Love In The Hills – IV

Continued from here

It didn’t take Abhimanyu long to find his love. At the northeast corner of the palace grounds, he saw a chest high hedge of thick green vine, interspersed with pink and blue flowers. Beyond the thicket stood a lonely pavilion, overlooking a lake. He walked through a small entrance towards the canopy. The rotunda was painted red with a white dome. There were no outside posts supporting the pavilion, just a pillar in the center. The center pillar was painted in colors that blended with the background of the hillside, making it seem like the cupola stood suspended from the sky. As he watched in awe at this marvel, from behind the pillar, her beautiful face emerged, looking directly at him. Her eyes teased him, as she smiled, and turned gracefully, walking away from the pillar towards the lake. Walking slowly and deliberately, she lifted her right hand and flipped her full hair over her right shoulder, exposing her full back. His jaw dropped. His heart stopped.

He stepped inside the pavilion and stood inches behind her, drawn by an inexplicable physical desire to be near her, with her. She was dressed in all white, the blouse embracing her back snugly, with two straps plunging precipitously down deep from her sleeveless shoulders, forming a distractingly sexy canyon, her skin shining like a smooth mountain cliff against the rising sun. He took a step closer to her, his heart pounding. His hands spontaneously moved towards the her bare waist, wanting to touch her. Her loose skirt streamed down from her hips all the way down, exposing just her feet. He knew she still had the anklets on. He could hear them.

He drew himself right behind her and slowly put his right arm around her waist, without squeezing, or drawing her any closer. He didn’t want to startle her. His hand felt her navel. She turned around and looked directly at him. He found her deep blouse distracting. He tried in vain to avoid staring down below her neck. He placed his other hand on her waist and gently moved them up to her neck, cradling her head in his hands. They looked into each others eyes, the intense passion in them slowly giving way to fondness and deep affection. A million words were left unsaid in the moments that passed. He then gently pulled her head towards him. He bent down, allowing his lips to brush hers, softly and delicately. He inhaled her breath, feeling the warmth of her skin. They both felt the bolt of lightning hit their bodies. They both wanted more. But better sense prevailed, and they embraced each other, as time melted away.

Abhimanyu was the first to hear the rustle nearby. Alarmed, he let her go and turned around, shielding her with his body, his eyes instantly scrutinizing every inch of his visible field of view. He didn’t see or hear any threat. He was trained to perceive the sound of any approaching weapon, in any situation, under any din. His training told him this was a man made sound. But his intuition told him there was no hazard. His instant action and his natural instinct to protect her made Uttara proud of him. He realized it was time to say goodbye; he had lingered longer than he should have. He turned to her, promising to see her again, but this time with his family in tow. Before she could get a final view of him, he disappeared.

A few yards away, Uttara’s dance teacher, who from behind one of the bushes secretly witnessed every moment of this passionate interaction between his ward and this young stranger, turned around and disappeared into the palace silently, her heart swelling with paternal pride.

Abhimanyu then went to the market and found the old lady from the morning. She recognized him and instantly knew he met Uttara again. He had that dazed in love look about him. Like he had promised, he bought her flowers, all of them, and paid handsomely. He bade her goodbye, promising to see her again. He needed to get back to the inn, pack his belongings and ride back, to his uncle. He needed to tell the all-knowing lord that he found his crown jewel in Virata’s kingdom.

Love In The Hills – III

Continued from here

The Kshatriya that he was, before Abhimanyu left the garden towards the city, he thanked the elderly woman and asked for specific directions as to where he can find her in the market, later in the day.

His quest quest just expanded in scope, from finding the pulse of Virata’s people, to finding its princess. No father would turn down a proposal from him, if he revealed himself. But his identity needed to remain concealed. He knew she was a princess. But was she the daughter of Virata? Was she one of his nieces? It can’t be. He remembered the lady’s words, “She is the princess”. So Uttara must be Virata’s daughter.

The thought of Uttara weakened him. For a moment he toyed with the idea of walking into Virata’s assembly today, announcing himself, and seeking her hand. Then he remembered his uncle’s sobering advice. Krishna, a notorious ladies man himself, would be proud that his nephew won over the princess of Virata. But he would flash that enigmatic smile of his and say, “I am happy that you accomplished what you set out to do”, clearly reminding why he was sent in the first place.

As he strode through the beautiful streets leading up to the imposing palace, he observed the people, stopped and spoke to the locals and registered their conversations. Virata’s subjects seemed happy and cheerful. Abhimanyu deliberately tried to inject negativity in his conversations. But the natives deftly avoided or confidently corrected him when necessary. This seemed a land that would uphold dharma. Additionally, there was something about this place. Was it the air? Was it the mountainous backdrop? Was it the affability of the people? Or was it her?

He learned that the king was a gentle soul, cared for his people. He was not a skillful tactician or a great general. Yet, he was a simple man who knew his limitations and put in charge the right people for the right posts. Abhimanyu learned that Virata relied mainly on two men in this land. His commander in chief, who was also his brother in law, Keechaka, ran the armed forces. Keechaka was a strong, powerful man who was set to return soon after defeating a band of rebel satraps. He was believed to be one of the four strongest men in the entire world. Nobody dared oppose him. Keechaka was known to be a bully sometimes, but everyone forgave him because he did it for the kingdom, and he was loyal to the king.

For administrative advice, Virata relied upon another person who was a recent immigrant, but quickly shot to fame with his knowledge and application of the law, and policy making capabilities. His name was Kankubhatta. Everyone seemed to know that as long as Kankubhatta was standing next to the king, justice would be done. Lately, the king had completely handed over legislative duties to Kankubhatta, convinced of his fairness, integrity, and equanimity. Kankubhatta was always by Virata’s side. The two were inseparable in court. The king had instructed the announcers in court that they should take Kankubhatta’s name, in addition to his, when declaring the assembly open.

As the sun rose towards mid-morning, Abhimanyu registered at the palace entrance, to attend the assembly. He gave his false name and profession as a traveling trader, and entered alongside the group of people heading towards the court. His intention was never to visit the assembly, but to find Uttara in one of the palace gardens. He stayed towards the rear of the pack. He knew the exact moment he was going to sneak out.

The marshals announced the arrival of the king Virata and his sage counsel Kankubhatta. Everyone looked in the direction of the entrance, as the two men majestically walked towards the throne, in full regalia. Abhimanyu wanted to look at the father of his love interest. He had heard a lot about Kankubhatta that he wanted to see him in action. But his heart yearned for Uttara. He slipped out of the court to wander into the palace gardens. Nobody noticed it. He walked about, unchallenged in his quest.  This was not the first time he let his heart rule the mind. The next such instance wouldn’t be so forgiving.

Continued here

Love In The Hills – II

Continued from here

Abhimanyu himself was surprised at his reply. Why did he say, “I MUST see her”?

The lady smiled, as if she knew exactly what would happen next, “She is the princess. She is…”

As the words came out of her mouth, time slowed for Abhimanyu. His pulse raced. Did he just hear his heartbeat? His stomach churned. All but one thought remained in his mind. He knew, at that moment, that the next word coming out of the woman’s mouth was going to be a name, and that name would affect him for the rest of his life. He felt a connection he never felt before. He knew who she was. He could see her in his mind. He could feel her.  He was smitten, even before he laid eyes on her. He was Kshatriya trained to remain stoic and never betray their feelings. But he lost all sense of control.

“Uttara”, said the woman, completing her sentence. She noticed the twinkle in the young man’s eyes. She had seen it before, countless times. She turned her head towards creek, as if to suggest which way he should head, to find the object of his interest. To find his heart.

He began walking away from the lady, thanking her and promising to buy flowers from her in the market later in the day. He tore through the mist, walking toward the sound of the flowing creek. The song formed a symphony with the streaming water. His increasingly louder heartbeat seemed like an accompanying percussion to that symphony. The voice became sweeter. As it grew nearer and louder, his pace slowed. Every nerve in his body seemed aroused, every sinew tense. His stomach was in a knot. His throat parched. He knew he was just a few paces from her. And then, he saw her.

Past the misty clearing, leaning against a rock sculpture was the most breathtaking woman there ever was. She had the visage of an angel and the body of a goddess. As he gaped at her, she gradually dropped the crescendo of the song to its base note and stopped. She then lifted her head, turned in his direction and looked up, allowing Abhimanyu a full view of her.

She had a voluptuous figure. Her dark brown eyes effused passion. Her youthful pink lips moved in slow symmetry. He watched them part slightly, almost reluctantly sticking together. Her radiant soft, black hair swished gently in the morning wind as it cascaded down from behind her ears to the front and stopped below the shoulders. Her slender neck and bare shoulders, without an ornament, made him stiff with desire. Her ample chest heaved rhythmically as his gaze shifted down from her neck to the top of her breasts. Her forest green blouse hugged tightly to her bosom, exposing her midriff. Her tight skirt started at the hipline, exposing her beautiful navel, and wove around her hips. As his eyes caressed down her legs, Abhimanyu noticed the only jewelry she wore – a pair of silver anklets. He felt what any man his age would feel, when chanced upon a beautiful, sensual woman. And he felt it in his loins.

He suddenly realized she was looking at him, bewildered at the appearance of this handsome stranger. She knew instantly from his garb that he came from a distant land. He felt embarrassed. But she stood speechless herself, as much a victim of instant attraction as him.

“I am Soubhadri, and I have traveled far to find you”, he heard himself say, much to his own bemusement.

A flush of bashfulness splashed on her beautiful face, as she smiled sheepishly. “I am Uttara”

“I know. There isn’t a more delicate, alluring, and beautiful thing in this garden”, he flirted, without a moment’s hesitation.

She blushed, her cheeks turning as pink as her lips.

“Where do you live? Who are your parents?”, asked the impatient Abhimanyu, eager to find out more.

“You have traveled this far. You can find that out yourself”, she said coyly. Saying that, started walking away from him.

Abhimanyu thought he heard her whisper, “my love”, as she disappeared.

Continued here

 

Love In The Hills – I

As he rode lonely up into the lush green hills of the Virata Kingdom, with the Himalayan mountains as the backdrop, a sense of calm came over Abhimanyu. This was the farthest quest his uncle had sent him on. In the past three years, Krishna sent his favorite nephew on several such quests, asking him to ride alone, ride fast, and ride incognito. The purpose was to learn about the various kingdoms, their peoples and cultures. He was instructed to always stay with the locals, never to speak to anyone from any royal family. He was never to discuss or disclose his identity. His cover was that of a traveling trade writer, chronicling the various trade practices, customs and products in Bharata’s glorious lands.

Deep inside, Abhimanyu knew that every quest was a mission. The untold instruction was to assess the support for Pandavas, should a time come to choose sides. He was to never mention Pandavas or Kauravas but draw out the peoples’ preference for dharma. Krishna never said it. Abhimanyu never asked. But both knew the purpose. Abhimanyu also hoped that on one such trip, he would hopefully run into his father, living in exile and incognito himself. There were but a few months left before his father and uncles can reveal themselves. Nobody knew where they hid. Nobody knew how they lived. Kings, reduced to fleeing and hiding like common thieves.

Against such turbulent thoughts he entered the lands of the mighty Virata, the Matsya king. The land was was beginning to turn green from the onset of Ashada rains. The earth smelled fresh. As he approached the villages surrounding the capital, the beauty of the kingdom came into full view. He had seen hills and mountains before. He had scaled the highest of peaks across the landscape. But this was a spectacle unmatched. In the foreground was a beautiful prairie peppered with tiny hamlets. As he lifted his gaze, the elevation rose with it, in an exhibition of colorful foliage and shrubbery. Far in the distance behind the vibrant slopes gave way to a majestic range of mountains, sharp and chiseled with white peaks that began to glisten golden against the setting sun. Unending. Intimidating. Exalted. It was a sight he had never seen. It was a place he would never forget.

He stopped at an inn just outside the capital, introduced himself as a young writer from Magadha. He presented some of his work, impressing the older folk. His plan was to go into the capital in the morning and learn about Virata and his kingdom. After a while, he retired to his quarters to rest. As he thought about his work on the morrow, a strange feeling swept over his mind. Something unknown, something sweet and tender, something that warmed his heart. And it was not the Soma. He drifted into a dreamy sleep.

The pleasing sounds of songbirds woke him up just as the first rays of sun began to peek out of the east. He quickly finished his ablutions and set out into the city. He wanted to get there early so he can observe the people. He set out on foot, leaving his horse to rest. Being the adventurous kind, he took the path off the beaten track, choosing to walk through the lush fields. As he crossed a flowing creek, he was drawn towards a particular garden with sounds of rushing creeks and a delightful scent that was as intoxicating as the morning was foggy. As he entered the garden, his ears were captivated by the melody of the most tuneful voice he ever heard. Instinctively he started walking towards the sound. An elderly lady who was picking flowers to sell saw him. She sensed what was going on. Something about the youth told her he was of a noble heritage. She stopped him and asked, “Young sir, where are you headed?”

In a dreamy voice he replied, “I must see her”

Continued here

Drupada’s Secret

As they settled down in their new capital, the younger Panchala royals began talking about attacking the Kuru kingdom, taking Dronacharya hostage and forcing Ashwatthama to abdicate his throne, thus reclaiming the lost half of their kingdom.

One suggested a stealth attack during the night. Another said it was futile to go after the Kuru kingdom and proposed to capture or kill Ashwatthama.

Drupada all this while sat in silence, contemplating the next course of action. The insult he had been handed out must be avenged. A single warrior, a teenager, riding a single horse chariot, equipped with only a single quiver full of arrows defeated his border guards, his palace sentries, his personal bodyguards, entered his palace in broad daylight, defeated him in a single duel. It took the youngster less than a minute to disarm him, tie him up and ride back to his kingdom. He was speechless and spellbound by this juvenile’s skill and mastery.

Just a week ago, a small group of his elite forces repulsed a silly attack by a handful of Kaurava princes. The oldest of them showed brilliant mace fighting skill but he and his 5 brothers were no match to the one hundred and eighty strong battalion. They fled before being captured. At the time the Panchala king thought it was a foolish incursion by some miscreant princes. Little did he know that his childhood friend was behind all this, and that his kingdom would be split in two.

His minister Madhupala sat beside him.

“What are you thinking? O great king? You have been very silent in contemplation. The palace is abuzz with rumors that you are too stunned to take control of this half kingdom. I know you are planning something. I can probably help”

“He just turned sixteen. Such radiance. Such finesse. Such power. And such nobility. He treated me with utmost respect. When he put his sword to my jugular, it did not even touch my skin. I didn’t feel a thing. But I knew if I moved an inch I would be dead. The way he disarmed me. Such dexterity. He didn’t grab my sword from me. There was no force. It was like he was playing a musical instrument.”

“So you think we cannot win as long as he is with Hastinapura?”

“No. Revenge is such a petty thing. Dronacharya took revenge on me because I turned him away. Because he thought I promised him half a kingdom. Because he thought I ignored him during his time of need. Because he thought I threw him out of the kingdom. He plotted all these years to defeat me and take half of my kingdom. Such negativity. Such anger. Such pettiness. No my dear Madhupala. Drupada will not seek revenge. I refuse to live in constant anger of his deeds. But I am a Kshatriya and I need to do my duty. Half of my kingdom was taken away by someone. The kingdom that my ancestors built painstakingly. The person responsible for this will pay the price. He will die. By my sword. But I will not wield it.”

Madhupala wondered what his king was talking about.

“We need to think smartly about this one. This retribution will be done on two fronts. Our first strategy must be to disarm Arjuna and the Pandavas. I don’t mean by attacking them. I need them on my side.”

Madhupala intervened, “The best way to accomplish that is to make them your relatives. Arjuna is young. They will soon be looking for a bride for him. Can we not find a pretty princess in the royal family to betroth him? Once he is a son-in-law of this land, he will not go against you”

Drupada smiled, “I have someone in mind”

“What is the other idea?”

“I need a fearless warrior. I need someone who can break the rules of engagement when the time comes. He must be built like a warrior yet speak softly like a doting father. He must be raw and uncivilized yet willing to adapt to the royal ways. He must be a mercenary. We shall have him trained in Hastinapura. He shall have a teacher like no other. And he shall kill that same teacher when time comes”

Madhupala trembled at the coldness of Drupada’s scheme. He had clearly underestimated his majesty. He still had one question in mind, “Where will we find such a person?”

Drupada smiled, “Travel south past the holy river. You will reach a thick forest. At the edge of the forest is a small town, distinct by its circular shape. Its men are built like champion fighters and its women are dazzling beauties. At the northeast corner of the town is a small house surrounded by 3 layers of fences. Beware of the third and innermost fence. It is built with the thorniest shrubs and interspersed with mesmeric flowers that emanate poisonous fumes, benumbing the unsuspecting. Living in that house are a brother and sister. Bring them to me. It’s time they took their true place in this palace”

Madhupala always wondered where Drupada would disappear some times, riding solo to the river in the darkness of the night. No one dared to follow him, for fear of incurring his wrath. He suspected that the king had an illicit relationship that he was not ready to disclose. Today he needed confirmation.

Even before he could formulate his question, Drupada answered, “Yes Madhupala, they are my children. They have royal blood flowing through their veins. And yes, the queen knows. She has even met them.”

“I will announce them to the world on this coming ekadasi. Have the sages and brahmins in the kingdom perform a yagna starting tomorrow. The yagna must be like no other the world has witnessed. Fires from the yagna must reach the sky. On ekadasi, bring my beautiful children to the palace. Their father and their kingdom awaits them”

 

The Vengeful Brahmin

… continued from The Broken Promise

“What do you expect from me, o teacher?”, asked the 9 year old prince with exceptional archery skills.

He was the teacher’s favorite. The preceptor, a man who traveled weeks by foot, feeding his family alms given by benefactors all through the arduous westbound route, had a resolve like no other. Within days of meeting Bhishma, he set up a tiny camp to train the Hastinapura princes. As Bhishma watched in amazement, in a matter of two months a state-of-the-art military training facility went up south of the capital. Bhishma had one condition for providing everything the man needed: until they graduated, only the Kuru and Pandava princes would be trained here. Nobody else. There were a hundred and seven of them anyways – the one hundred Kauravas, their sister Dushala, the Pandavas and Yuyutsu, the Kauravas’ half-brother. The man agreed but convinced Bhishma to add one other name to the roster: his own son Ashwatthama.

Drona, now known as Dronacharya, looked at the young prince and said, “The next seven years of your life. I will make you an archer of world renown. You will be a warrior like no other. You will be able to conquer the world. Enemies will fear and flee without a fight, when they hear your name. You will not just learn weaponry. You will be the embodiment of astras. I will even teach you the astras you shouldn’t be using, ever. All I need is seven years”

The young Arjuna’s eyes lit up at the mention of weapons and archery. But the kshatriya in him rose to the fore and he asked, “What is it that you seek from me in return?”.

“A king’s head”, said the middle aged teacher, testing Arjuna for mental strength.

“I am a kshatriya. I cannot kill someone as a guru dakshina. It is against my code. I can disarm and produce him in front of a court, if he so deserves. If he poses a threat to my kingdom I could defeat and make him a prisoner. But kill, I cannot”

Dronacharya knew at that moment that this child would make a great warrior, intrepid but righteous. He saw in him the weapon he needed to extract his revenge.

“I am proud you answered like a Kshatriya, young Arjuna. I would not want you to kill someone as a guru dakshina. However, I will ask you at the time to defeat someone. And you shall not say no”

Arjuna was clearly his favorite student. His concentration, application and skill were unmatched. He strung the bow with different tensions, varying them based on the arrows he used. He invented his own mechanism to tighten or loosen the string so he can use the right weapons on the right enemy. For targets such as fowl and birds he would use minimum force. For large animals he tightened the string. His bowstring techniques were stuff of legend. His arrows could pierce through the toughest shield and the softest fabric with equal panache. Stringing the bow made his right thumb sore. So he decided to turn to his left hand. Soon he became ambidextrous with the bow and sword. During regular student displays, he would alternate between his arms with such silky fluidity that the audience were left awestruck.

One night, he saw a shadowy figure head towards the pantry. Picking up his bow and a few arrows he tiptoed down and followed the figure. The gait looked familiar but he couldn’t make out who it was in the darkness. The figure entered the pantry looking for food. Once found, it sat down and gorged on the leftover meat and rice. After a few moments it was clear to Arjuna that the figure was none other than his own brother Bhima. But the thought of not being able to recognize him in the dark bothered him, as much as his amazement at the fact that his brother followed the smell of food and didn’t need a light to empty up the vessels. The next day he disclosed this to his acharya, who smiled at Bhima. He took a blindfold, tied it to Arjuna and asked him to shoot his arrows based on sounds. Arjuna then practiced and mastered nocturnal archery, in pitch black conditions, relying only on sounds and intuition.

Seven years later, Dronacharya had successfully tutored his pupils to varying degrees of expertise in weaponry, martial arts, commanding armies, discharging various missiles and chemical warfare. His ace students were the usual suspects. Arjuna was the all round champion with extraordinary skill with the bow. Bhima and Suyodhana wielded the mace like no other. It was hard to choose between them. Dronacharya often wondered who would win in a duel. Sahadeva brandished the sword like a magician’s wand.

On the day of graduation, each disciple lined up and asked the master his guru dakshina. Dronacharya pardoned everyone, except Arjuna. Of Arjuna he said, “Do you remember what I asked of you on the first day?”

“Yes acharya, whom shall I apprehend?”

Before the teacher could answer, Suyodhana intervened, “Acharya, why would you waste Arjuna’s prodigious talents on a small mission like detaining someone? I and a couple of my brothers can easily capture the offender. Be it a petty thief or a rogue king”

Dronacharya, having seen the sibling rivalry that existed between the cousins, decided he would humor the Kaurava prince.

He turned towards him and said, “As you wish, young Suyodhana. I want you to take with you as many of your brothers as you want. Go to the Panchala kingdom, defeat its king Drupada and bring him as a prisoner to me”

Although some of his brothers expressed doubts, Suyodhana expressed confidence and set out in the southeast direction to capture the mighty Drupada.

To be continued…

The Broken Promise

… continued from A Promise Made Under Duress

Several years passed since Drupada graduated and left sage Bharadwaja’s school. He was now the king, after Prishata’s passing. With the Himalayas in the north, the Yamuna in the west and south, and the holy Ganga running through its heart, Panchala was a big, fertile and much sought after kingdom. A close alliance with Hastinapura to its west always kept it safe from invaders. A strong economy, potent military and the popular, powerful and just namesake dynasty ensured its place in history. A distinguished position in the court of the Panchala king would ensure prosperity and financial assurance for life.

Sage Bharadwaja had also passed into the sands of time, making Dronacharya default guru of the hermitage. But his focus on military training instead of core education and statecraft caused a general decline in the disciple count at the school. A few years of severe drought only aggravated the situation, forcing him to sell or abandon parts of the vast estate. His marriage to Kripi during this time and the subsequent birth of Ashwatthama made circumstances even more difficult for Drona. Living in poverty and quickly descending into penury, he decided to travel to the capital Chatravati and meet his friend Drupada and seek a job.

He knew he was the best at teaching military arts. He wanted to set up the best military academy in the empire, training royals from all the surrounding kingdoms, including the famous Hastinapura princes, right here on Panchala land. He would identify a vast area of land with naturally daunting landscapes that would challenge prospective warriors. He would employ the most stringent methods for them to graduate. The fame of this institute would spread far and wide, luring students from foreign and distant lands. A graduate from his military academy would be the pride of any army. Surely his friend Drupada would not refuse to provide the financial, infrastructural and logistical backing for such a grand and noble undertaking. After all, it would be the crown jewel in Panchala’s kingdom.

It took Drona and his family fourteen days to reach the capital. He did so by hitching rides, begging for food and sometimes having to perform menial jobs to feed his family. His young son, a toddler with super human strength for his age, needed to be fed frequently. Drona was losing heart, cursing his situation, unhappy at being unable to provide for his family and on edge in general. He didn’t like adversity. It made him angry and irritable. Having to work to make ends meet made him cynical. It also made him entitled. He thought as a Brahmin and the son of a celebrated sage, he should be provided basic necessities, without having to ask.

When he finally reached the capital he realized it wasn’t a cakewalk to go meet the king. There was a process in place. He had to follow procedures and document his needs. His requisition for a job in the court only got him to meet the lower officers who were in charge of employment. The bureaucracy only exasperated him. But the officials wouldn’t budge. They were following their orders that only matters of utmost importance be carried to the king. The new king had put capable and qualified people in specific posts to delegate work, so that issues would not have to wait for the king to resolve and can be settled quickly and efficiently. But all these measures did nothing to ease Drona’s ire.

Finally one day he decided to accost the king himself. He turned up at the palace with his family and attempted to walk in, saying he was the friend and teacher for king Drupada. The guards stopped him and prevented him from going in. An argument ensued. Drona’s bitterness got the better of him and he began cursing the guards.

The commotion caught the attention of a few royals in the palace. One of them, who had been a student of Bharadwaja, recognized Drona and asked the guards to let him in. The royal learned about Drona’s plight and promised to take him to the king later that afternoon, as Drupada was busy in a meeting with his cabinet. Drona, already livid at the discourtesy, would not have any of it. He demanded that he see the king now, as the king had a promise to fulfill. The royal knew that Drupada did not like to be disturbed during his cabinet meetings. But he also knew not to invite a Brahmin’s wrath. With some trepidation, he ordered a palace guard take Drona alone to the court, but leave the family outside. Drona, incensed that a palace guard was escorting him to the king and not the royal himself, and that his family was not allowed to accompany him,  decided that he would extract his pound of flesh from this kingdom.

Drupada recognized Drona instantly, as he walked into an ongoing cabinet session. He realized this could be an urgent matter. Looking at his disheveled look, the king thought maybe Drona’s family was in danger. Maybe the ashram was attacked by savages. Maybe he has news about an impending attack from a neighboring kingdom. But the first words out of his friend’s mouth surprised and angered him.

“I am here to take my half of the kingdom, Drupada”

The council of ministers looked at Drona, stunned. Who was this man? How did he get in here during the private assembly? What was he talking about? Two of the ministers recognized him as the son of sage Bharadwaja. A low murmur broke out among them.

“Quiet please”, said Drupada, suppressing his anger. He wanted to go and embrace his old friend but royal protocol stopped him. He said instead, “Welcome to my court, o learned one! You seem to be distressed. Why not allow me and my court the privilege to host you. We can talk when you have rested. It must have been a long journey for you”

“O learned one? Is that how you address and receive me? It seems that don’t recognize me. I am Drona, your best friend and roommate from your time at the hermitage”

“Of course I recognize you, my dear sir! I was merely suggesting…”

Drona cut him off, “I am not here to listen to your suggestions, king of Panchala. I came here to remind you of your promise to me. You owe me half your kingdom. I will take this capital and the northern half. You can build your own city south of Ganga.”

Drupada was now getting irritated. He was being respectful to his old friend and Drona was being silly. His entire cabinet was watching him. He needed to quickly take control of the situation. But before he could answer, Drona stung back.

“Your silence only tells me you do not intend to honor your vow, young king. I should have known this day would come. You are a Kshatriya and a politician after all. You only crave power and wealth. Promises, oaths and words of honor mean nothing to you. I will warn you. If you do not give me half your kingdom off your own will, I will take it by force. I can single-handedly defeat you and your army. Have you the courage to stand up to your master?”

Drupada was beside himself with anger now. He drew his sword and stood up. “How dare an ascetic like you threaten me with war. I would be well within my rights to cut you down at this moment for this affront. But I do not want the blood of a Brahmin on my hands. You come here unannounced, barge into my assembly, and talk of a friendly declaration I made as a child? You should be ashamed of yourself. Your job is to teach and yet you covet the riches and power of a crown. Be gone before I order you to be imprisoned. You are right. I do not recognize you anymore”

Saying this, he ordered two of his bodyguards to evict Drona and banish him from the capital.

As he and his family was being forced out, Drona placed his hand on Ashwatthama’s head and said, “Son! I vow today that one day you will sit in that assembly, on that throne, and rule this half of Panchala. Drupada will pay for this offense”

A rivalry for the ages just began!

A Promise Made Under Duress

At the foothills of the enormous mountain range lies the bucolic hermitage. A hut in the center is surrounded by several small living quarters. A stream flowing south provides the constant clatter of flowing water. Cows, goats and other cattle graze within the compound. A large banyan tree on the western corner provides the perfect platform for daily classes held by the great Sage Bharadwaja.

The current incumbent Bharadwaja deviated from his predecessors in his relationships with royalty. He encouraged involvement and active friendship with the state and its officers, veering away from age old traditions. He added military strategy and weaponry training to his teachings, in addition to statecraft, much to the delight of the Panchala king Prishata.

Bharadwaja’s son Drona had displayed, as a precocious young brahmin, a talent and an appetite for warfare, acquisition of rare weapons, military strategy and munitions. He was more adept at non-civil arts than statecraft. The father saw that Drona could lead the life of luxury and material comforts, instead of the typical humble and austere existence of a brahmin. With that in mind, Bharadwaja instilled in his son dreams of living in a bustling metropolis, in a palace surrounded by servants.

The 10-year old prince wearing a diamond studded coronet disembarked the chariot decked with a gold plated flag staff and a silver seat back. He wore a bejeweled tunic and satin trousers. Drona’s eyes lit up when he saw the young Drupada walk proudly, with a swagger unseen at the gentle educational cottage. The 18-year old immediately liked what he saw in the prince. He wanted to get to know him better.

On learning that Drupada had come to stay with them for a few months as a student, Drona used his considerable influence to ensure the young prince roomed with him, instead of some of the other royals. The tiny quarters encumbered the prince, and he constantly complained about hard beds and harsh living conditions. Drona patiently put up with his remonstrations and tried to make the prince’s life better by sneaking forbidden things, like meat, a luxury bed etc. His intention was clear: get close enough to Drupada in order to secure a plum position in the Panchala court when the prince eventually ascends the throne.

For his part, Drupada found his new companion’s sage-like countenance, his knowledge of weapons and their usage, his clout in the hermitage and his willingness to bend or break rules appealing. His skill with the sword and bow at such a young age complemented Drona’s tutelage. He absorbed as much as his friend was able to coach. They formed a bond unlike any other at the school. They were always seen together, discussing military strategy, learning new ways to wield weapons, going off into the woods and hunting deer and fowl, sneaking out at night to practice nocturnal hunting.

One year after he initially arrived at the ashram, Drupada woke his roommate up in the middle of a rainy night.

“Did you hear that?”

“Did I hear what?”

“Listen carefully! I think it’s wild boar. They’re right outside our cottage. Not very far. What are they doing out in the rain?”

“Are you telling me you hear wild animals amidst the rain and thunder?”

“I am telling you to pick up your bow and arrow and teach me how to hunt in rain”

Drona got up from his bed. This was yet another opportunity to cement his friendship. Hunting, or any kind of weapons discharge in rain was one of the most difficult lessons, to teach and to learn. For starters, such training cannot be scheduled. Moreover, vision and audition are hindered by the downpour. It requires superhuman focus.

Once again, the two friends snuck out under the cover of darkness and rain. They walked along the perimeter of the compound and disappeared into the woods, crouching down low and looking for tracks to hunt the boar.

They reached a few yards when Drona stopped and froze. The rain was now down to a trickle. Their eyes had adjusted to the darkness and their ears accustomed to the sounds of the jungle. Drona slowed down and perked his head up, as if listening for something. Drupada stopped a couple of feet behind him. Drona slowly and deliberately squatted down, beckoning his ward to follow suit. They waddled along the wet ground for a few yards, Drona listening intently and Drupada following him. The young prince’s heart began to beat fast, sensing they were in some imminent danger.

“We are being hunted”, said the older youth in a hushed tone. He gestured towards the low lying branches of the large peepul tree, suggesting they grab hold of them and climb up to safety. Drupada nodded.

Drona quickly latched on to one of the branches and disappeared into the tree. As Drupada leapt, he heard the angry grunt of a boar right behind him. He was in mid-air when its tusk caught his trousers and pulled him down, causing him to fall face first into the mud. The boar took a few steps back, preparing to run into and gore Panchala’s future king.

Drupada rolled aside, causing the boar to overshoot its target. As it turned and prepared for the second assault, he sprung to his feat, while his friend watched helplessly from his perch. With one hand, he caught hold of a branch and swung away from the wild pig’s attack. He then swung back and drilled his dagger into the animal’s throat. The animal squealed and fell in a heap, dead.

But the momentum caused the branch to break off and throw him down to the ground and slide into the rocks lying nearby. Hidden in the rocks was a venomous snake, which reared its head, ready to strike. Paralyzed by the sight of a reptile, Drupada did not move.

“Do not move”, shouted Drona, lowering himself down the branch.

“You can speak, but do not move a muscle. Snakes follow lateral movements. It will strike if you make even the slightest movement”

“I hate these slithery creatures. They give me the creeps”, said Drupada barely taking his eye off the serpent.

“What happened? You decapitated a beastly wild boar but cannot take on a tiny serpent?” mocked Drona

“No time for mockery. Get this out of my face and I’ll reward you with whatever you want; gold, diamonds, precious stones, you name it!”

“Ah! Attempting to bribe a brahmin? What will I do with gold and jewelry? Let’s strike a deal, if I get that little snake out of your face, make me your military commander when you become king”

Drupada was already mighty nervous with a snake staring him down. He needed the snake out of his face instantaneously. He blurted out something he never should have.

“Military commander? You kill this thing and half my kingdom is yours”

With the grace of a dancer, Drona swooped in, hit the snake’s head with a twig in his left hand and sunk his pocket knife into its hood with his right, pinning it down and killing it instantly.

“You can breathe easy now, prince. Although you just lost half of Panchala”

Continued here

The Anger Within

Karna turned to Krishna and said, “Tell me, O Madhava. What was my fault?”

“I have struggled with that question all my life – what was my fault? Why was I abandoned?”

“I was born a Kshatriya. A Kshatriya, the noblest and the most valiant class of this nation. I was born to rule, to defend, to protect and serve, to combat and kill, if required. I was a misfit in a charioteer’s house from the moment I was taken in.”

Every person in our town knew I wasn’t Radha’s biological child. I looked different. I had darker skin. I had a muscular build. My skillset was different. I was great at weaponry and martial arts. I knew nothing about chariots. I was born to ride, not build them. Everything about me was out of place. I couldn’t blend in. I was ridiculed. After it became public that I was fostered, I saw only pity in people’s eyes. My closest friends, even my brother pitied me. How many times have I heard the phrase ‘poor abandoned child’ in hushed tones. I have nightmares, that of a newborn falling through a bottomless pit, surrounded by beautiful angels who aren’t even attempting to stop it. When the baby disappears into the pit, they look down and laugh wickedly. I wake up angry, ready to decapitate every single one of those angels”

“What was my fault? A woman was unable to control her base desires and I paid for it. She did not. She lived her life happily, moving on, becoming the queen. She lived in the luxury of royalty while I was tending to horses and cattle. Did she not think once before placing me in that basket? Why did she not own up to her mistake? Having committed the cardinal sin, why did she not abort me? Why carry me for nine months and cast me away?”

“In this great land with fabled stories of motherhood abound, mine is the only aberration. Mine is the only story where a mother abandoned her newborn. I was unwanted and rejected. Look at my misfortune. Every unwanted child from now on will be cited alongside me. Forever, I am the first ditched child in this great nation’s history. It’s an unwanted legacy, an undesired privilege.”

“I spent all my youth trying to become who I was born to be – a Kshatriya. I went from pillar to post to acquire knowledge of military, weaponry, strategy and the art of war. I was turned down at every single avenue. Every teacher put me through physical and mental ability tests. I aced every physical test. But the mental qualification tests were designed to fail everyone except those from the noblest of families and dynasties. Even Dronacharya, the most fabled instructor of the land, turned me down. He gave a list of reasons for my incompetence. At the top of that was negative energy. He said I had so much anger in me that I would at best make a good general, never a king”

“Dismissed at every establishment, I sought refuge in Parasurama’s guidance. I had to resort to lying to him that I was a brahmin. What was I to do? I knew I was born for greatness and I vowed that I would achieve it at all costs. Parasurama warned me several times that my anger would get the better of me. Even though he suspected that I was not a brahmin right from the beginning, he continued training me due to my sheer skill with weapons. I only needed one session with him to secure my ability. At the end, even he did me injustice, by cursing me. Why shouldn’t I be angry?”

“I am easily the best archer in the world. I can beat your dear cousin handily, without breaking into a sweat. Yet, when I showed up to claim the hand of the most beautiful maiden in this land, I was insulted, rejected, and not even allowed to shoot because I was called a suta putra. And yet Arjuna disguised as a brahmin was allowed to wield his weapon and hit the target. Why the double standards? Why call for an open Swayamvara in the first place when Drupada only wanted Arjuna to show up and win his daughter? Why this deceit?”

“I wanted to burn the world down that day. The fire still rages, after all these years. That was my biggest chance, the biggest stage I could have proved my worth. I had it all planned, to the last detail. Drupada’s daughter was the most alluring princess in the world. She is still the most captivating woman I have ever seen. I knew he would set up the toughest, the most intricate and the most deceptive test to win her. I knew Arjuna would show up there. I had to defeat him on the grandest of platforms. I had prepared extensively for it. I had specially designed arrows made, just for this purpose. I was not even allowed to string my bow.”

“I have suffered indignity at every stage in my life. Every single friend of yours insulted me. The only person that saw me for my true worth is Suyodhana. He gave me the respect, the position, and the title I deserved; that I was entitled to, from the moment I was born. He empowered me. He fought for me. He backed me up, every single time. The fires within were doused by the kinship he extended me. I am aware that he stokes them whenever it suits him. But he endured the same discrimination that I have faced. We both are the oppressed examples of a system that refuses to change. I know we both will die in this war. But I will make sure we get our due in the annals of history.”

 

A Scorned Son Bemoans

The small cabin was in the middle of the jungle, far away from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis of Hastinapura. Only a select few knew about this secret cottage that the great architect Maya built.

The cabin, located eight miles from Hastinapura’s southeastern-most outpost on the banks of one of Yamuna’s smallest tributaries, is a wooded area filled with large trees, thick bushes, dangerous critters and venomous snakes. At the eastern corner is a big black boulder, tucked into the side of a hill. To a casual onlooker it’s any of the million such rocks and boulders across the heartland of India. The small gooseberry bush to the right of the boulder looks anything but out of the ordinary. But it’s not a typical gooseberry plant. The bush always grows tufts of three berries. The cumulative weight of the berries from each tuft is exactly the same.

There is no pathway leading to the boulder or the hill. As one walks along the banks of the river, at one spot there are footprints that look like they belong to a bear, leading into the thicket. Following the footprints leads one to the boulder. A hunter following the footprints would reach a dead end at the boulder, turn back and walk away.

The dark skinned well built man alighted from his brown horse in front of the boulder. He picked up three tufts, split off the nine berries from them and inserted them into a small but nondescript hole in the boulder. The berries made their way in through a sequence of pipes and landed in a soft felt box, one by one. The weight of the nine berries caused the box to land softly on a wall shelf, connected to a series of levers, triggering a mechanism to slide a large portion of the boulder to the side, opening up a large doorway.

The man entered the doorway along with his horse. On stepping in, he picked up the nine berries from the box on the shelf. He gave the horse six and ate himself three. As soon as the last berry is picked from the box the lever attached to it pushed it up, triggering the mechanism to close the door.

The man walked through the doorway into the large living space. To the right was a stable where one of the stalls was occupied by black horse. The man took his horse into an open stall, put some hay in it, made sure it had water, and turned back. He made his way past the living space into the study room to meet the other occupant, who was staring quietly in contemplation at a large portrait of a nursing mother. A tear seemed to form at the base of his eye watching the sacred bond between mother and child. He felt a hand on his shoulder.

“My mother Radha was the most amazing woman ever, Madhava”, he said softly

“When I was eight years old, she took me to the horse stable. One of the mares had died in childbirth. My mother placed the newborn in the stall of a mother that had just lost her foal. The horse took the orphan in and instantly started nursing him.”

“My mother looked at me and said, ‘You will always be my own child Radheya.’ ”

“Since then, I have been torn apart. Every single day of my life”

“All my life’s struggles reflected in my mother’s eyes. On the one hand, she raised me as her own. She did not differentiate between me and my brother. She always called me her firstborn. On the other hand, she felt she was doing injustice to my birth. She knew I was born a Kshatriya; if the clothes and trinkets in my birth basket weren’t, my build and belligerent temperament were. She felt her role was inadequate. She felt she being unfair to me, raising a royal in a peasant household. She ensured I grow up as a noble.”

“She never stood up for me, explaining to me that Kshatriyas toughed it out themselves. In duels she always stood behind my opponent, so she could see me and I, her. She would not flinch if I got hit. Through her stare she would tell me to dust off and hit back. But she was fragile and tender as she was fierce. She was a mother after all. Once I returned home with a bloodied nose. Unruffled, she gave me a piece of cloth, some turmeric and medicine and told me to go clean up. But while I nursed my own wounds she sobbed endlessly, out of my earshot.”

“Yet, the saddest thing I saw in her eyes was, fear. She worried that some day, her darling son would be taken away from her. That one day a group of soldiers will arrive in our village and announce that her cherished warrior will be asked to take up the reins of a distant kingdom. She feared that when I did become king, if I somehow came up short, then she would be blamed. Her nurturing, her courage, her discipline would all come to naught if I failed. I saw that fear every single day. It was almost prophetic, that somehow she knew I would end up with the wrong crowd, that some day I would take the side of adharma.”

“That is the single reason I have never gone back to see her. She would not say a word but her probing eyes would constantly ask me ‘Where did I go wrong my dear Radheya?’. And I will not have an answer for her”

“How fateful that one mother would receive injustice from a son whose other mother served him injustice”

Saying that, Karna turned away from the portrait. He sank into the chair and sobbed. Krishna understood his emotions too well, having gone through his own childhood in a village far away from his birthplace.

To Be Continued…