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”

 

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…

A Sister’s Lament – II

Continued from here

“Please do not come inside. You are not welcome here.”

The words did not surprise Shakuni. He wondered if it was Dhritarashtra that actually sent for him this night.

“Your brother-in-law is in the study with Sanjaya so there is nobody to overrule me tonight. Stand on the balcony and do not dare to set your malicious foot in my chamber. And yes, I sent for you, not him”, said Gandhari reading his mind.

“Those white lilies you passed near the second landing. They smell amazing don’t they? Late autumn is the only season they bloom. You should see them when the sun lights them up in the morning. The petals glisten like the stars twinkle in the sky. It’s the most peaceful start to a morning, even a morning like the one coming up”

Shakuni did a double take. He had noticed the white flowers on his way up. They seemed vaguely familiar. He was trained in horticulture as the prince of Gandhara but had all but forgotten the science. Since her voluntary blindfolding, his sister’s other faculties had become more acute. But he was surprised her striking description of visuals.

“Have you been secretly lifting your blindfold, dear sister?” said he making a feeble attempt  at frivolity.

“You are either very nervous, or completely out of touch with reality. But my hunch is you are scared. You are scared of the outcome. Because you know the outcome. You are scared of your legacy. Because you are your own legacy. You are scared of Sri Krishna. Because you cannot manipulate him. You are scared of me. Because I know you”

Shakuni had been awaiting this tirade for a very long time. He was surprised it took his sister this long. Every time he was in her presence he felt his muscles tense. He would withdraw to his chamber and meditate to refocus. He would replay the entire events from all those years back in his head. He knew what he was doing to her. But his goal was bigger than his relationships. His nation, his people, their pride was larger. He was ready to sacrifice himself for it. His sister and her clan were collateral damage.

The queen continued, “You and I share our mother’s ability to remember and replay in our mind, every single minute of our life. It is indeed a gift. Those lilies you walked past are from Takshasila. When we were young our entire family used to retreat there every single year. I would always wake up just before the sun rose and watch these flowers shine at morning light. I used to then run into the woods to play in the creeks, with scant regard to the dangers of vicious serpents. Several of our servants died from the venomous snakes”

She paused. She lowered her head seemingly reminiscing those days. A tear made its way past the blindfold and onto her cheek. She didn’t bother to wipe it.

“But there was someone who always accompanied me. He would yell out from behind me to slow down, which I never did. He would then race past me with a sword in one hand and a large stick with a round head in the other. He would clear my path as I ran about. I do not remember how many times you encountered a snake. You never told me. I do not remember how many times you stopped me from getting bitten. You never told me. All I remember was that you were there to protect me. Always.”

“And here we are today. At the brink of an extinction. One hundred sons. All of them gone over the next few days. Tell me dear brother. Why? Was the honor of your kingdom, of our father so important to you that you wagered your sister’s joy? Every single one of us – including mother – had came to peace with what happened that night. Yet your ego, your vengefulness will result in the deaths of you, your own sons, your brothers, your nephews and almost all of your relatives. Your favorite nephew is going to be lying dead somewhere on the battlefield.”

“But I called you today not to talk about war, but peace”, continued the sagely mother.

“I have always made peace with myself. When I was abducted in the middle of the night. When I was married to my own pet goat and had it sacrificed. When I realized there is no medicine or magic in this world that could fix my husband’s blindness. When I made the decision to blindfold myself for the rest of my life. When my husband was sidetracked as the king of Hastinapura even though he was the rightful heir, being the older brother.”

“I made peace with it”

“And then came Kunti. She comes from a much smaller Yadava kingdom. She came with a known disrepute of having borne a child out of wedlock. She is not known for her beauty. Her husband could not even have been amorous with her. Remember he died when he attempted to make love to Madri, not Kunti. Even with all these blots she ended up being the queen of Hastinapura. She sat on the consort throne.”

“I made peace with it”

“And then as fate would have it, as a consequence of Pandu’s reckless action while hunting as a youth, and due to the rush in his loins on seeing Madri exit the shower, the queendom fell in my lap. I never wanted Kunti to be widowed. Not for a moment. But I did enjoy my position as the queen. I was always destined to become the queen. That is why they stole me from the royal palace. I am the rightful queen.”

“The day Yudhishtira was born, just a few hours before Suyodhana was supposed to, my heart sank. I would have wanted my bloodline to continue ruling this magnificent land. The perfect mixture of the Kuru and Gandhara bloods. Two great clans. Two proud, noble dynasties. But destiny would choose otherwise.”

“I again made peace with it”

“I don’t have to tell you what happened while my children were growing up. You have had a considerable influence on all of them. After all these years of heartache that they have given me, mostly under your vicious direction and their father’s blind indulgence, I am as helpless tonight as I was the night a small company of soldiers invaded our beautiful palace. That night I was asleep. Tonight I am apathetic”

“I am still at peace”

“Go my protective brother. Your agony and rage at what happened all those years ago must have ravaged your mind. Maybe this war will quench your thirst for some blood. As much as you can, protect your kin.”

“May you find your peace in death.”

The sad queen then turned inward and walked away, into the darkness of her chambers.

 

A Sister’s Lament – I

The sun will rise in a few hours. When he does, eighteen battalions will start a battle onto death. The night was dead. There wasn’t a soul on the streets of Hastinapura. It seemed like this night the stray dogs found shelter. Even the constant chirping of crickets was missing. It seemed like the entire universe had a sense of things to come.

A lone chariot made its way through from the war zone to the grand palace. The narrow and byzantine side streets leading up to the central boulevard were intricate by design. They were built to make it impossible for invaders to move large troops effortlessly. But the central boulevard itself was immensely broad and long, so that even if an army somehow got through, the palace and its elite armed forces had a clear vision of the size and extent of the enemy.

The palace itself sat on an elevated hillock with clearly visibility on all four sides. The circular architecture of the building ensured there were no blind spots. Thirty equally spaced watch towers stood tall around the structure. Each tower was three stories high. Each story had a single circular room with six large windows and twelve small portholes. Each room had two sentries, as much to observe citizen congregations as to detect any potentially harmful movement.

The sentries manning these watch towers were specially picked for their night vision capabilities. Each was trained to be able to look far into the distance under pitch dark conditions and make out deliberate movements. Additionally, strategically placed light sources identified the various sectors of the city. Unusual movements dampened those light sources alerting the guards. If more than one zone displayed aberrant behavior alarms were raised. Well trained owls and cuckoos were then released to survey and make specific noises if danger was detected.

This night, the solitary chariot navigated the labyrinthine lanes expertly and turned north onto the grand boulevard. The sentinels recognized the flag on the cab and knew it was a familiar, albeit loathsome occupant. The hour piqued their interest. Could he have conjured up another machiavellian twist? Is he bringing news that the Pandavas have decided to abandon their rightful place? Murmurings broke out. Some bets were placed by a few lighthearted souls. “Where will they go now?”, “Are we condemned to adharma?”, “Is Kaliyuga really upon us?”, “How could Sri Krishna let this happen?”

Meanwhile the wagon continued past the main gates with its long pathway and the opulent rectangular water fountain. The guards stood in attention as it breezed through the second set of gates and turned east towards the garden. “He’s going to the King’s chambers”, the whispers among the sentries continued. The chariot slowed down and stopped at the extravagant staircase lined with colorful trees and decked with vibrant flower plants. Facing east, the colors came to life when the first rays of sun shone on the landscape. It was an inside joke that the two inhabitants lived in the most ornate section of the palace to make up for their lack of sight – natural or voluntary.

The unmistakeable limping figure dismounted and walked up the stairs, wondering why his beloved but estranged sister sent for him this late in the day, this late in the game.

Continued here

The Seeds Of Revenge

The entire family was present. All but their precious princess. They slumped in their seats, defeated and distressed.

King Suvalu sat on the grand armchair, at the center, his head sunk into his right palm. His eyes were moist with shame. His other hand sat limp on his left thigh, seemingly drained of life. His hunched-over posture indicating abject failure. To his left sat Vasumathi, his queen. Her face was ashen. But her eyes were dry. She had an unflappable disposition as she watched her sons intently. Within a few feet on four different couches sat her four older sons, appearing crushed and conquered. She lifted her head up to look at her youngest.

Shakuni stood by the large window to the north, gazing blankly at the mountains. He stared expressionless, remembering the events of the day. Less than 24 hours ago he was talking to the emissary from Hastinapura, respectfully rejecting their proposal to marry Gandhari to Dhritarashtra. He went over the conversation minute by minute. At no point did he suspect that their retribution would be this swift. He had underestimated them. Mahabala’s uncongenial exit suggested that yesterday’s episode was far from over. Yet Shakuni miscalculated that they had come prepared.

His discussions with his father and the military chief Supratapa after Mahabala left yesterday only centered on being watchful and vigilant. They sent some spies out yesterday to determine the Kuru dynasty’s intent. Maybe this time they would send a senior ambassador to renegotiate, maybe one of their ministers, to try and convince Suvalu to agree to the espousal. Supratapa went a step further and had a meeting with generals and satraps just to be on the lookout. But nobody, not even the soothsayers anticipated this.

Sometime during the early hours of the morning a small company of Hastinapura’s elite warriors invaded Gandhara. Before the military could be alerted, they entered the royal palace, disabled the guards, immobilized the entire royal family, drugged the princess and took her away. The entire operation lasted less than an hour. Some of the guards were incapacitated by the sheer spectacle of the elite force’s operational excellence. It seemed there was absolutely nothing the well trained Gandhara guards could do.

The entire episode kept playing in Shakuni’s head over and over again, when he heard his oldest brother mumble, “How could they do this to us? We are their allies”

Another got a bit belligerent. “Let’s round up our army, gather all our partners and invade them. Let’s bring our sister and our pride back”

“Are you out of your mind? Have you not seen their capability? 9 chariots, 27 cavalry and 45 foot-soldiers did this to us. A small company. What chance do we stand against their mighty army?” sounded out a third.

“It is true. We have to figure out a way to save our dignity in this incident. We must accept our fate, and that of our beloved princess. We are lucky to be left alive”, said the king, finally finding some voice.

“I would rather prefer dying fighting them than reconcile. This cannot go unpunished. An eye for an eye. Let’s find out how many of our able men were martyred and I’ll vow to kill double that”, said the bellicose one.

“Son, they didn’t come here to kill anyone. Not a drop of blood was spilt during their incursion. They came here to abduct your sister. The only other thing they took was her pet goat.”

“You mean none of our guards are hurt? How is that possible? I know our men put up some fight.”

The eldest son spoke, “No. Father is right. They did not come here to hurt even a single person. Two assailants entered my chamber to disarm. I found my dagger and attempted to stab one of them. He escaped and we got into a minor scuffle. He tried to punch me in the face. The other invader quickly disabled me, turned to the first one and barked, ‘Don’t forget our instructions. These people are family. We aren’t supposed to harm them. No bloodshed.”

Shakuni instantly turned his attention to his brother.

“Did he say that we are family and we shouldn’t be harmed?”

“Yes, For a moment I thought it was very noble of even the lowly soldier to have such belief and self control. If they hadn’t abducted our sister I would even have commended them on their dignity”

Shakuni looked at his mother. The same thought ran through their heads.

Virtue can be a weakness. All it needs is the right set of conditions and someone astute enough to exploit them.

Vasumathi lowered her eyes and let a deep breath out.

Shakuni returned to gaze into the wilderness. This time his mind started racing.

The Gandhara Flashback – II

Continued from here

“I was hoping your father would come and see me. But you’ll do fine. We have a goat ready to marry your sister”

Shakuni felt a gush of blood to his head. Anger surged and his fist tightened. With utmost control he stopped his left arm from reaching the scabbard. If this was anyone else their head would be on the ground, cut off from the rest of the body.

Drawing from his limited amount of poise Shakuni said, “Welcome to Gandhara! We are honored to have a representative of Hastinapura amidst us today. Our nation is blessed to have a visitor from the land of dharma. As you may have guessed, I am Shakuni, son of Suvalu. To whom do I owe the pleasure of today’s company?”

The visitor was curt as he was ungracious.

“I don’t feel the need to reveal my identity to a barbaric tribesman but since I come from a highly refined civilization I feel it’s a necessary nicety. My name is Mahabala, a courtier in the glorious Hastinapura empire. It is your good fortune to be meeting with me. Our regime has learned that you have a princess of exquisite beauty ready to be betrothed. Even though we were snubbed in your search for a deserving suitor, your sister’s enchanted grace and acclaimed virtue has made us forgive this affront.

Your princess cannot find a better spouse than Dritarashtra, our young prince and future king of the magnificent Hastinapura. However, our research has revealed that your sister has a flaw in her fate, which will result in the death of her husband. We are willing to sidestep that blemish by marrying her first to a goat and then sacrificing it at the altar of goddess Kali. Having thus fulfilled her destiny, she can marry Dritarashtra and become the queen of the unconquerable Hastinapura. This is not a request. This is the command of none other than the mighty Devavrata, whom you all know as the great Bheeshma.”

Dizzy from all the information he had to process, and livid at this arrogant and condescending diatribe, Shakuni took a moment to collect himself. For a moment he hoped this was a dream and his attendant would wake him up. Seeing this was real, he felt his throat parched and searched for words.

Where should he start? The fact that Hastinapura sent a menial aide on a marriage proposal? That they would send the proposal for a prince who was congenitally blind? For his astonishingly beautiful sister? That they thought they could ‘command’ the mighty Gandhara kingdom? That his sister had a flaw in her horoscope? That they would even consider marrying her to a goat? The audacity! He would be well within his rights to chop this abject servant’s head off and send it back on a gold platter.

He finally found words.

“O respectable Mahabala! We welcome you to our wonderful land. We have heard many great things about your glorious country. I hope our accommodations have been fulfilling and befitting a man of your stature.”

Rapidly switching to the purpose at hand, Shakuni continued.

“As for your proposal, I have to respectfully decline, even before it reaches the ears of our wise king”

“As you are well aware, my sister Gandhari, who we named after our land, is our pride as well as our honor. She was named thus because everything that applies to our nation applies to her: She is pure and noble. She is simple and humble. She is proud and sublime. She is also astonishingly beautiful. I’ve extolled all her qualities so you can assess the kind of princes she will attract to her Swayamvara.”

“I bear no disrespect to you or your magnificent land. Unfortunately, both your current princes have a congenital flaw that, for no fault of theirs, automatically disqualifies from being prospective suitors. We have had the tradition of ruling out any prince with a birth defect. We cannot allow the apple of our eye to be married to a man that cannot even see. He may have the strength of a thousand elephants. His sense of smell and hearing may be the most elevated amongst humans. But we mountain folk believe a human is complete only when they have all their five senses in working order.”

“As for your suggestion that she has an astrological fault in her stars, I have to respectfully refute. Our prophets and priests have done extensive research on all of us and not one has an imperfection”, concluded Shakuni, looking Mahabala directly in the eye, to leave no doubt in the visitor’s mind as to Gandhara’s intention.

“Then I must take leave of you. I have a long road ahead to reach home” said Mahabala, leaving abruptly.

Something about his demeanor made Shakuni very uncomfortable. His turned to his rider and asked him to go directly to the king’s palace. He also turned to an attendant and commanded that the military chief meet them at the palace.

The Gandhara Flashback – I

The Gandhara landscape was unmatched in beauty. The kingdom that stretched from Takshasila to Purushapura was a traveler’s delight, with its snow capped mountains, rivers and valleys, breathtaking fields of endless greenery.

The people were simple yet proud, humble yet valiant. Naturally protected to the north and west by mountains and having cultivated crucial alliances to the east, king Suvalu and his family were happy and content rulers of this vast mountain kingdom.

Their pride was his beautiful daughter – who they named Gandhari after the land. In addition to her physical beauty she made her name as a virtuous woman, abiding by the customs and rules set in her kingdom. She was the cynosure of all eyes – specially her brother Shakuni. He pampered and indulged her ceaselessly and showered boundless love on his little kid sister.

When she came of age, king Suvalu and his sons scoured the entire area for a suitor worthy of her beauty and honor. They spent limitless hours shortlisting the invitees for her Swayamvara. Shakuni – who was deemed highly astute – was tasked with digging the dirt on all the prospective contenders. Shakuni had a flair for assessing people. Within a short time he could read the other person’s mind, their strengths and more importantly, their frailties. Discovering their weaknesses early on gave him an advantage in any relationship. He used that prowess to his advantage and cultivated many friends and followers. Mindful of the destructive nature of such a gift, he vowed that his loyalty was to his father and his kingdom and that he would always put them first.

Late one afternoon a servant came in with news of a visitor just outside the southeastern city gates requesting presence with the king. The servant couldn’t answer where the visitor came from or what his purpose was. Shakuni asked him what flag his chariot bore. The servant answered didn’t have any. It seemed odd because without the flag of recognition it was hard to pass through the bandit-ridden valleys. The servant did say that the visitor was highly tanned, implying he may have come from a tropical clime. Shakuni decided to go meet this visitor himself on the morrow.

The visitor’s villa is a quarantined mansion just outside the city gates. Whenever unknown foreigners come along they are placed in the estate with strict instructions to observe them and their health. They are asked to perform their ablutions in specially commissioned chambers filled with medicinal aromas and waters so as to keep any foreign viruses and infections out.

The next morning when Shakuni headed to the visitor chambers he was told that the visitor refused to obey the quarantine requests. Additionally he had brought his own waters which he used to wash himself. He also brought his own food and refused to consume any local offerings. The non-compliance angered Shakuni. But he did not let it get to him. He brushed it off thinking they must have different rules in their culture. The visitor’s dietary habits may have forced him to ingest his own food, he thought.

But with some portent he announced himself and was asked to come in to the visitor’s chamber. As soon as he saw the man’s coat of arms he knew where he had come from. The insignia on his vest left no doubt. Two elephants with their forelegs raised, two swords intertwined in the center, the dharma chakra in the background and a diamond crown at the top. This man was from Hastinapura – the land of elephants.

Shakuni’s heart raced. His joy knew no bounds. He had only heard about this wondrous land and its noble kings. The Bharata race was the most celebrated royalty in the entire region. It had long been an ambition of his to embark on a pilgrimage to what he thought was the the land of dharma. He had heard about the mighty Bhishma and his vow. Shakuni wanted to meet the caretaker of the Hastinapura throne and seek his counsel. In his delight he advanced to embrace the visitor, to welcome him to this small mountainous land.

But the visitor’s first words stung him like scorpions on a hot dry desert night.

Continued here

The Suta Putra

A visibly shaken and angry Karna took the reins himself and started riding towards his home. He had just learned that the Pitamaha forbade him from taking part in the war as long as he was the commander.

Karna always harbored negative feelings towards Bheeshma. He secretly thought he could prevail over the grand old man in a duel. He – Karna, the king of Anga – came from the most humble of backgrounds. He didn’t have extended formal training spare those few years with the mighty Parashuraama. He was self-taught. He mastered every weapon known to man. The old guard at Hastinapura was intimidated by his achievements and constantly sought to demoralize and impede him. He was a bitter man as he rode into the chill of the night.

But something seemed off. He knew he was wrong. He slowed his chariot down, closed his eyes and focussed. He sought the counsel of his inner voice. He then made the decision to turn around to head towards the old man’s mansion. He announced himself at the front door and was ushered in.

“Would you like some soma, Anga Raj?”, asked Bheeshma pouring himself some from the decanter.

“I am a very disturbed man tonight, Pitamaha. And I have come to resolve it with you”

Bheeshma looked up, picked another chalice, poured some into it and gestured the servant to leave them alone.

The PItamaha walked up to Karna’s chair, gave him the drink and put his arm on Karna’s shoulder. Karna felt affection from Bheeshma, for the first time ever.

“My dear Radheya. I have always admired you, even though I never approved of you.

I know who you are Karna. I know everything about you. I had sworn to protect this throne – you think I did not do my homework? I have had my spies on you – ever since we saw you at the archery competition – all those years ago.

I found out who you were born to, where your foster parents found you, how you were raised, who you trained with, why you chose to compete. Every little thing. I knew you were a Kunti Putra long before she realized you were her child”, said the grand old man of the Kuru dynasty, carefully avoiding the word “abandoned”

He continued, as Karna listened in amazement, “I also know why you are here tonight, although I didn’t need any secret agent to tell me.

Karna, you are a brilliant warrior, valiant to your last breath with unparalleled skill with bow and sword alike. Duryodhana trusts you more than he trusts himself. There is only one reason he refused to give the Pandavas their fair share – you. He believes that with you on his side, they can be defeated in this war.

When I called him into my chamber tonight and told him you cannot be on the same battlefield as I, I knew exactly what I was talking about. I had to make it sound like I didn’t want you because you were a Suta Putra. Duryodhana wouldn’t understand otherwise.

Listen my child. This is a war of right versus wrong. I will not put you on a spot about which side is right. As far as I am concerned, I am the commander of this army and need to give us the best chance of winning”, said Bheeshma.

His voice quickly went from mellow to stern as he assumed the role of a chief speaking to his ward.

“On the battlefield, I am the leader. Unquestioned, unopposed and absolute. There cannot be any questions in the minds of the thousands of soldiers, captains and generals. I demand their unadulterated and unconditional loyalty. That is the first step to success in a battle. This is war, not a game of hide and seek. You follow me to your death. Otherwise you don’t belong here. I need my people to be devoted, bound and faithful. There is no room for wavering under my command.

With you on the battlefield, the situation changes. You will agree that you are willing to bend rules according to your convenience, even going against rules of engagement to get your way. Take the Virata attack a few months ago. The rulebook says it is wrong to attack a kingdom from two sides. Yet, in your blind fragility to pursue and find the Pandavas you did exactly that, even defying my explicit orders.

If that happens at Kurukshetra – and it will, Duryodhana and his henchmen will rather follow you than me. There will be a mental rift in the soldiers’ minds which will lead to frailty and instability and eventually, mutiny. I will not let insurrection be the cause for our defeat. I will fight till I die, and take as many enemy warriors with me. But I will not let historians write that my army fell due to insubordination. I am a proud and glorious Kshatriya. I will not let your pitiful friend and his wretched uncle taint my august legacy”

Karna sat there bewildered. This man was not only old and scholarly. His military genius was unmatched. He could counsel like a sage and yet galvanize like a champion.

Seeing Karna’s assured look, the Pitamaha gently said, “Go home now, my dear Kunti Putra. Your time will come. Your valor will be spoken about for eons. You will have your place in history. Come see me again when I am on my death bed. You will need my blessings”

The Chauffeur Strategy

Preparations started as soon as the war became imminent. How to garner support and amass armies, which kingdom would guarantee support and who was a fence-sitter. How to get the provincial lords to switch sides. Messengers were being sent around the empire. Old promises were being asked to be kept. There were assurances for loyalty and threats for the infidels.

Meanwhile, Krishna sat in his chamber meditating. He wasn’t worried about the military preparations. He knew that this war would be won not by the might of the sword but by the power of the mind. The Kauravas would have strength in numbers. They were mighty and smaller kingdoms would be bullied into supporting them. Fence sitters would see that the Pandavas were really weak, out of touch with power and physical strength for the past 12 years. Hence their chances of defeating the Kauravas were slim to none.

Krishna saw that Arjuna could annihilate any army. But he was up against generals he had never come across. Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Kripa, Ashwatthama and Duroyodhana himself. Each of them could match the Pandava hero weapon for weapon and strategy for strategy. All the Kauravas would have to do is wear the five brothers down. Their superior numbers would take care of the rest. Krishna had to devise plans that would put the Kauravas at a disadvantage at every step. Every design had to work to the detriment of them. Every warrior must start his battle with a handicap.

He knew who would be the commanders-in-chief on either side. He knew all the backup plans on either side. He knew who would ally with the Kauravas. He knew his side would be heavily outnumbered. He had specific plans for the defeat and eventual death of all the Kaurava warriors. He calculated exactly how many days the war would take. He knew how long each warrior would last. He knew what the formations would be and how to counter them. He knew who had what weapons and how to defuse them. He knew Karna had the Shakti weapon meant for Arjuna and knew exactly whom to sacrifice for that weapon.

As he laid out his plans in his mind, there was one thing missing – the charioteers. In an evenly matched battle, it’s not the fighters or warriors but the charioteers that make the difference. A charioteer is the engineer of the warrior. He is familiar with every nut and bolt of his car. He can recognize the smallest squeak. He has magical fingers with which he controls the reins. One unbalanced pull and you’ve put a horse at risk, endangering his occupant. He must also have the vision of a hawk. He must sense the mood of his hero and decide which target to pick at that moment. When on song, the warrior can bulldoze his way into the opposition. When he gets tired it’s the charioteer that expertly drives him away from the powerful. He must also know his horses. He should be able to communicate with them through his reins. They need to know exactly what he wants them to do.

Krishna knew Arjuna so well that they were practically one person. He knew Arjuna’s every emotion, every thought. He could read his mind. He knew Arjuna’s capabilities, his strengths and weaknesses. He also knew the opposition well enough to protect or expose Arjuna as the need arose. On top of it all he was an expert charioteer with a love for horses. His five stallions were the best. He picked them when they were ponies for this specific purpose. He personally oversaw their growth and ensured they were the most protected steeds in his kingdom.

He knew only one such person on the Kaurava side that could match him. With his extra large eyes giving him a more detailed picture of the world around him, Sanjaya was an able opponent to Krishna. His experience was unlimited. Additionally he knew all about wars and weapons and strategy – which made him very dangerous in a sticky situation. He also had a calm head that would soothe the nerves of his warrior. If Karna made him his charioteer, he could wreak havoc on the Pandava army. He would be Karna’s Krishna and negate Arjuna’s advantage. Sanjaya could be a game changer for the Kauravas. He was noble. He couldn’t be bought or made to switch sides. He was loyal to the Kaurava clan and would lay his life down if Duryodhana asked him to. Krishna needed to neutralize him. He needed to keep him out of the battlefield. And he knew exactly how.

There was a blind man in a palace jittery and impatient to know the daily proceedings on the battlefield. And there was a man with an astounding vision who could relay it to him.