna.

Karna, mistaking Arjuna’s disinterest for apprehension, urged Shalya to give chase, and keep the cousins in their sights. As Krishna went deeper, the ground got softer. The brilliance of Krishna’s mind became apparent as his steeds gained speed, while Shalya’s struggled. This briefly irritated Karna. He summoned all his strength and sent a flurry of arrows towards his enemy.

Continuing his plan, Krishna slowed down. A couple of dart whizzed past him and Arjuna, emboldening the Kaurava to send more. Krishna smiled to himself. He looked at Arjuna and waved his hand assuredly. Arjuna for his part replied feebly, knowing fully well that his mentor knew what they were doing, and that somehow all this was part of a grand scheme; one arrow hit and bounced off Arjuna’s shoulder plate, and another lodged inside the cabin.

Planning the final piece of the puzzle, Krishna whipped his horses and loosened his grip on the reins. They picked up speed and headed deeper into the battlefield, well inside Pandava territory, and precisely towards the marshy area where Krishna intended the final battle to happen.

Karna smiled, and ordered Shalya to follow them. Shalya for his part, had been watching Krishna and his unusual moves with the horses. He was not convinced it was a good idea to chase. He said it out loud, “Have you noticed Radheya that Krishna’s horses seem to have more traction than ours? There is something amiss in all this. I smell a plot. We’re pursuing them deeper and deeper into the field. The ground is getting marshier. I suggest we stay our ground and fight from here”

But Karna was not in a mood to listen. Blinded by ambition, clouded by hatred, and bound by friendship and loyalty, he said, “This is my command to my charioteer. Stay in pursuit”

They approached a secluded area where only the two chariots remained, Shalya’s chasing Krishna’s. Krishna saw the swamp in the distance, which was formed by water flowing down a mound on one side. The mound was wide enough to fit his chariot, but had a steep grade. While it would cause his horses to slow down, the hillock had firm ground. He smiled and nudged his horses to the right, up the hill.

As soon as Karna saw his enemy’s chariot go up the hill, he did a quick mental calculation and ordered his chauffeur to say straight, “no matter what happens, keep going straight. I want to get ahead of them and face them from the front”. Shalya looked at Krishna’s chariot take the gradient route and knew instantly what the game plan was. He tried to slow down but it was too late. The orders from behind were clear. He kept his course.

As Krishna’s chariot began to make the ascent, Karna caught up alongside, at the bottom of the knoll. But much to his surprise, his horses began to slow down, as their hooves began to get stuck in the ground under them, which turned from wet to swampy. They ground to a halt, squealing, unable and unwilling to drag their payload. On the top of hill, Krishna proceeded unhindered. He slowed his horses down, allowing them to make the ascent steadily. By the time they began their descent to the other side of the hillock, Karna was a sitting duck. His horses were knee deep in mud. His left wheel was sunk deep into a mud-filled ditch. His chariot was propped on its left side, unbalanced and precarious.

That was when Karna realized what a masterstroke this was from Madhava. Arjuna’s chariot made the descent slowly and turned around slowly and deliberately, facing his menacingly. Fear engulfed the Kaurava commander. He had nowhere to go. He should have listened to the advise of his charioteer. He took a deep breath and addressed Shalya, “O king of Madra, you were right. Against your counsel, I brought this upon myself. How do we extricate ourselves out of here?”

Shalya was as blunt as he was calm, “There is nothing the horses can do for you now, Radheya. There is only one way for them move – cut their riens free. Even then they may require assistance. The chariot is immovable at this point. You need someone to lift the left wheel and get the vehicle out of this marsh, in order for us to move forward. There is only one person amongst the two of us that has the strength to move that wheel, and it’s not me. My job is to have rode you in battlefield, and to give counsel where required. I have done both. My role ends here. I cannot be of any more help”

Saying this, he pulled hard on the reins, and used his dagger to cut them free. He loosened the harness so the steeds could walk away free. Using his whip, he gently urged them to move. With great difficulty, the horses, nudging each other and struggling, made it out of the swamp.

It was now down to four men, two of them sitting firmly inside one chariot, and the other two perched perilously inside another.

Karna understood Shalya’s position. He looked at his enemy. Arjuna had his bow down, in line with the rules of engagement. Krishna’s face, while intense, betrayed pity. Shalya turned towards the front of the chariot, looking away from his commander, and sat firmly.

There was no stronger statement of noncooperation than Shalya’s stance.

Karna slowly descended the chariot from the right side, and looked around. He could not call anyone for help; he was deep inside enemy territory with not a Kaurava soldier or warrior in sight. He waded his way around to the left and held the spokes in his hand. Using his powerful shoulders, he attempted to push the wheel out of the mud. It did not budge. He made several grunting attempts without success. He was getting tired, his hands were dirty and slippery. Each push seemed to be more strenuous than the previous. He decided to take a break.

To his left, directly in his line of sight was the chariot whose occupants he hated the most. Somewhere far to his right was raging a battle where nobody seemed to care about his plight. He contemplated his action for a moment. He didn’t have a choice. The only way to get out of this mess was to extricate themselves out of the bog. He would attempt a few last pushes. If he was unsuccessful, he would go back to his cab and resume his duel with Arjuna, and hope to last till sunset.

As he bent down, from the corner of his eye he noticed the enemy chariot move. Krishna had shifted his horses just enough to place Arjuna at right angles to Karna. Surprised, Karna turned his head in the direction.

Arjuna was as surprised by the turn as was Karna. Krishna parked his horses and turned around, intensity billowing from his eyes, “What are you waiting for? This is your chance to kill the commander in chief of the Kaurava army, to end this war, to claim what is rightfully yours. Why isn’t your Gandeeva strung up?”

Surprised, Arjuna mumbled, “But Madhava, he is unarmed, and dismounted from his chariot. It is unrighteous to engage him”

For the first time ever, Arjuna noticed a frown on Krishna’s face, “Unrighteous? Have you forgotten your duty Partha? Your duty is to your brothers, your family, and your kingdom and its people. Your duty in this war is to demolish your enemy, by all means necessary. Here is a man who disrespected your skill and stature every time he saw and met you. Here is a man who insulted your wife in front of an assembly. Here is a man who connived with your enemy to send you to exile. Here is a man who led an army against you when you came out of exile.”

“Dharma is when a righteous person is killed in a righteous way, Savyasachi. Dharma is when a respectable warrior is attacked from the front, and in a befitting battle, defeated respectably. Dharma is engaging an honorable man in an honorable duel. Dharma is waiting for an ethical man to rearm himself before you challenge him. Men who have no regard for dharma should not be held in the same esteem. There is no shame in defeating such men using whichever means necessary. Future generations will need to know that dharma will not sit and wait while dharma is strangled”

“This battle has raged on for seventeen days. Eighteen akshauhinis have fought this war. You have decimated the Kaurava armies. Yet Duryodhana continues to harbor hopes of victory. Because his only hope lies in front of you, proud in his corrupt and immoral ways. Here is the man who ganged up against your son and killed him mercilessly. Have you forgotten how Abhimanyu was surrounded, and attacked while unarmed and dismounted? Did you forget what Karna did to him when Abhimanyu lifted his own chariot’s wheel? Did he display righteousness?”

“Pick up your Gandeeva and cut down this man. He does not deserve your mercy”

As the words flowed, Arjuna’s veins tightened. Visions of his murdered son flashed in his mind. Unwillingly yet decidedly, Arjuna raised his bow and aimed his arrow at the beleaguered enemy commander. The Gandeeva arched reluctantly as he drew the string back. His aim did not falter. The tip of the arrow targeted Karna’s throat, and nothing else. Arjuna hesitated a moment. He wasn’t sure why, but he felt sad. He suddenly felt an affinity to his opponent, like he was about to kill his own brother. He brushed it aside, assuring himself that this feeling was only because he was going to lose a worthy warrior.

Karna looked up at Arjuna. His eyes went from surprise to resignation within a moment. He turned and stood up, unarmed but proud. He took a deep breath, expanding his chest. Before he could let the air out, the sharp tip penetrated and lodged in his throat, blocking his windpipe. The king of Anga struggled for a few seconds as his lungs exploded, unable to exhale. He clutched his throat but only managed to break the shaft. His physical fall began soon after, as his brain, devoid of oxygen supply, began to shut down. His muddy palms tried for a brief moment to hold on to the wheel, but the end came briskly.

For the third time in the past eight days, the commander of the Kaurava army fell. This was a giant among men. The man whom Duryodhana trusted. The man who was going to bring victory to the Kauravas. The man who was wronged his whole life. The man who could’ve ruled both the kingdoms had his identity been revealed. The man who gave everything to friendship. The man whom Kunti gave birth and cast aside, unwanted. That man’s lifeless body fell into the wet, muddy slush, uncared and untended.

As victorious bugles sounded around him, Krishna turned his chariot away and raced towards the Pandava camp. Nobody noticed the tear that ran down and flew off his cheek, disappearing into the late afternoon atmosphere.

The Art Of Demoralization

Continued from here

“What a site to behold, a warrior discharging his skill with the finesse of an artist”

Shalya’s words stung Karna as much as they surprised him. He hadn’t expected Shalya to notice him in the first place, let alone speak what was going through his own mind.

The sharp glance he shot back did not deter his charioteer. He continued, “One wonders, whether these Pandavas really lived in exile for 13 years. Their skills are as sharp as battle-seasoned fighters, if not sharper. There is not an ounce of rust in their bones. Look at him ride his horse without even holding its reins. Notice how he controls his mount using only his feet. Now that is a skill you and I could learn. Alas, we won’t have the opportunity. It’s too late”. He gave a pause after that, for extra effect, “we’re just too old to learn new tricks”

Karna was mildly irritated at these comments, but brushed aside any thoughts of protest and retort. Yet, he couldn’t help himself looking at the spectacle of Nakula, as they boarded the chariot to resume they day’s fighting.

The short break broke Karna’s rhythm, as Shalya intended. With the images of Nakula’s astonishing display still in his mind, Karna’s arrows missed their targets a couple of times.

“Still thinking of Nakula, O Radheya? I can’t seem to shake it off my mind. How does one become so adept at such a thing? You and I have worked with horses since childhood, but to be able to control them without reins is something else”

Karna did not want to hear any more about Nakula, and wanted to end this conversation then and there. To shut Shalya up, he said, “Yeah it’s a gift. Everyone has his or her own talent”

That only made it worse, as Shalya continued, “Oh come on Karna, you and I both know there is nothing like an inborn talent. He worked hard towards that expertise. I am certain he spent countless hours studying horses, knowing them, living with them, thinking like them. Such prowess comes from relentless study and belief. But it’s just one thing to have a talent like that. To be able to put that to use, and serve your cause with it, is something else”

Then, without looking back towards Karna he said, “I wish I had a little brother like that. It would make me immensely proud”

Karna, who was ready to release an arrow jerked back at that comment. His aim faltered, and he dropped his shoulders. Anger surged through his body. How dare Shalya say such a thing? But he controlled his anger and shot back, “in a war there is no brother or uncle. There are only friends and enemies. To me, he is an enemy and nothing else”

Shalya knew he hit the spot, “Who said anything about you and him? He is my nephew and I was thinking of Yudhishtira”

Karna recovered quickly and decided not to push further. This conversation was already taking up more space in his mind than it deserved. He did not respond, and focused his mind on the task at hand. Shalya also knew better not to continue at this time.

A fierce volley slowed their progress. Satyaki, another fine swordsman and archer, blocked Karna’s way with his own chariot, and a small battalion of hardened soldiers. Karna shot a few arrows which were deftly fended off by Satyaki using his sword as a shield.

Karna knew this would only delay his advance, and asked Shalya to go around Satyaki.

Shalya looked at his quizzically and said, “Go around him? Do you think he is some foot soldier? This is Satyaki. Arjuna is his idol. He trained himself using Arjuna’s techniques. Remember the drubbing his gave you five days ago? I cannot go around him. You need to defeat or kill him for us to advance”

Karna remembered the defeat the hands of Satyaki on the twelfth day of the war. He tried to push that memory away and soldier on, and strung his bow to send a volley over.

But he was overcome with self doubt, as the visuals from five days ago came storming back. His aim faltered slightly, and the arrows didn’t find their mark. Satyaki did not move an inch, and yet the darts whizzed past him, not even threatening to graze the Yadava. He stood there smiling, his eyes spewing disdain that Karna couldn’t stand.

“You need to focus better Radheya. These are not ordinary generals. They are Maharathis and Atirathis. Look at his poise. Look at his confidence. If we need to even touch him you must bring your best game to play. Right now, you cannot seem to scrape Satyaki. How will you face Arjuna?”

Karna wanted to ignore the words, and just get on with the battle, but the truth in Shalya’s words hit him hard. Five days ago, Karna’s defeat at Satyaki’s hands was the talk of the day, and warranted a hurried gathering of the quartet, followed by a sermon from Dronacharya, who questioned Karna’s ability. The visions of that evening came back hauntingly for the Kaurava commander. The grip on his bow loosened, and he looked away, face flushed red with embarrassment.

Shalya turned back, noticed Karna’s consternation, and renewed his verbal volleys.

“Oh please, Radheya, this is not what I signed up for. When I set out this morning, I was hoping to drive a warrior, a champion into the battle of his life. Not someone who cannot seem to face even a Yadava. It’s a good thing Arjuna is not around. He would be ashamed of fighting with you in these circumstances. He would probably turn away and choose to fight Shakuni over you”

Conscious that his diatribe shouldn’t have adverse effect and spur Karna into action, he added, “It’s understandable to have self doubts, Karna. I have had many such over the years during my battles. Specially when you see an opposition like the Pandavas. They are not only brave but also righteous, which gives them the additional vigor. Alas, you and I both know that we are on the unethical side of this war. Nevertheless, we must fight. Let me find a way out of this situation”

Shalya then deftly maneuvered his chariot away from the belligerent Yadava to go deeper into the Pandava formation. He knew Karna’s confidence was dented. He smiled to himself. He knew where exactly Arjuna was in the battlefield. The flag bearing Hanuman as insignia was flying in the distance. But he decided to take a circuitous route, and showcase the Pandavas’ exquisite battlefield talents to his occupant, intending to further dispirit the Kaurava strongman.

He steered his chariot towards Yudhishtira, who was engaged in a fierce battle with Duryodhana. Yudhishtira, whose spear throwing skill was second to none, was running riot at Duryodhana’s company. While his arrows pierced past the cavalry surrounding the eldest Kaurava, his spears frustrated Duryodhana, landing close to his chariot, or worse, inside. It was clear to any audience that Yudhishtira held the upper hand in that battle.

“Even your best friend can’t seem to hold his own against the Pandavas. It must be an unlucky day for our army today. There are some days like this in such a long war. Some days you win, others you have to just retreat and save the day. Specially when the enemy is tearing us out like that. Look at the precision of Yudhishtira’s spears. He is landing them inside Duryodhana’s chariot, but he’s not hurting them. He knows that the Kaurava is his brother’s prize. What a blessed brotherhood it is, the Pandavas'”

Karna shot back this time, “I think your talents are better served steering the horses, Shalya. Let me do the thinking and the fighting”

“We have seen that in the past few days, Karna. And on evidence of what I have witnessed, you had better go back and get trained by someone good. Maybe return to Parasurama, seek his forgiveness and retool yourself. Look, while my primary function is to shepherd these horses, every charioteer acts as the security detail of the occupant. We are supposed to put our lives on the line for you. And save you from imminent danger. We are also supposed to advise you on when to fight and when to flee. Look how Krishna campaigns and advocates for Arjuna. I see things that you don’t, in your tunnel visioned focus. Which is why I am being honest with you. Today’s Karna will not be able to match up to the Upapandava Shrutakarma, forget about his father Arjuna”

He continued unhindered, “You saw the skill and intensity of two Pandavas today. You saw the ferocity and the artistry of Bhima yesterday. You still think you can match up to their best? I have witnessed Arjuna in full flight. He has a wizardry about him. When he wields his bow, it is like a maestro playing an instrument. His fingers have magic in them. His wrist work is sublime. With the slightest bend in his wrist and meagre rotation of his fingers, he can change the direction of the released arrow. Did you not witness the curve his darts took when they went past Dronacharya to cut the throat of Jayadratha? You think you can do something like that? I doubt it”

While Karna was deeply offended and outraged at this direct insult, he couldn’t counter Shalya’s slights. Everything he said was fact. He was defeated badly at the hands of Bhima yesterday. He was soundly beaten by Satyaki before that. Abhimanyu shattered his shield and broke his bow. Ghatotkacha almost killed him.

His mind began to hesitate, his focus began to waver. Was the universe stacked against him because he was not fighting the righteous battle? He knew deep inside that they had wronged the Pandavas. The game of dice was deceitful. Their sending the Pandavas’ away for thirteen years was cruel, and Duryodhana’s refusal to give their kingdom back was heartless. He had heard stories of Duryodhana’s behavior even before he himself came into the picture. The attempted drowning of Bhima, the burning of the Pandavas’ wax house. Everything just began to come to the fore. No wonder his weapons were failing him. No wonder even someone like Satyaki was able to frustrate him.

He looked around for support. Surrounded by enemy soldiers and cavalrymen, the only friend he found was his chauffeur. The clouds in his mind began to fog his eyes. His fingers began to tremble slightly as he realized he was faltering. He realized that they had left Duryodhana behind, and the chariot was now entering deep inside Pandava formation. There was no turning back. He promised his friend that today, he would bring Arjuna’s head. That seemed a questionless impossibility now.

Even though unsure and distrustful of his driver, he hesitantly spoke to Shalya.

“Why do you insult me, O king of Madra? All my life I have been the victim of slander. I was a castaway, thrown into the river like a reject. Even though everyone suspected that I was born a Kshatriya, as evidenced in my daredevilry and valor, I never got my due. Time after time, you Kshatriyas disrespected me. Why this unfairness solely based on someone’s birth? If a sutaputra deserves to become a king, can command an army, is fit to be an emperor, then why shouldn’t he? Why is birth even a factor? You know very well that I am as talented, if not more, than Arjuna. Yet you seek new ways to put me down. Why this disparity?”

Shalya, even though taken aback at this line of questioning, immediately understood the fragility of Karna’s mind, and decided to drive the dagger deep into his crumbling morale.

“O Anga king, once again, you have fallen victim to your own pity. Some of us know you were born a Kshatriya, yet no Kshatriya laments his life the way you do. If you want examples, you need not look farther than your blood brothers”

The reference to the Pandavas stunned Karna.

Shalya looked at him, “Oh yes, I know about Kunti and her pre-marital dalliance. But this is not about her. This is about her unfortunate sons, all six of them. But more about the five who lived and fought it out like Kshatriyas, without a protest or lament. Every insult, they bore. Every defeat, they endured. Every rejection, they braved. Never did they complain about why they were subject to travails even though they are the rightful heirs. Even today, their kin are being killed, on either side. The heir to their throne was surrounded and murdered, unceremoniously and wrongfully. Yet, they have found inner strength to bounce back. They could’ve gone to any kingdom and sought refuge. They could’ve made unparalleled satraps, commanders, or advisors. But they chose to be kings. They chose righteousness over immorality”

“And that, Karna, is why they have no fear. Yudhishtira’s spears carry truth along with them. Which is why they don’t deviate. Bhima’s mace carries honor with it. Which is why it doesn’t miss its mark. Arjuna’s arrows carry morality and integrity with them. Which is why they pierce harder. The three are not my blood nephews but I couldn’t be any more proud of them than I am of Nakula-Sahadeva. Arjuna’s arrows aren’t made of any different material than yours. But behind them is the man who stands for purity. It’s the man that drives fear, not the weapon. When Arjuna vibrates his bowstring, the sound resonates with the virtue. The bowstring is just some fibrous material. But the fingers behind the bow carry the power of guiltlessness. And that, my dear commander, is what separates you from him. That is why I know for a fact who will win when the two of you duel. And I know I will return today with an empty cabin”

The words perforated Karna’s mind, shattering his balance and denting his fortitude. Tears of anguish formed in his eyes. He closed his eyes for a few moments, before they could roll down and betray his weakness.

“Well, O king of Madra, I will meet him in battle nevertheless. If this is the death I must deserve, then so be it”


The End Is Near

The sombre mood continued in the Kaurava camp this morning, the seventeenth day of the war. Until yesterday, they had lost warriors, generals and even commanders. But this was something else. Dusshasana was a member of the exclusive quartet. He was the closest brother to Duryodhana. It was widely believed that the death of one of them would be the beginning of the end.

Defeat loomed dark on the soldiers’ minds. While the death itself was shocking, the calm, methodical manner in which Bhimasena took his life sent shivers down everyone’s spine. The soldiers and generals knew it would embolden the Pandava side, and there would be a renewed vigor in their fight today.

Stories also circulated about how Bhima humiliated Karna, their commander, in battle the day before. The fact that Karna was touted to be equal to, or better than Arjuna, and yet was disgracefully driven from the battlefield by someone whose archery was their second best skills weighed heavily on the cadres. If Karna could not match Bhima, how could he face the wizardry of Arjuna?

Armies are driven by morale, and yesterday’s one man show by the strongest Pandava did not augur well for the Kauravas. Their eyes betrayed the defeat in their minds. Their shoulders dropped. The grip on their weapons loosened, ever so slightly. Their legs moved slowly and reluctantly towards the battlefield. Their horses sensed their fear, and hesitated in advancing.

Karna noticed this, and knew that the only way to rejuvenate the army was to go after the Pandava prize, Arjuna. Today was going to be a do-or-die day. The previous night, he called captain of the armory and ordered extra weapons for the morrow. He sent a word for them to be loaded on to his chariot, much to Shalya’s bewilderment.

“The extra weight will slow us down, Karna. It rained last night. The ground will be soggy and possibly loose. My horses will already be moving slower because wet mud will stick. We don’t want to be stuck in slushy soil on a day like this. If at all, today is the day to travel light”

“And that is why we have you, Shalya. Your job today is to avoid all such areas, and take the best path to kill Arjuna. Pack some extra food for the horses so they can get replenished on the field. Replace their shoes with new ones for better traction. Today, I will kill Arjuna, come hail or high-water! I do not underestimate Arjuna’s strength, but I do not want a repeat of yesterday when we had to turn back for weapons. Every single weapon will get loaded into the chariot”

The response took Shalya completely by surprise. Karna was raised by a charioteer. He should know better than anyone on the battlefield that the conditions will be treacherous for horses. When left to saunter at their own pace, horses can run perfectly well without any risk of injury in any condition. A battle horse pulling payload is a different situation. Here, the speed, driven by the occupant, varies based on the chase. In slushy conditions, the force it takes to pull a foot free with each step can lead to lost shoes, pulled tendons and overreach injuries as a horse lurches forward to escape its hold. Which is why in conditions like this, the chariot has to be lightweight. Adding more weapons – and hence more weight – was completely counterproductive.

Shalya realized it was futile to argue. The finality in Karna’s order betrayed his desperation, and his vulnerability. The commander was willing to take a catastrophic risk. Shalya also knew the outcome of such a misadventure. He knew his horses, he knew the soil. He knew was suicide.

He smiled.

On the other side, Krishna unburdened his chariot. He replaced the heavy equipment with lighter ones. He offloaded maces and shields. He replaced his horses’ hoofs with new ones, fitted with tiny studs for better traction. He arranged for an empty chariot to follow him closely, in case he needed to replace any injured steed.

The previous night, he studied the battlefield map several times. He took his cousins to the model he had built, and went over the route on where to be at what time. He explicitly told Arjuna not to chase Karna today, and to keep a slow pace if chased by him. He knew exactly the area where he wanted to lead Karna, and when.

As the weary armies started to engage in battles, Karna’s instruction to Shalya was singular – head to Arjuna.

Krishna knew Karna’s desperation, and was not going to let Arjuna battle him right away. He wanted Karna to feel humiliated at the hands of a few other warriors, thus denting his confidence, before he faced Arjuna. He knew Bhima would frustrate Karna. He also advised Satyaki to pester Karna from time to time, not letting him settle into a rhythm. The crafty Madhava left instructions for all the Pandava brothers to hassle Karna on the day, blocking his path and hindering his progress. He knew Karna would not spend his energy on killing any of the Maharathis today. He also counseled Arjuna to ignore Karna until later in the day.

By mid morning, Karna was getting impatient. He set out the day seeking his archrival, but was being blockaded by seemingly an endless stream of small time warriors and armies. Not realizing that his desperation was impacting his ability, he kept abusing them and using up precious energy. He turned his anger towards Shalya and accused him of moving slowly, “you are doing this deliberately aren’t you? Because I asked you to load up on weapons. I know horses, grew up with them all my childhood. There is no way they move this slowly unless you’re reining them in. I don’t care about your loyalties, all I need is for you to do your duty as my charioteer”

Shalya kept a gentle silence all through the tirade, knowing fully well that his time to retort would come very soon. He did his best to control the horses, which were getting noticeably tired as the extra weight and the damp battlefield. As noon passed, they needed a break.

Shalya turned to his occupant and said if they don’t stop, they might as well surrender because they will be left chariot-less soon.

Reluctantly Karna agreed. Shalya directed his steeds towards the river. He parked his ride and let the horses loose, allowing them some freedom to drink and graze. He then turned his gaze towards Karna, who was intently watching the field. The location offered them a wonderful view of the ongoing battles. They watched Nakula in action. The older of the twins was a fine swordsman, and a wonderful horserider. He was not in a chariot today, preferring to ride his steed, given the tricky soil conditions.

Karna intently watched Nakula, in admiration of the sheer skill on display. Nakula sliced through enemy battalions was amazing. He took on-foot and mounted soldiers with equal ease. With nothing but swords in both his hands, he fended off volleys of arrows from chariot riding generals. He took on Vrikaasura, the second son of Shakuni who was riding an elaborate 4-horse chariot. He frustrated Vrikaasura by deftly avoiding his burst of arrows. Using his knowledge of horses, he spooked Vrikaasura’s steeds, which swerved and bolted, tossing the Vrikaasura off his cab. Nakula jumped into the air, and in a single swoosh separated Vrikaasura’s head from his body while still airborne, and landed back on his horse. As Vrikaasura’s head dropped onto the slushy battlefield, Karna’s admiration turned to alarm.

Shalya, watching Karna’s face turn from curiosity to admiration to borderline fear, knew it was time to strike.

The Blind Men

“And thus, the second born of Kunti rode off towards his camp, leaving the lifeless mortal remains of your second born, O King!”

As Sanjaya narrated the details of Bhima’s methodical and patient killing of Dusshasana, tears rolled down Dhritarashtra’s cheeks.

“But we still have Duryodhana, Karna, Shakuni, Kripacharya, Ashwatthama, and many many warriors. We can still win this war, can’t we Sanjaya?”

It sounded more like a tragic resignation of truth, than a genuine question.

Sanjaya did not answer for several moments. Dhritarashtra knew what Sanjaya was thinking, but did not have the courage to mouth it.

“At this time, my dear king, it is pointless to contemplate who will win this war. That holy stretch of land we call Dharmakshetra, that flat expanse where for sixteen days our children, friends, well-wishers, have been killing each other, that tract will stand forever drenched and stained in the blood of the righteous as well as the immoral. Long after you and I are gone, consumed by the sands of time, long after our progeny is gone, long after this dynasty withers, the only witness to undeniable truth will be the tongueless: the rocks and pebbles, the trees and grass, the soil and dust. But history and future generations will look at this passage of time, this carnage and ruin, and hold answerable those who had the power to intervene, but chose impotence, who had the power to orate, but chose silence…”

He paused for a moment, looked at his king and said, “and those who had the power to see, but chose to be blind”

Sanjaya then dropped his head into his palm and sobbed, anguish gushing out of his soul with every whimper he made. He knew what was to come. He knew that the side Sri Krishna was on could not lose. He looked up at his king, who sat expressionless, deep in thought.

He wished he could somehow make the blind king see, see that he was wrong all along. See that he will lose all his sons, and their sons, in this battle. See that he can still stop this butchery. See that the Pandavas were in fact good people. See that both sides can co-exist.

Dhritarashtra read his adviser’s mind. He was blind in the eye, not in thought. With his heightened senses, he could feel Sanjaya’s gaze upon him. He rose from his chair and stood up, proud and strong.

As he started to move, Sanjaya shifted to help his king, only to be stopped by a gentle wave of the hand.

Unassisted, Dhritarashtra went to the window, and gazed outside, feeling the warm late afternoon air on his face. He took a deep breath and turned around.

“Sanjaya, do you think I know not what is to become of my bloodline at the end of this war? Long time ago, when my children, as young boys, tried to drown Bhima, I knew a day would come when I have to face their mortality. Through many insults and injustices, my brother’s children have shown that they are far superior than mine. They are forgiving yet powerful, generous yet tough, humble yet noble”

He turned away from the window, and rested both his hands on the ledge behind him, gently lowering himself to lean on the sill. He took another deep breath and let it out, his powerful chest heaving at the sigh, the exhalation sounding more a lament than a biological activity.

“Above everything Sanjaya, the day my son chose Madhava’s army over him, I knew the outcome. He came to me proud that he bagged the entire Yadava army, proclaiming we had strength of numbers over the Pandava army. I cried inside. I pictured what would happen to my beloved son at the end of this war. I know it deep inside my heart”

He looked up at the ceiling and blinked hard, trying in vain to turn back the torrent of tears hanging at the bottom of his eyes, unwilling to control themselves from rolling down the old king’s cheeks.

“Over the years, I have realized one thing my dear friend, and even though I never verbalized it, I have to say it, to get it off my chest”

“I am the blind one, Sanjaya. But it is my children that cannot see”

He then slumped to the ground, and plunked his head into his palms.

Sanjaya walked up, sat next to his king, and put his arm around Dhritarashtra’s shoulder.

The deluge of silent tears and muffled whimpers could not be heard by anyone.

Except for the one woman behind the curtains of the hall, whose blindfold was quickly turning from damp to wet.

A Revenge Long Due – II

Continued from here

Dusshasana picked up his bow and shot a couple of arrows in Bhima’s direction, hoping to scare him away. Both were unceremoniously broken mid-way. Before he strung a third arrow, his bow broke, much like Karna’s earlier in the day. Bhima did not want a long drawn duel with Dusshasana. He wanted a quick kill.

Bhima’s approaching chariot stopped a short distance away. Before Dusshasana picked up another bow and strung an arrow, a booming voice shouted, “Dusshasana, you will die today. That is for certain. Not even Yamaraj can protect you from me. But before you die, I will give you an opportunity to repent. Say you are sorry for all the wrongdoings against us, and find peace. It will not protect you from death, but it may make your path to heaven easier”

Dusshasana laughed his wicked, irritating laugh. His arrogance knew no bounds, “Bhima! We kicked you out of your kingdom, rightfully. We found you out in your incognito year, rightfully. I personally won your wife in a game of chance, rightfully. You are my slave. And yet, you stand here, in a borrowed chariot, and ask that I apologize. You are not half the warrior you think you are. I could have made quick work of you many times over. But I spared your life. For that, you should be thankful. Why don’t we do this? Why not kneel down and express your gratitude, and I will let you live another day”

This time, the mention of Draupadi did not anger Bhima. He smiled to himself. It just made his job easy. He would have absolutely no regret killing this worthless man; it was pointless to even further the conversation.

He blew his conch, rage snaking through the sinuous insides of the shell and discharging from the other side in an ominous release of deafening resonance.

As is wont, Dusshasana attempted to cheat, firing arrows while Bhima was still issuing his warning. But the Pandava deftly ducked and let them whizz past him. He then picked up his bow and shot one arrow.

It took Dusshasana’s headgear with it, whipping it off, carrying it far into the background, and driving it into the ground. Dusshasana was unnerved, but remained defiant. His next several attempts to shoot at Bhima ended the arrows being cut in flight.

Bhima’s skill with the bow would’ve amazed a connoisseur. With every release, the distance traveled by Dusshasana’s arrow lessened, as Bhima’s counter arrows began to approach Dusshasana closer and closer. This simple fact was lost on him, until one was cut down inches from the bow, barely after release. Perplexed but still insolent, he shouted at his charioteer to close the distance between him and Bhima, hoping he will get a better shot.

When his bow broke the next time he strung an arrow, tiny beads of sweat started to form on his bare brow, as the reality of Bhima’s skillfulness began to dawn upon him. Still, Bhima didn’t fire an arrow in offense.

Bhima’s plan was simple, and an exercise in patience, a quality not associated with him in general. He would let Dusshasana exhaust all his weapons; every last arrow, mace, spear and sword. He would give his enemy every opportunity to attack, and defend himself.

Soon, all of Dusshasana’s arrows and bows were broken. He then hurled his spears, only for them to meet the same fate as his arrows. Bhima didn’t need to use his own spears to counter Dusshasana’s.

The worry inside Dusshasana began to transform into fear. He was left with two maces and two swords. All the weapons that could be discharged from a safe distance were gone.

He did not want a wrestling match with Bhima. He knew the fate of two others who did – one was torn vertically from the pelvis to the head, and the two parts strewn across from each other, while the other, the commander of a large army, was murdered in the middle of the night, and his body made into a big ball of flesh and dead muscle.

Dusshasana changed his approach, like he always did when he was faced with a back to the wall situation. He targeted soft spots. He picked up his mace and threw it with all his power towards Bhima’s charioteer, intending to kill him and disable Bhima.

Bhima’s spear met the mace mid way and smashed it into pieces, scattering metal shrapnel around.

Down to his last projectile, Dusshasana looked at his charioteer just for a moment, with the intention of asking him to bolt. His fear had not turned yet to dread, but he sensed imminent danger. Bhima read his mind and fired off a series of arrows. They lodged themselves all around Dusshasana’s chariot, boxing it in. Bhima followed that up with two special arrows, that came to rest right in front of the horses, and on contact with the ground, released vapors only detectable by the horses. On smelling the vapors, the horses crouched and sat down, much to the charioteer’s amusement and his master’s dismay. They refused to move.

Dusshasana was completely anchored, with nowhere to go.

He picked up his other mace to hurl at Bhima’s chariot. He only lifted it half way up when a spear ran through its head, piercing the sphere perfectly in the center, and slamming it into the ground. The impact lifted Dusshasana off his feet and flung him back, crashing into the floor of his cab.

Dusshasana had no more projectiles left to launch. He looked around and found nothing to throw. His chariot was boxed in. His horses were immobile. His charioteer was helpless. Fear turned to panic. He pulled the swords from their leather sheaths, jumped off the chariot and ran towards the Pandava, forgetting that there was only one way it would end.

Bhima smiled, happy that his prey was coming to him instead of running away. He took his mace and stepped off the chariot.

Dusshasana came racing with both his hands up in the air, swords raised. As he approached Bhima, he brought his hands down swiftly, attacking vigorously. Bhima deftly blocked the swords with his mace, holding it aloft flat his hands, and with his right leg, kicked Dusshasana in the gut. The kick propelled Dusshasana back in the air, and he fell several feet away, landing hard on his back. His head spun, he felt dizzy. He didn’t see the giant mace come down on his left hand and crush the palm holding the sword. As the pain seared through his veins, he let out a agonizing cry. His left palm was how completely smashed, only a bloody mess left in its place.

While Dusshasana writhed in pain, Bhima walked over to the other side and wriggled the other sword out of his right palm.

Panic now turned to terror for Dusshasana.

Bhima took the sword, held its grip in his right hand the the blade in his left. He slowly began to bend the blade. The audience watched in awe as Bhima effortlessly arched the blend of polished iron and bronze. The blade, which could withstand other metals in battle, could not endure sustained pressure at the ends. and cracks began to form. It finally gave up, and snapped into two.

Bhima then looked at his prey. Dusshasana had long stopped screaming.

He then picked a whimpering Dusshasana up, spun him around and threw him towards his own chariot. Dusshasana fell face down, squealing in pain as bones he didn’t know existed in his body cracked.

Bhima approached Dusshasana and turned him over. He saw in Dusshasana’s eyes what he wanted to see for years: horror and dread. He rejoiced.

He then sat on Dusshasana’s torso, staring into his petrified eyes. He didn’t want his enemy to pass out or die. He didn’t want him to move either.

Then, he began his operation.

He tore off Dusshasana’s armor and clothes and exposed his bare chest. Then, with his bare hands, using only his nails, he began to press hard into the left side of Dusshasana’s chest. Blood oozed out of the lacerations, as Dusshasana began screaming in pain. The more Dusshasana screamed, the harder Bhima pressed, tearing the flesh off and reaching the ribs.

As grown men watched in horror, Bhima reached between the ribs and dug his nails into Dusshasana’s heart, puncturing it instantly. Blood spouted out of his chest, and hit Bhimasena’s face, as Dusshasana gasped for breath. He smeared his face with that blood, deliberately and methodically.

As Dusshasan’s last moments neared him, Bhima stood up and washed his hands in the cascade of crimson fluid spraying out of Dusshasana’s chest. He then walked over to his chariot and brought back a silver bowl.

Before his eyes went black, the last thing Dusshasana saw was Bhima collecting his blood into the silver bowl and laughing hysterically.

Bhima left the lifeless body of Dusshasana on the ground, and instructed Dusshasana’s charioteer to leave, without his master. He didn’t want the body to be accorded the dignity of last rites.

Before boarding his chariot, he used Dusshasana’s torn off clothes to wipe his hands clean, and threw them away.

He held the bowl in both his palms, mounted his chariot. He placed a gentle hand on his charioteer’s shoulder and uttered one sentence.

“Take me to the queen”

A Revenge Long Due – I


Continued from here

It took a few moments for Karna to come to terms with the humiliation handed out to him by Bhima. He mounted his chariot and they rode off into the Kaurava camp to get reinforcements and replenishments. Neither said a word on the journey, both equally shell-shocked, and thankful to be alive.

Karna’s strength returned as he approached his tent. Soon, that strength turned to vigor and vigor turned to anger. He loaded himself up with bows, arrows, swords, maces and spears. He asked Shalya to replace the horses and be ready for a long day.

“Bhima will not see sunset today”

Shalya couldn’t believe what he just heard. He looked at Karna like he was a fool. Here was someone who was handed out a disgraceful bashing. Every weapon he picked up was broken. Every attack repulsed. His life was spared. His son was throttled. All without Bhima breaking into a sweat. And here was this man, thinking he could take on such a giant.

But Shalya did as was told. He fed his horses, and inspected the chariot. He let Karna board. Then he spoke.

“Karna, you are a much better warrior than I am. But I have seen more of the world than you. Out of experience, and out of concern for your well being, I will tell you this. What I have seen today is out of this world. This is not the Bhima I know, and I know him better than you. His power is well known, but the physical capability on display today was something else. The arrows lodged in your chariot have gone deep into the walls and pillars, causing unsightly gashes around the cabin. It cannot be repaired. The cabin has to be destroyed and rebuilt. I have never seen anything like that, ever. The ease with which he destroyed your bows, and cut down your sword, I still wonder if it was an illusion. And the agility, it is as though he has taken a magic potion. The nimbleness with which he picked up your arrow mid air and strung it to his own bow, that to me was unreal. He did not give you any time to settle down”

“Karna, there comes a time in battle when even the best warrior must realize when to withdraw and live to fight another day. This is not a retreat. It’s just a brief withdrawal, while the enemy calms down, his powers diminish, and his emotions subside. When that happens, he will be more vulnerable. We must wait for such time. It may not come today. It may be tomorrow, but patience is an important virtue for the warrior, and more so for the commander in chief. You wait for the enemy to weaken, and then you strike”

Karna immediately took umbrage at Shalya’s comments.

“I wish you showed a little more respect for me as a warrior, Shalya. You think I cannot defeat Bhima today? I am the commander in chief of this mighty army. I have acquired weapons Bhima cannot even fathom in his wildest dreams. One invocation of a lethal weapon and Kunti’s strongest son will be reduced to ashes. I expect you, as my charioteer, to take my side, not praise the enemy”

“I am on your side, my dear Radheya, and as your well wisher and chauffeur I must warn you that this path you want to take will not have a happy ending. You can defeat Bhima, but not today. Today he is death personified”

Karna was in no mood to heed. He berated Shalya again for not supporting him, and ordered him to get ready to leave soon.

Shaking his head, Shalya headed towards the chariot, knowing fully well that if there was a second duel today between Karna and Bhima, the father would meet the same fate as the son.

They headed to battle, Karna determined to seek out and attack Bhima.

But Bhima had already moved on. His target was someone whom he was waiting to kill with his bare hands for many years.

Bhima headed towards Dusshasana, purposefully and decisively.

He blew his conch as soon as he spotted the Kaurava’s flag.

The exhaustive fifteen day battle had taken the lives of thousands of soldiers, and decimated many armies. The thinning of protective foot soldiers exposed mighty warriors, allowing for more duels. It became evident that the Kaurava advantage lied only in numbers, because one-on-one, the Pandavas were much more dominant and skillful.

Dusshasana heard Bhima before he saw him. He knew this was a call for him. He had heard about Bhima’s promise to Draupadi, and was waiting for this day. He always fancied himself against Bhima, thinking he could kill the strongest Pandava before his elder brother did.

Bhima decided he would throw all rules to the wind in his killing of Dusshasana.

Right from childhood, he had disliked Dusshasana. He was more pompous than Duryodhana, and certainly more audacious. If Duryodhana was thought, Dusshasana was action. Duryodhana, for all his jealousy, was severely aware of his strengths and weaknesses. But Dusshasana was egotistic and bombastic. Here was a man who had scant respect for customs, traditions, honor, or the rules of engagement. His contempt for Pandavas was evident from the start, but his lust for Draupadi crossed all limits.

And that day, when he attempted to disrobe Draupadi, Bhima’s dislike turned to hatred. That day, the moment his eyes fell on a lecherous Dusshasana dragging Draupadi into the grand hall, he swore he would kill the Kaurava, and kill him with bare hands. He pictured the killing in his mind, every move of it.

That day had come!

Bhima picked up his bow, pulled the string hard and let it go, without an arrow. The pitch of vibrations from the release reached a crescendo that could be heard by Dusshasana himself. He perked up, and saw Bhima’s lion banner approach, slowly but steadily.

Shortly after, he heard another sound, that of a whizzing arrow, and the slow groan of a wooden staff cracking. He looked around, unsure of the sound. It took a few moments for him to see it at it came tumbling down.

His flagstaff had just been broken. Cleanly, expertly, and permanently.

Merciless

Continued from here

The swift anticipatory turn by Shalya helped Karna catch up with Bhima and come alongside him. Banasena was not too far ahead, so Bhima needed to be engaged immediately.

His preferred weapon was the arrow, but with both his bows broken, Karna’s choice was limited. He hurled the spear he held towards the Pandava’s chariot, aiming at the wheel in the hopes of breaking it. Bhima, much too fast for the Kaurava commander, broke the spear with his own. Karna picked up another, but before he could hurl it, Bhima broke it again, with one of his own.

Karna was unable to comprehend. How was Bhima able to react with such speed?

The two chariots fast approached Banasena, who was now circling the area, waiting for the outcome of this duel. He had long stopped firing his arrows, deciding instead to watch in awe at this giant of a man move with the agility of a deer, and fight with the ferocity of a lion.

Karna instructed his chauffeur to bring Bhima to a stop, by ramming his chariot and horses with the Pandava’s. It was evident that he was desperately trying to prevent Bhima from approaching within striking distance of his son, knowing fully well the outcome of such approach. Shalya did as was told, and began swerving into the Pandava’s chariot, their respective horses brushing each other at breakneck speed.

Bhima was irritated at this illegal move. He decided to take Karna head-on. He ordered his chariot stopped, and with his sword in hand, jumped off. His other hand held a spear, pointed towards Banasena, ready to be released.

Karna saw this, and ordered Shalya to stop, while picking up a sword and jumping off the chariot himself.

A small audience gathered, to watch this interesting duel. Neither was using their weapon of choice, one at which they were the best. It should be a fight among equals. But, from what was evident until now, Karna was no match to Bhima, even at archery. The situation, and Karna’s mental state was obvious to everyone. It was also evident in the mindset of the two warriors out in the middle.

Only one man held a shield for protection.

The Kaurava commander approached cautiously, lunging, jabbing and retreating. Karna had learnt and trained swordsmanship under Parashurama. He was certainly no novice. But here he was clearly intimidated by Bhima’s larger form. Bhima was no amateur, but he held the advantage of raw power again. His larger form and wider swing generated enormous strength, making it difficult for his opponents.

The duel went on for several minutes, with Karna circumspect with his attack and Bhima parrying almost everything Karna threw at him. Still, only one man held a shield for protection. The other had the spear firmly in his hand, using it as a support pillar.

To the audience, it was clear that Bhima was toying with Karna. They locked swords several times, only for Karna to be pushed and propelled back in the air. Shalya noticed that Karna was tiring, and getting erratic in his attacks as a result.

Bhima finally decided it was time to end this child’s play. The next time their sword guards locked in, he used his shoulder strength to gently push Karna back, far enough to not be in mortal danger, but near enough to reach his weapon.

Then in a swift motion, he used his spear to prop up Karna’s falling sword. The blade stood straight up. Bhima then used his full strength to cut Karna’s blade, the tip of his own sword passing within inches of the commander’s nose.

Karna stood stunned, his sword blade cut in half, and he had no clue what hit him. He fell back, anticipating Bhima to thrust the spear into his chest. But nothing of the sort happened.

Instead, Bhima took a few steps back, and sheathed his sword. He looked at Karna intensely, his eyes spewing a combination of anger and pity towards the Kaurava commander. He then walked back to his chariot, and mounted it.

His focus switched to the son.

Banasena had been watching the duel from a distance. He thought for a moment to illegally jump in. But his broken bow and the course the duel was taking kept him away, at a safe distance. He now saw that his father was in distress, and wanted to reach him. But the approaching Pandava cart distracted him. He was in two minds. The confusion in his mind caused a vital delay in his reaction time. Bhima was almost upon him. Banasena was completely paralyzed for response.

Karna saw the direction Bhima was headed, and quickly scrambled to his feet. He ran to his chariot and searched for a weapon. His both bows were broken, so he could not shoot any arrows. The only projectile he could lay his hands on was a spear. He picked to launch.

But it was too late. Bhima’s chariot was right beside Banasena’s.

As Karna watched the two chariots come alongside each other, Bhima leaped over his cabin into the tiny chariot of Banasena. A frozen Banasena did not offer any resistance as Bhima quickly disarmed him, picked him up with both hands and held him flat above his head.

Karna visualized Bhima throwing Banasena to the ground and thrusting his sword or spear into him.

Again, he was wrong.

Bhima alighted the Kaurava chariot and waited for his own to come around.

It was Karna’s turn to be paralyzed. He knew that if he launched any weapon in Bhima’s direction, the weapon would find his own son before it even went anywhere near Bhima. He stood motionless, watching a horror unfold in front of his eyes.

Bhima, still with his hands up above holding Banasena, boarded his chariot and motioned forward. The chariot inched slowly towards Shalya and Karna. They now understood Bhima’s intentions. He just didn’t want to kill Banasena. He wanted his father to have the ringside view.

Bhima’s chariot pulled up alongside Karna’s. The cabs lined up next to each other, facing opposite directions. Shalya’s advantage of two extra horses offset by the fearful presence of Bhima holding a fully grown person up above his head, like he would a staff of wood, ready to break.

Karna’s eyes swelled up, as the impending grief took over him. He let go of the spear, and joined his palms together, pleading for mercy.

It was a mighty fall from for the commander of an army who had preached ruthlessness a few hours ago.

Bhima lowered his victim and freed him from his grip for a few moments. Fear consumed Banasena as he stood motionless, facing his assassin. Bhima alternated his looks between Banasena and Karna, seemingly reading their reactions, taking pleasure. Deep down, he felt sorry for what he would do to this young man, but he despised the occupant in the other cart more than he valued his own righteousness.

He slowly reached for the young man’s neck with his palm and pulled the terrified Banasena towards him. He then spun him around and put the young man’s neck in an arm lock. Slowly but decisively, he increased the pressure on his victim’s neck. Banasena’s lungs struggled for air; his breath became shallow.

Bhima’s arm tightened around Banasena’s neck, slowly cutting off oxygen. He then picked up the young man off the floor, to display his struggle to his father.

Bhima never loosened his grip. The sound of his cervical vertebrae cracking sent shivers down Shalya’s spine. Banasena did not live another day. The last thing the young man saw was incessant tears rolling down his father’s cheeks, as he silently pleaded for his son’s mercy.

No pity was shown.

But Bhima did something nobody expected him to do.

He shut the lifeless eyes of Banasena, took the dead prince’s body and placed it back in his chariot. He covered him with a piece of satin cloth from the cab, and asked the charioteer to take him away from battle, to the Kaurava camp.

He turned back and looked at Karna, who was a wreck now. He could easily have taken Karna’s life at this present time. All he needed was one arrow. But he chose not to. He wanted Karna to live another day with two truths realized: that his son died while he lived, and that his life was spared by the mighty Bhima.

Before Karna reacted hastily, Shalya whipped his horses to take off, and they went off, retreating towards the Kaurava side.

Bhima turned towards the Kaurava side too, his sights now set on a long standing revenge.

Rude Awakening – II

Continued from here

Karna knew what would be the outcome of Banasena fighting with Bhimasena. There was only one way it would end, and it wouldn’t be a happy ending for him. He urged the Madra king to speed up and cut his son off from certain death. Thanks to the power of four horses, Shalya was able to race ahead and come in between Bhima and Banasena. Already a few volleys were exchanged between them, resulting in a broken bow and a few pointed presents lodged in the young man’s chariot from the Pandava.

Karna intercepted Bhima’s arrows to Banasena, breaking them mid-air. But he was clearly nervous. His son was heading towards a death machine. He himself, supposedly the best archer on his side, had been treated like a novice; his son did not stand a chance. He looked around for more help, and saw Dusshasana in the distance. It perplexed Karna that Duryodhana’s favorite brother didn’t seem to show any urgency to come to the rescue.

Was Dusshasana avoiding Bhima?

The Anga king was in a bind. He could not ask Banasena to retreat, that would be cowardly. But at the same time, he was sure the father-son duo would not be able to contain the Pandava’s onslaught. There was only one thing he could do at this time – attack Bhima and keep him busy, so that his son would eventually escape, or reinforcements would arrive to rescue them both.

Karna was wrong.

Bhima saw the concerned father race towards him. He smiled to himself and realized that after all, Karna was as human as everyone else. As a commander, in the midst of a heated battle, he chose to protect his son. Shalya realized how hypocritical Karna was. After the rousing speech in the morning about personal sacrifices, here was his occupant, attempting to insulate his own son from Bhimasena.

For Bhima, this was amusement. He saw an opportunity to demoralize the Kaurava commander. How perfect that his son’s killer should witness his own son die in front of his eyes.

He aimed his arrows towards Karna, wanting to make the Kaurava commander believe that he was not interested in engaging the young man not far behind. He reduced the power in his release, and deliberately missed aim a few times. He was luring his bait in. He wanted Karna to come closer to him.

Karna fell for the ruse. Bhima’s errors emboldened him. He urged Shalya to inch closer to the Pandava, but Shalya expressed reservations.

“I know Bhima, he doesn’t tire that easily. My experience tells me we should keep the distance”

But Karna was in no mood to listen. The sudden opening he thought he had with Bhima, coupled with the fear of his son passing him to engage the strongman, made him temporarily irrational. He brushed aside Shalya’s suggestion and asked him to charge on. Shalya did as was told.

Without slowing down, Karna shot a volley of arrows that Bhima evaded. He kept the ruse on, deliberately allowing his shield take a few hits. He kept looking at the distance between the two chariots, waiting for the right opportunity.

Karna, sensing that he may be gaining upper hand, fired some of his weighted arrows in Bhima’s direction. The Pandava ducked and escaped, again making it look more labored that it actually was. Karna smiled for the first time since the duel began, he was within shouting distance of Bhima. He took out one of his explosive arrows, strung it and shot it in Bhima’s direction. He aimed it right at Bhima’s chest, hoping to blast open his armor, following which he would shoot his sharp poisonous arrows right into his chest. He took out the poison arrow and waited for the detonation, looking in Bhima’s direction. It did not happen.

Instead, he was aghast at what he saw.

As the explosive arrow approached him, Bhima smiled and swerved aside, allowing the arrow to pass him. But shockingly, as the arrow passed him, he caught it, in motion, in mid air, with his bare hand.

Then he swung around with the arrow in hand, and as he did, he loosed the grip on it and let it slide within his closed palm, until his fingers felt the fletching. He tightened the grip again, held it firm, and in a smooth motion, strung it to his own bowstring. He pulled hard, and released. The entire action was performed with the expertise of a magician. The entire act took less than a few moments. The speed and artfulness of the act left Karna and Shalya awed.

The hunter now became the hunted. Karna and Shalya saw the explosive dart heading towards them. Taking quick evasive action, Shalya swerved, allowing the arrow to pass them and explode behind them. Their hearts raced. Karna was flabbergasted, unsure of what to do next. His poison dart was still strung.

But not for long.

The next instant, his bow broke for the second time today. Not from another arrow, but a spear from Bhima crashing through the Karna’s chariot. The spear broke the bow clean, and also dislodged Karna’s crown, exposing his head.

At that moment, Karna realized that all this time, he was being played by Bhima.

He was in mortal danger again. He was too close to Bhima, both his bows were broken, his son would soon be in imminent danger, and he had no answer to this man’s onslaught.

He picked up his spear and pulled himself back to hurl it at the Pandava, but stopped. Bhima’s chariot was now in motion, moving fast towards him. The distance was too short to launch the projectile. Karna’s pulse raced. At that moment, when he saw Bhima coming to get him, he saw death hurtling towards him. Bhima and his chariot looked like a black swirling cloud, rushing to engulf him. He reached for his sword, while muttering to Shalya to brace for impact.

It was only when Bhima was within handshake distance that Karna realized what was going on. The Pandava did not slow down. He was not coming for him. His fear quadrupled instantly, Bhima was headed beyond him, towards Banasena.

Shalya had anticipated this before the king of Anga did. He already set the turn in motion, to give chase to Bhima. He knew the turn would serve one of two purposes. At best, it would be proof of Karna’s resilience, if he could find it in him to still face and defeat Bhima today. At worst, they would already be racing towards the safety of the Kaurava army.

Deep inside, Shalya knew it would be the latter

Rude Awakening – I

Karna’s plan was to bring a swift end to this war. His approach was to frantically engage the enemy, capture their biggest prize, kill their star warrior, slaughter the remaining faithfuls, and march to victory. It was clear-headed, no nonsense thinking. He had long been opposed to his predecessor’s war of attrition strategy.

He ordered the armies to be arranged in Makara formation, after his fascination with crocodiles during his forest dwelling days. He admired them for their swiftness and slithery nature, and feared their deadly bite. He always wondered what land animal came the closest to them. Having found no equal, had dreamed of training an army to mimic the reptile.

When he became king of Anga, he had his military chief setup a program to have Anga army cadets witness crocodiles in their natural habitat and train accordingly. The core principles were to be agile and lethal at the same time. Karna personally visited and witnessed their training routines from time to time.

He specially stressed on the frenzy that erupts when food was thrown into the midst of a congregation of crocs. He watched in exhilaration when the weaker reptiles were injured in the melee, to prove to the soldiers why it was important to stay fit and hungry, or else they would end up dead like the weakest of the lot.

At the head of the Makara formation was Karna himself, along with Dusshasana. Karna knew Dusshasana shared his urgency in finishing off the war. They headed towards the Pandavas’ crescent formation in a hurry.

Karna thought that since the other armies did not have the necessary training, if he could put his own Anga army at the forefront, he would see success today. He miscalculated on a few counts. Firstly, his own army was only a fraction of the original size. Some of their generals were butchered by Ghatotkacha a couple of nights ago, causing a gap in hierarchy. Secondly, they were weary from fifteen days of fighting, and weren’t as agile as was needed on such a day. Thirdly, the rest of the armies were woefully out of tune with the training and strategy for the Makara formation. They were being left behind by the surging Anga army, and the gap increased as they forged in, thinning the middle of the formation and exposing the belly of the crocodile to the rampaging Pandavas.

Karna and Dusshasana moved rapidly into the crescent, making quick work of the small armies in the front. They knew their respective quarries and encountered little resistance as they reached the back end of the formation. Karna’s army, though slow, was not too far behind. But the crescent began to close in, as the rest of the Kaurava army lagged behind.

To his surprise, Karna found Bhima at the center of the crescent. He was expecting Arjuna. His chariot sped towards the Pandava strongman.

Kunti’s first born was dueling with her third.

Bhima waited with an arrow strung to his bow. When Karna approached within a few hundred yards, Bhima released it. It sped through with such force that the soldiers heard it swoosh through the wind, amidst all the din.

Karna, having very little time to react, put his shield up in front of him. The force of the arrow jolted him back, and shot a sharp pain through the arm that held the shield. The arrow pierced through the shield, with the tip coming out from the other side. This completely took Karna by surprise, the skill and the power behind Bhima’s arrow. He wondered just for a moment if he underestimated Bhimasena.

Shalya noted this and smiled to himself. If Karna cannot withstand the archery of Bhima, there was no chance of his survival against Arjuna. He deliberately slowed his horses down, knowing very well that maintaining distance was better in these circumstances. It also bought some time for Karna to recover from the blow.

Thankful for the evading action taken by Shalya, Karna jumped into action, stringing and shooting arrows rapidly in Bhima’s direction. He expected Bhima to take evasive action at the volley. Instead, Bhima took out his sword, and displaying an agility disproportionate with his size, cut each of the arrows in half. Karna was astonished. Doubts began to creep into his mind, the same ones that his chauffeur thought a few moments ago.

The duel went on for several minutes, and to Karna’s amazement and dismay, Bhima came out on top every single time. Karna’s shield was riddled with arrows from Bhima’s quiver. He was running out of new tricks to counter the Pandava, and was clearly getting flustered.

One of Karna’s failings was that when agitated and faced with a challenge that he couldn’t overcome, he quickly lost his composure. He would become disoriented and scramble for weapons, picking a sword when a spear would be the preferred choice. As things got worse, his intensity and concentration would desert him, and his memory would fail. Unhinged and unsettled, he would become a sitting duck. It happened a couple of nights ago. But he was able to overcome that.

For a moment, he feared that the father would accomplish what the son couldn’t.

Shalya sensed that this would be a good time to gain Karna’s confidence. He executed several clever maneuvers to counter Bhima. He raced his chariot ahead fast, making Bhima believe they were running away, and then brought it to an abrupt stop, causing his arrows to overshoot. On another occasion, he made his horses jump, causing the chariot to be airborne for a few moments, dodging the arrows. His adept handling of the horses, his awareness of battle situation, earned respect from his occupant. All this time, he did not say much to the Kaurava, only warning or preparing him before a maneuver.

As the battle wore on, it was increasingly evident to the Kaurava commander that Bhima was getting the better of him. He was being attacked powerfully, tirelessly and relentlessly. There was no diminishing in the force behind the attacks. Karna was running out of options.

He needed respite, but was granted none. He asked Shalya to take the chariot farther away from the Pandava. Shalya smiled to himself and obliged. Karna didn’t want to go too far away. He didn’t want anyone to think he was fleeing. But he needed time.

The chariot raced in the other direction and slowed down. Karna took a deep breath, collected his thoughts and picked up three arrows from his quiver. He strung them and closed his eyes. He calculated how far they came, and visualized Bhima’s position. He held his bow down, preparing for an assault that Bhima perhaps would have never witnessed or experienced. His chariot began to make the slow turn, to head towards the Pandava again. He slowly raised his bow and pulled the arrows back, using his full strength.

The chariot completed its turn. Karna was an instant away from releasing triumvirate of arrows.

The next second, he rocked back and fell into the cab. It took him several moments to find his bearings and figure what happened. In his left hand was the bottom part of his bow, broken cleanly just above his grip. The three arrows were nowhere to be seen. The chariot had picked up speed, hurtling towards the crescent formation. The top part of the bow, which had been cleaved clean, had fallen out of the cab and was being dragged by the chariot.

Shalya pulled the reins on his horses to slow the chariot down, allowing Karna some time to collect himself.

The Kaurava commander in chief knew he had to get back on his feet. He held on to something on the center pillar of the chariot and pulled himself up. Only after he stood up did he realize what that something was.

Bhima’s arrow had lodged deep into the center pillar of the chariot, as a grim reminder.

Karna was stunned. Such power, such precision, such skill!

Bhima had calculated the exact time when Karna’s chariot would complete the turn, estimated the speed to perfection, released his single arrow with such accuracy and raw power that it not only broke Karna’s bow, it now had become a permanent ornament in his chariot. It was a surprise that the pillar still stood standing.

Karna was clearly overpowered, and tormented. Even though he wasn’t in mortal danger, it was only a matter of time. He needed support. Bhima was untouchable in his current form. Karna looked around and saw a Kaurava chariot race towards past him towards Bhima in the distance. His nerves calmed. He looked up at the flag to see who it was.

His face turned ashen.

It was his son, Banasena!