“The Son Must Fall”

Dronacharya sent for Shakuni around the same time as Abhimanyu went to see his mother, that night. Shakuni was surprised at the invitation. Drona loathed Shakuni and his scheming mind, and had publicly blamed him as the one person responsible for the enmity between the cousins. He physically despised the limping uncle of the Kauravas to the point of revulsion. Shakuni, for his part, shut the acharya down every time saying that he must stay within his limits, that he should stick to his job of running the academy and leave politics to the administrators.

When Shakuni entered his tent, Drona felt slighted for a moment. Here was he, one of the greatest archers of the world, a principled teacher and a virtuous weapons instructor. Sharing the space with him was who he considered a lowlife and a wretch, a man whose sole purpose in life was to scheme and play people against people. Academics hated politicians, and Shakuni was the worst of their ilk.

He wasn’t sure how to verbalize what he was about to say. His inner conflict was tearing him apart. But he had a job to do. He had to win the war, or be killed attempting. He wanted to start cautiously, but decided he needed to say it out without mincing words, lest the message got lost.

“I called you here tonight because of two reasons, both unfortunate for this kingdom and the two clans at war here. One: you are an expert at plotting, and we have seen several examples of it in the past decades. Two: This kingdom’s prince trusts you more than he trusts his mother. And we need Duryodhana to check his emotions if we are to pull this off”.

Shakuni did not say a word. He was listening intently. He knew Drona was desperate. The conversation earlier today irked the commander. But he was quick to notice that Drona immediately went into contemplation mode when Karna suggested they kill one of the Pandavas by deceit.

“You know very well that nobody can touch the Pandavas while both Krishna and Arjuna are alive. Even if we obliterate their entire army, every man, woman and child, the five brothers and their dear friend will survive. Our only chance lies in weakening them mentally, killing their dear ones, so that they lose the will to fight, give up and proclaim they will spend the rest of their lives in recluse, disenchanted with life. As your nephew suggested earlier today, we must start with the young ones. And we must kill by treachery”

Drona expected Shakuni to have already come up with the scheme in his mind, several in fact. He looked at Shakuni’s face, knowing it would light up. He thought Shakuni would smack his lips, rub his palms and say, “Now you are speaking our language acharya. I have several ways we can accomplish this, and ensure victory for my nephew. If only you had this realization on day one. Better late than never though. Let’s get to work”

Instead, Shakuni’s face turned grim. His shoulders slumped. He took on the countenance of a defeated man. While still looking at the acharya, a wave of emotion swept his face as a puddle of tears formed in his eyes, waiting to burst out, almost beseeching the commander to stop. Drona was confused. Was he misreading Shakuni’s emotions? Did he not want the complete and utter destruction of the Pandavas? Did he not want both the Hastinapura and Indraprastha thrones for Duryodhana?

Shakuni sat down and poured a chalice of Soma for himself, not offering any to the acharya. He downed it in a few gulps, put the chalice down on the table, and sat back in the chair. He looked down and let out a sigh, as if preparing to start a speech.

“Acharya”, he said slowly, in a tone full of reverence. “I know you always thought of me as a crook, a scoundrel whose only purpose in life was to scheme and benefit from playing politics. I do not deny that, and I have my reasons, which I will take with me to my funeral pyre. Tonight, I am disappointed that you joined hands with someone like me. I know fully well we are fighting the wrong war. I know who will come out victors in this conflict for dharma. One only needs to see on whose side Madhava is, to know who will win. If we kill every man, woman and child and leave just the six of them alive, we will all still die at their hands. I know Arjuna’s wrath. And no Drona or Karna have the courage or capability to stop him.”

As Drona listened is astonishment, Shakuni continued, pouring more Soma into his chalice. “What has hurt me the most in your request is that you chose the future of this great land to be sacrificed at the altar of treachery. Hasn’t one generation fought enough? The deaths for which we are responsible, in the past 12 days, and for the ones we will be responsible when this war ends, aren’t they enough? I want the sickness of power and greed to end with this generation, without needing to offer our children. History will not forgive you for this. Your one saving grace for fighting on the Kaurava side was that you did not have a choice, that this was your job. But after tonight, you cannot hold your head high in virtue.”

He paused for a moment and let out another sigh, looking straight at Drona. “However, what needs to be done shall be done. Our destiny is not in our hands. We must do our duty; I as a fraud and you as the commander. We have been fighting for 12 days and nothing came of it. It is now time to hasten the end. There is only one way to invite Savyasachi’s fury in this war”

He put his chalice down, stood up, and turned towards the exit. Without looking at the commander, he said, “Tomorrow, be ready to form your most impenetrable vyuha some time after the battles start. I will ensure Arjuna will be distracted. He mustn’t get a hint of what we are up to”

He left the tent with these last words, “The son must fall for the father to rise”

The Night Before

The Pandava camp began to disperse, after discussing a few formations and strategies for the morning. Krishna fondly placed his arm on Abhimanyu’s shoulder and said, “I am very proud of you, for standing up the way you did during the discussions today. You are a worthy Kshatriya. You will be celebrated for millennia my dearest nephew”

Abhimanyu was perplexed. He was used to effusive praise from his uncle before, but today he sensed a tinge of emotion. He felt humbled. The greatest man to ever live, the unflappable Lord Krishna betrayed emotion. He smiled proudly.

“Come, let’s go for a ride, it’ll allow you to cool down”, said the uncle as he ushered both of them towards his chariot. They rode in the dark to the far end of the battlefield, towards the lonely, giant peepul tree. Krishna did not say a word during their ride, and Abhimayu let it be. As they approached the tree, he noticed the silhouette of another royal chariot, against the sky. Who was waiting for them at this hour?

“Mother!”, he said, bending down to touch her feet, and definitely surprised to see Subhadra near the battlefield. Although it was unusual for women to ride in the night, Subhadra was a fearless warrior in her own right, capable to defeating an entire army all by herself. She was trained in all forms of warfare, including hand-to-hand fight, something extraordinary for the women at the time. She came prepared, with a bow, several quivers full of arrows, two swords, a mace, many spears, and a full body armor. Concealed under he chariot seat was a vessel full of oil, in which she intended to dip her arrows before shooting them, to set fire to enemy camps, should she face them. She secretly hoped she could find a band of Kaurava forces, so she could ease her husband’s burden.

Subhadra’s chest filled with pride, seeing her young son full armor. She smiled and said, “May your name live forever!”

Abhimanyu was a tad surprised at her blessing, but in his exuberance, asked, “How is Uttara? And my unborn child?”

“She is resting. I had to leave without telling her, for she would insist on coming along. I had heard about your heroics in the battlefield. I sent for you today because I just wanted to see you”, lied Subhadra, covering for her brother. Krishna had sent a messenger to her, to meet him. She knew what it meant, but she wasn’t certain whom the meeting was about. Her heart sank when she saw that it was Abhimanyu riding with her brother.

“Son, there isn’t much I can teach you. You are the son of the greatest archer the world has ever known, and nephew of the man considered to be the living embodiment of the supreme being. You know that this war is about upholding dharma. But it is also about something else”, she said pausing to contemplate.

She continued, “Imagine a woman, who had just finished bathing, being dragged into a court full of men, laughing and lusting her. Imagine her being gawked and being asked to adorn a man’s lap, to satisfy his lecherous desires. Imagine a man drag her into the center of the court and attempt to disrobe her, fleece her of all she’s wearing. Hear her cries, feel her anguish, suffer her powerlessness.”

Abhimanyu closed his eyes, focused, and forced his fury to gather at the center of his being. He opened his eyes, resolute and immutable. He took one last look at his mother and walked towards his chariot, indicating he wanted to leave now, with these thoughts in mind.

“Now, son, imagine the woman was Uttara”

Abhimanyu jolted back, looking shocked.

“Aunt Draupadi is every woman in this great land, my child. That fire in you must burn tomorrow, and burn bright”

As Abhimanyu mounted the chariot, Subhadra turned to her brother, not uttering a word but questioning through the tears in her eyes, “Why him? Why my son?”

He smiled, and hugged his dear sister, whispering in her ears, “Because I want to witness your husband’s wrath”

A Turning Point

The Pandava Camp

“12 days of war, and no side has any significant advantage”, complained Yudhishtira, looking at Arjuna and hinting that maybe the fabled warrior needs to up his game.

“As long as acharya is their commander-in-chief, no man, not even me, can destroy the Kauravas”, clarified Arjuna, indicating that even though he was the celebrated pupil, the master held more aces.

“Then we need to find a way to separate him from the rest of their warriors and take them down one by one”, said Drishtadyumna, the Pandava army’s commander-in-chief.

“Do you think they will let us single him out and take him to a separate part of the battlefield? Don’t forget they have amongst them the best generals and commanders in the whole world”, countered Arjuna, clearly irritated that the rest of his clan is severely underestimating the strength and capability of the enemy.

“We need a turning point in this war, a grand battle which will turn this in our favor, even if one of us gets gravely injured, or dies”, said the mighty Bheema.

The Kaurava Camp

“12 days of war, and we haven’t even hurt a Pandava”, complained Duryodhana, looking at Drona and hinting that maybe the fabled commander was sabotaging the war.

“As long as Arjuna is in their ranks, no man, not even me, can destroy the Pandavas”, clarified Dronacharya, indicating that even though he was the master, his pupil was a better warrior.

“Then we need to find a way to separate him from the rest of their warriors and take them down one by one”, said Duryodhana, making it sound all too simple.

“Do you think they will let us single him out and take him to a separate part of the battlefield? Don’t forget they have amongst them the best generals and commanders in the whole world”, countered Dronacharya, clearly irritated that Duryodhana and his clan severely underestimated the strength and capability of the Pandavas.

“We need a turning point in this war, a grand battle which will turn this in our favor, even if we have to kill one of them by deceit”, said Karna, quietly joining the conversation.

“Why not start with one of the young ones?”, said Dusshasana, sitting in the corner and devouring his Soma.

The acharya looked at the two men, seeming to agree, and was lost in thought, scheming the formation for the next day.

The Pandava Camp

Abhimanyu stood up petulantly, red with rage, on hearing Bheema’s words. “As long as I am alive, I will not let an arrow anywhere near you, let alone touch you. Tomorrow, I will end this”, he declared, addressing the five brothers.

Krishna watched him say that, smiled and said, “Easy, nephew! Nobody can hurt the Pandavas while I am alive. Let us get some rest and strategize at sunrise. Tomorrow will be an important day for us”. He then got up from his seat and walked to the window, pretending to think deeply. He did not want anyone, much less Arjuna, notice the tears swelling up in his eyes.

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 her ward and this young stranger, turned around and quietly disappeared into the palace, 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 the person bearing that name would affect him for the rest of his life. He felt a yearning, a connection he never felt before. He wanted to know her, to be with her. Yet, it seemed he already 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, and perhaps the most adventurous.

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