Continued from here
“What a site to behold, a warrior discharging his skill with the finesse of an artist”
Shalya’s words stung Karna as much as they surprised him. He hadn’t expected Shalya to notice him in the first place, let alone speak what was going through his own mind.
The sharp glance he shot back did not deter his charioteer. He continued, “One wonders, whether these Pandavas really lived in exile for 13 years. Their skills are as sharp as battle-seasoned fighters, if not sharper. There is not an ounce of rust in their bones. Look at him ride his horse without even holding its reins. Notice how he controls his mount using only his feet. Now that is a skill you and I could learn. Alas, we won’t have the opportunity. It’s too late”. He gave a pause after that, for extra effect, “we’re just too old to learn new tricks”
Karna was mildly irritated at these comments, but brushed aside any thoughts of protest and retort. Yet, he couldn’t help himself looking at the spectacle of Nakula, as they boarded the chariot to resume they day’s fighting.
The short break broke Karna’s rhythm, as Shalya intended. With the images of Nakula’s astonishing display still in his mind, Karna’s arrows missed their targets a couple of times.
“Still thinking of Nakula, O Radheya? I can’t seem to shake it off my mind. How does one become so adept at such a thing? You and I have worked with horses since childhood, but to be able to control them without reins is something else”
Karna did not want to hear any more about Nakula, and wanted to end this conversation then and there. To shut Shalya up, he said, “Yeah it’s a gift. Everyone has his or her own talent”
That only made it worse, as Shalya continued, “Oh come on Karna, you and I both know there is nothing like an inborn talent. He worked hard towards that expertise. I am certain he spent countless hours studying horses, knowing them, living with them, thinking like them. Such prowess comes from relentless study and belief. But it’s just one thing to have a talent like that. To be able to put that to use, and serve your cause with it, is something else”
Then, without looking back towards Karna he said, “I wish I had a little brother like that. It would make me immensely proud”
Karna, who was ready to release an arrow jerked back at that comment. His aim faltered, and he dropped his shoulders. Anger surged through his body. How dare Shalya say such a thing? But he controlled his anger and shot back, “in a war there is no brother or uncle. There are only friends and enemies. To me, he is an enemy and nothing else”
Shalya knew he hit the spot, “Who said anything about you and him? He is my nephew and I was thinking of Yudhishtira”
Karna recovered quickly and decided not to push further. This conversation was already taking up more space in his mind than it deserved. He did not respond, and focused his mind on the task at hand. Shalya also knew better not to continue at this time.
A fierce volley slowed their progress. Satyaki, another fine swordsman and archer, blocked Karna’s way with his own chariot, and a small battalion of hardened soldiers. Karna shot a few arrows which were deftly fended off by Satyaki using his sword as a shield.
Karna knew this would only delay his advance, and asked Shalya to go around Satyaki.
Shalya looked at his quizzically and said, “Go around him? Do you think he is some foot soldier? This is Satyaki. Arjuna is his idol. He trained himself using Arjuna’s techniques. Remember the drubbing his gave you five days ago? I cannot go around him. You need to defeat or kill him for us to advance”
Karna remembered the defeat the hands of Satyaki on the twelfth day of the war. He tried to push that memory away and soldier on, and strung his bow to send a volley over.
But he was overcome with self doubt, as the visuals from five days ago came storming back. His aim faltered slightly, and the arrows didn’t find their mark. Satyaki did not move an inch, and yet the darts whizzed past him, not even threatening to graze the Yadava. He stood there smiling, his eyes spewing disdain that Karna couldn’t stand.
“You need to focus better Radheya. These are not ordinary generals. They are Maharathis and Atirathis. Look at his poise. Look at his confidence. If we need to even touch him you must bring your best game to play. Right now, you cannot seem to scrape Satyaki. How will you face Arjuna?”
Karna wanted to ignore the words, and just get on with the battle, but the truth in Shalya’s words hit him hard. Five days ago, Karna’s defeat at Satyaki’s hands was the talk of the day, and warranted a hurried gathering of the quartet, followed by a sermon from Dronacharya, who questioned Karna’s ability. The visions of that evening came back hauntingly for the Kaurava commander. The grip on his bow loosened, and he looked away, face flushed red with embarrassment.
Shalya turned back, noticed Karna’s consternation, and renewed his verbal volleys.
“Oh please, Radheya, this is not what I signed up for. When I set out this morning, I was hoping to drive a warrior, a champion into the battle of his life. Not someone who cannot seem to face even a Yadava. It’s a good thing Arjuna is not around. He would be ashamed of fighting with you in these circumstances. He would probably turn away and choose to fight Shakuni over you”
Conscious that his diatribe shouldn’t have adverse effect and spur Karna into action, he added, “It’s understandable to have self doubts, Karna. I have had many such over the years during my battles. Specially when you see an opposition like the Pandavas. They are not only brave but also righteous, which gives them the additional vigor. Alas, you and I both know that we are on the unethical side of this war. Nevertheless, we must fight. Let me find a way out of this situation”
Shalya then deftly maneuvered his chariot away from the belligerent Yadava to go deeper into the Pandava formation. He knew Karna’s confidence was dented. He smiled to himself. He knew where exactly Arjuna was in the battlefield. The flag bearing Hanuman as insignia was flying in the distance. But he decided to take a circuitous route, and showcase the Pandavas’ exquisite battlefield talents to his occupant, intending to further dispirit the Kaurava strongman.
He steered his chariot towards Yudhishtira, who was engaged in a fierce battle with Duryodhana. Yudhishtira, whose spear throwing skill was second to none, was running riot at Duryodhana’s company. While his arrows pierced past the cavalry surrounding the eldest Kaurava, his spears frustrated Duryodhana, landing close to his chariot, or worse, inside. It was clear to any audience that Yudhishtira held the upper hand in that battle.
“Even your best friend can’t seem to hold his own against the Pandavas. It must be an unlucky day for our army today. There are some days like this in such a long war. Some days you win, others you have to just retreat and save the day. Specially when the enemy is tearing us out like that. Look at the precision of Yudhishtira’s spears. He is landing them inside Duryodhana’s chariot, but he’s not hurting them. He knows that the Kaurava is his brother’s prize. What a blessed brotherhood it is, the Pandavas'”
Karna shot back this time, “I think your talents are better served steering the horses, Shalya. Let me do the thinking and the fighting”
“We have seen that in the past few days, Karna. And on evidence of what I have witnessed, you had better go back and get trained by someone good. Maybe return to Parasurama, seek his forgiveness and retool yourself. Look, while my primary function is to shepherd these horses, every charioteer acts as the security detail of the occupant. We are supposed to put our lives on the line for you. And save you from imminent danger. We are also supposed to advise you on when to fight and when to flee. Look how Krishna campaigns and advocates for Arjuna. I see things that you don’t, in your tunnel visioned focus. Which is why I am being honest with you. Today’s Karna will not be able to match up to the Upapandava Shrutakarma, forget about his father Arjuna”
He continued unhindered, “You saw the skill and intensity of two Pandavas today. You saw the ferocity and the artistry of Bhima yesterday. You still think you can match up to their best? I have witnessed Arjuna in full flight. He has a wizardry about him. When he wields his bow, it is like a maestro playing an instrument. His fingers have magic in them. His wrist work is sublime. With the slightest bend in his wrist and meagre rotation of his fingers, he can change the direction of the released arrow. Did you not witness the curve his darts took when they went past Dronacharya to cut the throat of Jayadratha? You think you can do something like that? I doubt it”
While Karna was deeply offended and outraged at this direct insult, he couldn’t counter Shalya’s slights. Everything he said was fact. He was defeated badly at the hands of Bhima yesterday. He was soundly beaten by Satyaki before that. Abhimanyu shattered his shield and broke his bow. Ghatotkacha almost killed him.
His mind began to hesitate, his focus began to waver. Was the universe stacked against him because he was not fighting the righteous battle? He knew deep inside that they had wronged the Pandavas. The game of dice was deceitful. Their sending the Pandavas’ away for thirteen years was cruel, and Duryodhana’s refusal to give their kingdom back was heartless. He had heard stories of Duryodhana’s behavior even before he himself came into the picture. The attempted drowning of Bhima, the burning of the Pandavas’ wax house. Everything just began to come to the fore. No wonder his weapons were failing him. No wonder even someone like Satyaki was able to frustrate him.
He looked around for support. Surrounded by enemy soldiers and cavalrymen, the only friend he found was his chauffeur. The clouds in his mind began to fog his eyes. His fingers began to tremble slightly as he realized he was faltering. He realized that they had left Duryodhana behind, and the chariot was now entering deep inside Pandava formation. There was no turning back. He promised his friend that today, he would bring Arjuna’s head. That seemed a questionless impossibility now.
Even though unsure and distrustful of his driver, he hesitantly spoke to Shalya.
“Why do you insult me, O king of Madra? All my life I have been the victim of slander. I was a castaway, thrown into the river like a reject. Even though everyone suspected that I was born a Kshatriya, as evidenced in my daredevilry and valor, I never got my due. Time after time, you Kshatriyas disrespected me. Why this unfairness solely based on someone’s birth? If a sutaputra deserves to become a king, can command an army, is fit to be an emperor, then why shouldn’t he? Why is birth even a factor? You know very well that I am as talented, if not more, than Arjuna. Yet you seek new ways to put me down. Why this disparity?”
Shalya, even though taken aback at this line of questioning, immediately understood the fragility of Karna’s mind, and decided to drive the dagger deep into his crumbling morale.
“O Anga king, once again, you have fallen victim to your own pity. Some of us know you were born a Kshatriya, yet no Kshatriya laments his life the way you do. If you want examples, you need not look farther than your blood brothers”
The reference to the Pandavas stunned Karna.
Shalya looked at him, “Oh yes, I know about Kunti and her pre-marital dalliance. But this is not about her. This is about her unfortunate sons, all six of them. But more about the five who lived and fought it out like Kshatriyas, without a protest or lament. Every insult, they bore. Every defeat, they endured. Every rejection, they braved. Never did they complain about why they were subject to travails even though they are the rightful heirs. Even today, their kin are being killed, on either side. The heir to their throne was surrounded and murdered, unceremoniously and wrongfully. Yet, they have found inner strength to bounce back. They could’ve gone to any kingdom and sought refuge. They could’ve made unparalleled satraps, commanders, or advisors. But they chose to be kings. They chose righteousness over immorality”
“And that, Karna, is why they have no fear. Yudhishtira’s spears carry truth along with them. Which is why they don’t deviate. Bhima’s mace carries honor with it. Which is why it doesn’t miss its mark. Arjuna’s arrows carry morality and integrity with them. Which is why they pierce harder. The three are not my blood nephews but I couldn’t be any more proud of them than I am of Nakula-Sahadeva. Arjuna’s arrows aren’t made of any different material than yours. But behind them is the man who stands for purity. It’s the man that drives fear, not the weapon. When Arjuna vibrates his bowstring, the sound resonates with the virtue. The bowstring is just some fibrous material. But the fingers behind the bow carry the power of guiltlessness. And that, my dear commander, is what separates you from him. That is why I know for a fact who will win when the two of you duel. And I know I will return today with an empty cabin”
The words perforated Karna’s mind, shattering his balance and denting his fortitude. Tears of anguish formed in his eyes. He closed his eyes for a few moments, before they could roll down and betray his weakness.
“Well, O king of Madra, I will meet him in battle nevertheless. If this is the death I must deserve, then so be it”