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!

Contrasting Eloquence

The new commander took charge. He called all the satraps and generals early in the morning to assemble in front of his tent. This was unusual. Both Bhishma and Dronacharya sent instructions the night before via couriers.

Karna set up a high chair with his tent as the background. He stood on one side of the chair. Dusshasana stood on the other. The slimy Shakuni stood behind. Seated in the ornate chair was Duryodhana, with his right hand on his mace, and the left on the armrest. He sat tall and proud. Anyone looking at the assembly knew that this was their show: the wicked quartet.

The audience sat in a semi circle in front of them, so the quartet could see and read their faces. When he addressed the crowd, Karna was all business.

“These fifteen days, you and your armies have been bound by archaic rules and old fashioned customs. You also have had the freedom to pick your battles, and do as you please. That changes today. We are here for one reason and one reason only, to win this war”

“I don’t want any excuses. I don’t see friend or relative on the other side. I only see an opponent, an enemy. And that is how you and your armies will fight from today. I will hold each of you responsible for our failures. I will drive the strategy. I will choose who battles whom. I want their army decimated within the next two days”

“Remember, first and foremost you are warriors. You are Kshatriyas of the highest order, born to fight, to defend your honor and your king. He sits here, demanding that allegiance. You shall give your blood to him, as I will”

He continued authoritatively, “If I have to kill my son to win this war, I will do so without a second thought. Make no mistake, if any of you come between me and securing victory for my king, I shan’t spare you either”

“There is one other thing I want to be clear on. Capturing and killing the enemy is your paramount duty. If you have to break rules in order to achieve that, you will do it. There cannot be an ounce of ambiguity in your minds. Show no mercy. To me, a horse on the other side is as much an enemy as the soldier riding it. A chariot is just a vehicle driven by the enemy. If I have to break the vehicle to kill the enemy, you will do it. If the horse needs to be sacrificed, you will do it. Mercy is not why we are here. We want victory and nothing else”

The generals did not exchange glances or looks, but most of them had the same perplexing thoughts on their minds. This assembly unnerved them all, specially the satraps. Bhishma and Drona trusted the satraps and left it to them to manage their armies. The night before, the commanders informed them of the next day’s formation, and they left it at that. There was no stirring speeches, no display of authority or power.

The humility of the previous commanders allowed the generals and commanders some autonomy. They were instructed to follow the rules, uphold dharma, but fight till the last. Righteousness was the theme. It was understood right from the start that animals shall not be targeted directly. Every effort shall be made to avoid hurting the vehicles, whether they be elephants or chariots.

There was also no blame assigned to the generals. If there was a failure, it was seen as a consequence of the war and not a reason to blame. Accountability was expected and given voluntarily, rather than demanded and extracted. They all knew what this would do to their armies. They did better without pressure, when left free. Under duress, and in conflict with their conscientious self, they would begin to falter.

In their minds, the assembly of satraps and generals knew this new order would not work. This would only bring about a swift end to the war. And it wouldn’t be the end Karna was advocating.

There was a similar meeting on the other side as well, but only between two men: the most powerful on the planet, and the most astute.

“It is day sixteen, O Kaunteya. The war will not not last many more days. The Kauravas are now desperate. Their army is dwindling. They will begin resorting to immoral tactics. We must be wary”

“I am surprised that you are warning us to be careful, Madhava! We have you and dharma on our side. Nothing bad can happen to us”

“Don’t be naive Bhima. I cannot stop someone’s mind from thinking evil. That is not my job. I can only mitigate dangers that might result from evil thinking. You cannot sit idle thinking dharma is on your side. This war is as much about attacking and defeating adharma, as it is about preserving dharma. The past fortnight we have done enough preservation. The time has now come for assault”

“Karna is now the commander of the Kaurava army. He has two options: capture Yudhishtira or kill Arjuna. He knows that capturing Yudhishtira is an easier option, but will not end the war. You and Arjuna will retrieve your brother in no time. His only viable option is to kill your younger brother. To that effect, he will stop at nothing. He will attack me, my horses, my chariot, anything he can get his arrows on. He will be a man possessed”

“So why not attack and kill him today? Surely my younger brother has the weapons in his repertoire to finish him off quickly”

Krishna smiled, “My dear cousin! Every death in this war has a reason, a manner, a time, and a place. We only control the manner and the place. The time is decided by death itself. The reason, well that is for future generations to interpret. If we win this war, we will have rightfully killed the Kauravas. If they win, we will be the villains”

He smiled again and put a hand on Bhimasena’s shoulder.

“Today, you will be the most important member of this contingent. You will be the protector and the destroyer. You made some promises before this war. It is time to make those pledges come true”

“Imagine this: A lion sights a herd of antelope. After a chase, he has to choose between four to go for the kill: a strong one, a wily one, a skilled one, and a weak wicked one. He knows he must conserve his energy for later. Which one will he choose?”

Bhima’s jaw tightened. A surge of anger rushed through his veins as he recalled the dreadful shaming he and his family was subjected to, on that day fourteen years ago. He remembered the scene like it happened yesterday. His face flushed red with rage. He knew instantly who today’s victim was going to be.

Krishna smiled, as ever, and spoke softly, “Remember Bhimasena, while Arjuna is undoubtedly the master, your archery skills are unrivaled. You will need them today. Karna will go after Arjuna and you will thwart his attempts. Show him today that to get to Arjuna, he has to go through you. Defeat him, dispirit him, disgrace him. He is to be shown no mercy just because you want Arjuna to kill him”

Before they parted, Krishna looked straight at Bhima, and said something nobody ever heard him say.

“He defiled my sister, Bhima. I want him dead by sundown today”

A Brilliant Mind

As the sun rose, Krishna put his plan in action. He knew for certain that Shalya would be made the charioteer to Karna. He knew it because he knew Shalya’s amazing skills with the steeds. But more importantly, he knew his weaknesses, and when Sahadeva suggested that they arrange a welcome party for his uncle, Krishna shot down the idea, knowing fully well that the other side would do the same.

He needed Shalya on the other side. Of the several ways to corner Karna, using Shalya was the easiest. The day would come when the Kauravas would run out of options and get desperate. It was a matter of time before Karna would be made the commander, and his primary goal would be to kill Arjuna. Until then, his objective would only be to reduce the Pandavas army, battalion by battalion. There was a reason behind Karna’s reluctance to engage Arjuna directly while playing second fiddle to the acharya.

Karna, for all his skill and bravery, was in general short on confidence when it came to dueling with the best of the best. Having recently been defeated soundly by Arjuna in the Virata, he doubted his ability against the Pandava. Which is why apart from a few skirmishes, he avoided a prolonged duel. But all that would change when he became commander in chief. He would now be front and center, expected to lead from the front, obligated to go for the big kill. He cannot escape direct combat. For that, he needed to be on equal footing, he needed the best driver for himself, someone with skills comparable to Krishna. Someone who will put the warrior’s mind at peace.

There is one such person on the Kaurava side, a horse breeder, expert driver, skilled in engineering, a student of soil science, with an intense devotion to Dhritarashtra and his family. But Sanjaya was craftily brushed aside by Krishna, having been assigned the role of relaying the war’s proceedings to the blind king.

On the Pandavas’ side, there were two such experts, Shalya being the second. When the topic of war was first broached, Shalya was believed to be the rightful choice for Arjuna’s charioteer. But Krishna had better plans. He wanted his own man on the other side. He knew Shalya’s army was mighty, strong, and celebrated, and that Shakuni had reached out to him for support, citing physical proximity and neighborliness of the Gandhara and Madra kingdoms.

While Shalya’s strength was his ability to steer, his failing was his chattiness. He could get under someone’s skin by constantly putting them down. Often times he did not know when to draw the line between friendly banter and overplay putdowns. Added that that, his raspy voice, which turned shrill when he was in his element, irritated people to no end. Krishna also knew that Shalya was impulsive, and had a weakness for indulgence. He let the Kauravas entertain the Madra king, knowing Shalya would declare his allegiance unknowingly. The pieces were set. The game was on. It was time to get Shalya to talk.

Laying out his plans for the day, Krishna noticed clouds in the distant sky. He consulted meteorologists, and asked if there were chances of rain, when, and how intense. They told him they do not expect it to rain during the day today. The night would be different though. There would be a downpour like no other. Perhaps the skies have seen enough bloodshed that they wished to wash away stains of dried crimson fluid that had begun to turn permanent on this wretched land.

He then spoke to the soil expert to learn from him which parts of the battlefield held loose soil, so that he can avoid them the next day. Then it stuck him: Maybe he shouldn’t avoid those parts tomorrow. Maybe he should head in that direction, and maybe even lead someone there. A plan formed in his mind. He sought and obtained more details on the area with loose soil, of specific spots that could get too swampy for chariot wheels. He decided they should spend some time today in the area to dig up some dirt and loosen the soil even more.

He smiled to himself. Change of plans, he was not going to activate Shalya today. He hoped Shalya had the good sense to keep his mouth shut today.

Krishna knew that it was impossible for the Kauravas now to replace Shalya with someone else as Karna’s driver. If they did, Shalya, out of resentment, would pull out his army instantly, loyalties be damned!. That would hurt them more, given that after fifteen days, their army was more or less wiped out. They could not afford to lose a whole division. They were compelled to put up with his antics. They did not have a choice.

Karna was a different story. He was a man with tremendous self control. He could immunize himself to Shalya’s shenanigans. He could force himself to tune the negativity out, and focus better. It could be counterproductive, and make him more devastating. It was important for Krishna that Shalya be patient and wait for the right time.

For his part, Shalya started the day thinking of his immediate duty. For all his impetuousness, he was an intelligent man. He could not go all in immediately. There was no guarantee that Arjuna and Karna would duel today. If he starts denouncing Karna and the Kauravas right from the start, it will trigger defense mechanisms and Karna may grow immune. He needed to wait it out and do it at the right time. Above all, he had a duty to fulfill, no matter his loyalties. Today, he was going to be a charioteer, and a silent observer.

Krishna quietly went into the tent and asked for the cartographer. He took a map of the battlefield, and began to circle some areas with a piece of coal. There was one spot he seemed more interested in. He called the soil experts and local tribesmen, and asked them to build a clay and mud model of the spot and its surroundings. He asked that the clay, mud and soil for the model be brought from the specific area in the battlefield, and that everything – including elevation changes and landscape – mimic the battlefield precisely.

“Once you build the model, call the meteorologist. He will tell you exactly how much water to sprinkle on the model”

The perplexed group exchanged glances.

But the man knew exactly what he was asking.

He walked out, smiling.

The Perfect Match – II

Continued from here

Shalya poured himself a large chalice of Soma, gulped it down and staggered on to the divan, legs stretched out. His attendants quickly got to work, pouring warm aromatic oil on his arms and legs and massaging them, relaxing his muscles and calming his mind. He closed his eyes and remembered his conversation with Krishna just before the start of the war.

“They hoodwinked me Madhava, I had no idea that it was Duryodhana that setup the grand reception for me. The arrangements, the comforts, the food, the wine, perfect! And the women, they were exquisite. I had never experienced such pleasure in my life. I and my men had the most gratifying time during those 24 hours. It was unbridled indulgence. We were completely bowled over.”

“I was certain this was Sahadeva’s idea. He knows my tastes better than anyone. It was a grueling journey from Sagala. We had been traveling for several days. Our men left their loved ones behind, perhaps never to see them again. I assumed my dear nephew was making sure they experienced pleasure to the fullest. It never occurred to me or any of my generals that this could be a ruse. In that delirious stupor, I announced that I and my army will die for the host. When Duryodhana revealed himself, it was horrifying to me”

“I do not know what to do. I do not know how to break this to my nephews. I am ashamed. I immediately arranged to meet with you, and I need your advice”

Sweat forming on brow, Shalya opened his eyes, glad to realize he was only reminiscing the past. His attendant applied a soft, damp cloth on the forehead and gently pushed him back to the couch. He closed his eyes and remembered the rest of the conversation.

“How can you be so naive and senseless, Shalya? How did you even think that Pandavas had the means to indulge you in such an extravagance? They don’t have a house to live, they have been living like vagabonds for the past fourteen years. They have been begging for food and clothing. And you thought they supplied exotic women to you? Were you so desperate, or were you already under the influence? You betrayed your nephews, you betrayed your sister. You betrayed dharma.”

“However, I hear the contrition in your heart. Your love for your nephews is pure. Your respect for your step-nephews is genuine, and you truly want to see Yudhishtira on the throne. I also know that you will do anything to support Pandavas. Unfortunately, you and your army are already committed to the Kauravas, and you cannot go back on your word. You must do what you promised. Your army must fight against the Pandavas. They may perish on the wrong side, but they at least hold their heads high, having followed leader who kept his word.”

“As for you, you yourself have to choose your loyalties. In this war, there will be people fighting on one side, but secretly wishing the other side won. It is treason, but only if caught. Some of them will die during the war; other, more accomplished warriors may survive and thrive. I will not ask you to cheat, I will not ask you to turn on your benefactors. You have to fight your own war, on the field and in your mind.”

“Again, I will not ask you to choose your loyalties. You have several talents that are of use to both the sides. Your valor is unmatched by many. You are skillful at spear throwing, second only to Yudhishtira. Your knowledge of horses, chariots and engineering is supreme. Above all, you have the gift of the gab. With your strong, definitive, and decisive talk, you can easily raise the morale of a warrior, or undermine them, if the need arose. To me, your blunt, forthright assessment of friends and enemies, and the ability to honestly communicate that back to the leaders will be of most importance to either side”

“And one last time, I won’t ask you to choose your loyalties”

As the masseur rubbed his forehead and massaged his hair, the clouds in Shalya’s mind began to thicken. He began to relay Krishna’s words in his mind, searching for innuendo and any hidden message: choose my loyalties; use my skills.

Dharma clearly belonged to the Pandavas, but for fifteen days he had been fighting for the Kauravas. He was torn. The fifteen days of war, the wonderful time he his army experienced before, his pledge to support the host, and the conversation with Madhava played back in his head several times. As his muscles tensed, the masseur applied more pressure, up towards the back of his head and down, to the nape, then to top of the spinal cord and out on to the shoulders. The masseur worked hard, running his hands back and forth, easing and increasing pressure, expertly hitting the precise muscles and soothing Shalya’s nerves.

The masseur’s magic worked. The mist cleared in Shalya’s head. He opened his eyes, as if from a trance, startling the masseur. He thanked the attendant and asked him to finish up. Servants arrived immediately to wash his hair and dry it. They applied a refreshing paste to his face and neck, and wiped it away with a warm scented damp cloth. He emerged refreshed and radiant. He sat down in his ornate chair, taking another chalice-full Soma and sipping it leisurely. He twirled the extravagant gold chalice slowly in his right hand.

He began to mentally lay his plan out.

Kripacharya was the first to enter the tent. He noticed that Shalya’s demeanor was calm and approachable. For his part, Shalya stood up, bowed to the elderly acharya, and beckoned him to take a seat right across from him. He signaled his attendant to pour the acharya some Soma in a copper chalice, knowing Kripa’s preference for modesty.

“You have to pardon us, O king of Madra. Radheya meant no disrespect to you”

The calm voice and sagely delivery was alluring. It removed any residual offense Shalya had taken earlier.

“War was not our first choice, nor our last, yours and mine. But it is upon us. The fight is between dharma and adharma, but strife doesn’t know the difference between the two. Not wrongly, Kauravas feel they have the right to win this war as much as the Pandavas. You and I only play a part in that attempt to win. Our loyalty lies to the throne, and not towards any individual taking part in this war. Your skills are of utmost importance to the throne. You are well within your rights to refuse. But as a servant of this throne, I beseech you to accept the offer and take up the reins to Karna’s chariot tomorrow.”

Shalya understood the desperation in Kripa’s voice. He also couldn’t refute the elder’s incontrovertible argument.

Just as Kripa finished speaking, Karna entered the tent. He had stripped himself of all the armor and ornaments. Bare-chested and wearing only a dhoti, he appeared humble yet imposing. As soon as he walked in, he stopped, faced Shalya, folded his hands, and bowed his head in reverence. When he spoke it was soft and deferential.

“O great king of Madra, pardon me for my rudeness earlier. I did not mean to dishonor you. You are a magnanimous person, king! In exchange of one night’s pleasures that Duryodhana stealthily arranged for you, you kept your word, even if it meant warring against your kin. It is a very uncommon trait”

“You were also absolutely right. You are the right person to be the commander of this army. You have done this before, and you can handle armies much better than I can. I do not covet any position or title. My only goal in life is to repay the friendship bestowed upon me. If you want to lead this army to victory, I will gladly hand over the responsibility”

He then kneeled down, prostrated himself, and touched Shalya’s feet.

“I seek your blessings, great king!”

Shalya’s chest swelled with pride. The sight of the commander of the mighty Kaurava army, at his feet, begging for forgiveness appealed to his vanity. But he had a job to do. He remembered Krishna’s words again and again.

He knelt down and touched Karna’s shoulders, gently nudging him to sit up. Both men slowly stood up, facing each other. Shalya looked straight into Karna’s eyes.

“My dear Radheya, you are a very valiant and worthy warrior. My outburst was an emotional, knee-jerk reaction that was unwarranted, driven purely by my pride and affectation of myself. The long war, the unmitigated loss of life around us has had its toll on me. It is no secret that I have kin on both sides of this war, as do many of us. Many men I have known all my life, dear friends, respected elders, are all either dead or maimed for life. I have realized that at the end of this war, either I will be dead, or almost everyone I know will be. Maybe both. It is not a good state of mind to be in.”

“You are correct in your assessment. If there is anyone that can match the crafty Krishna on the battlefield, it is me. I am probably even better qualified, having spent a lot more time breeding and training horses. I will be your charioteer”

Karna was visibly relieved at the turn of events. He was already planning his route for the morning, when Shalya interrupted.

“There is one other thing that Krishna is good at, as I have heard through my spies and I believe it has been working to their advantage. Krishna communicates with Arjuna incessantly, guiding and directing him, keeping him upbeat, and most importantly, keeping him honest.”

Shalya’s observation drew looks of admiration from his guests.

“A charioteer is like the head, while the warrior is like the rest of the body. Like our eyes and ears, the charioteer sees and hears things on the battlefield, communicates back to his occupant and keeps him out of danger. There are times during the war when the warrior may go berserk, consumed by the emotion of the moment. There will be occasions when he is blindsided by desire, overtaken by passion, or devoured by fervor. During those times, the charioteer must keep him humble, grounded, educated. That is not only a charioteer’s job, it is his duty”

“I have never faced Arjuna in battle, for obvious reasons. I never fought alongside him either. But from tomorrow, I will have a ringside view of his prowess. Based on what you mentioned earlier today about him, it gives me a unique glimpse into his strengths, but more importantly, his weaknesses. Together, we can exploit that. I will promise you that when you duel with him, I will watch and capture his every move, and report back to you”

“I will be honest in my assessment. All I ask in return is you respect my opinion”

Karna thought about Shalya’s proposal. Everything Shalya said was undeniably and irrevocably logical. He wondered how he missed it himself.

He nodded in acceptance, folded his hands and turned towards the exit. Kripacharya put his chalice aside and bade a good night to the Madra king.

As he walked towards his tent, Karna felt a sense of unease. He replayed the entire sequence in his mind, scrutinizing Shalya’s face and demeanor for inconsistencies. He didn’t find any.

Yet, he felt a knot in the stomach, a disquiet in his mind.

He went to bed convincing himself that it was nothing, and that he was overthinking.

He was wrong!

The Perfect Match – I

After respectfully consigning the mortal remains of Dronacharya to sacred flames, the Kaurava think tank huddled in a tent. Duryodhana decided who the next commander should be. But the question was about how to make him succeed.

There was an atmosphere of gloom in the room, as Kripacharya was the only remaining elder, and he began to feel the absence of his two contemporaries. He felt angry at the way Dronacharya was killed, but realized in his own philosophical way that the acharya paid for his actions. He was decidedly sad, and his sorrow cast a shadow on the proceedings.

Dusshasana was the first to speak out, and when he did, he betrayed his disrespect to elders, and contempt towards situations.

“Now that we have Karna at the helm, we can finish this silly war in a couple of days. Arjuna can be defeated tomorrow, and the rest of them will fold immediately. The day after, we attack their camp and take their women. Draupadi will be happy to to see us again”, he concluded with a perverse smile.

Kripacharya heard it, didn’t care to glance towards the petulant Kaurava, but turned towards Karna. His response to this rhetoric would define his leadership, Kripa thought. And Karna did not disappoint him.

The newly crowned commander was not irritated, nor roused. He calmly said, “It would be at our own peril to underestimate Arjuna, my dear friend. As much as I detest him, he is an archer par excellence. His skill is supreme, and his stamina is unmatched”

“Arjuna has practiced archery from when he was a child. He grew up with weapons around him. He has had the best instructor in the world. He has had the best training facilities, the best diet, and the best environment. What better than to be born a prince in the great Kuru kingdom?”

“Even then, he went above and beyond, and trained hard. He breathed archery. He practiced ambidexterity and became an expert. He practiced in the dark, trusting his auditory faculties. He is truly a challenging and worthy adversary”

Karna’s delivery ensured the plaudits were not praise, but cold, hard facts, as though he was sizing up his opponent, and not awed by him. It was as though he was calculating, carefully, how to counter the Pandava.

“If there is anyone on this battlefield that can disable or kill him, it is me”, said Karna calmly, again careful not to sound pompous.

“I haven’t had nearly as much good fortune as Arjuna, but I match him in every way. Through hard work, superior ability, and unflagging determination, I have made myself worthy of leading this massive army. I can proudly say we now have a realistic chance to winning, given that we don’t have certain weaknesses that plagued the previous commanders. However, we must plan it precisely”

Again, he made sure his tone was very stoic, and his lament about Bhishma and Drona was factual, and not a complaint.

It was an artful censure of the past fifteen days.

He continued without stopping, “Surrounding and protecting Arjuna are a host of celebrated warriors, each equal to an army on his own. Abhimanyu, Drupada, Virata did well to serve and protect the Pandava hero”

As an afterthought, betraying his scorn he added, “Even that giant creature-son of Bhima last night”

Only Shakuni noticed the slight tremble in Karna’s voice when speaking of Ghatotkacha. After all, they would be having an entirely different conversation today, if Karna hadn’t pulled out his ace weapon last night.

“Even without the glorious champions that we have felled, getting close to Arjuna is next to impossible. The other four brothers and his brother-in-law know how prized he is to us. They will lay their life down for him. They will form that impenetrable barrier.”

He wanted to continue but Duryodhana was the first to break the monologue. He too surprised Kripacharya with his restraint, “My dear Radheya, the next couple of days will make or break this war for us. We have lost two of our commanders while their chief still lives and fights”

But he didn’t hold his control for long. Conveniently forgetting that both sides flouted the rules of engagement, he soldiered on, “Both Pitamaha and Acharya were victims of stratagems. It angers me to no end that they used devilry to cull our army last night. The uncivilized wretches of Ghatotkacha’s army shouldn’t even have been allowed in this war.”

“However, we let them. We engaged them, and we killed them, fair and square. But now it is time to throw all rules aside, and finish them off. Why even face them in the battle? Why not secretly attack their camps during the night, when they’re sleeping? Who remembers how we achieved victory? The only thing people will remember is Duryodhana was the king of Hastinapura. People will forget the means soon, and only remember the ends.”

Ashwatthama winced at that cowardly suggestion, but did not say a word. He looked silently at Kripacharya, whose eyes turned moist.

Karna turned quietly towards his best friend, careful enough to not betray any emotion, “We wouldn’t need to do that as long as I am alive, Duryodhana! I am more than enough for all of Pandava armies. I have within my arsenal weapons of limitless destruction. I don’t use them because they are prohibited. But if we are pushed to the brink, that is exactly what we will do. Any one of them will wipe out the Pandavas, no matter where they hide”

“There is only one thing different between me and Arjuna. And that is the only thing that works to his advantage. If we take that away, nothing can stop me”

Everyone exchanged glances. They knew what, or whom Karna was talking about. But they also knew the answer: There was no match to the divine lord.

“A capable charioteer”, announced Karna.

Kripa, Ashwatthama, and even Shakuni exchanged puzzled looks. If they had to pick one character of Krishna that set him apart, it would certainly not be his riding skills.

“Krishna is a master of the horses. He can wield those wild steeds like a virtuoso playing an instrument. It’s as if he has a direct line with the horses’ minds. They listen to him, they read his mind, and he theirs. He has such a tremendous awareness of their needs, that I have not seen a single arrow even graze one of them. Spies tell me he has used the same four horses since the first day. They are neither hurt, nor exhausted. They seem to have new life infused into them every morning. It is some sort of sorcery that the Yadava wields.”

“What it does to Arjuna is free his mind completely of the worries of mobility, fear of sneak attacks, or being stalled in the middle of the battlefield due to injury or death of his charioteer. He has only one job – battle”

“We need our own Krishna; someone who has such expertise with charioteering that I don’t need to worry about where I am going, or who will attack me. There is only one such savvy person amongst us – Shalya. Horses and horse-breeding has been his passion. He has trained some of the best charioteers in the world today. I can’t think of anyone better than him to ride me the next couple of days. He is the perfect match to Krishna”

Shalya, who had silently been watching the goings on, rose up in anger, and violently pushed his chair back.

“I am the king of Madra! I command an army all by myself. I have killed many warriors myself in this war, including Uttara Kumara. I have saved many of you from certain death in the past fifteen days. I should have been next in line for commander. Instead, this is how you repay me? By making me a chariot to a Sutaputra? Nobody here has an army still standing as big as mine, nobody here has the experience of being a commander in chief, except me. This is an outrage and an insult!”

He threw his chalice of Soma to the ground, and stormed out of the tent.

He walked into his tent, enraged and exasperated.

Continued here