A Father After All

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Madhava instantly noticed Bheema’s apprehension and approached him, seating himself near enough to be heard in a low voice, yet far enough to give the strongman his space for contemplation.

The strongest Pandava looked up, his worrisome visage a befuddling mixture of the love for his firstborn and the duty to this cause. He closed his eyes for a few moments. When he opened them, he looked at Krishna directly, and addressed him fearlessly.

“Krishna, it has not been even a full day since we lost our scion. You know I do not fear war. You know I do not fear sending Ghatotkacha into this war. I had proposed this idea on the first day. But at that time you had said there will be a time for that. I take it you were waiting for this day. As the omniscient one, you knew a day would come when our dear cousins on the other side would break wartime rules. That day, today, you needed someone on our side to fight an unconventional battle. I am fine with that. I respect your authority on everything. I also concur that there is not a single person between both sides that can match my son’s magical skills, and that he can devastate the Kaurava army tonight, under the cover of darkness. His skills, and those of his fearless comrades, thrive in the night, when they unleash their wizardry unfamiliar to most of us. Their success lies in the concealed, in the unexplained and unperceived. What better time than tonight?”

The Pandava brothers smiled for the first time in the day, hearing the capabilities of one of their progeny, of whose presence most knew, but not his competence. For a moment, Arjuna’s mind wandered to his own dead son, as he wondered what a wondrous empire Abhimanyu and Ghatotkacha would have ruled. The former, with his boundless wisdom of the schooled and literate world, would ensure civility and justice. The latter, with the wit and coarseness of a rustic, would secure everything off the beaten path. It would be an empire where the civilized and the uncivilized would live in a melodious tranquility, where humans and animals thrived in pure, unfettered harmony. A moment of melancholy flashed across his flustered mind, but he fought it and brought it back to the present, before it became agitated

Bheema looked up, took a few moments to contemplate what he was going to say. He looked deeply at his younger brother, seeming to ponder whether to continue his current vein. Krishna knew at once what the most powerful Pandava was deliberating, but let him make the choice whether to say it or not. Bheema decided to continue.

“However,”

Everyone looked at him curiously, wondering what Bhimasena’s hesitation was. When he spoke, the big man was very lucid in his thoughts.

“Tonight Ghatotkacha is up against a warrior who is second to none in the Kaurava camp. He is one of the best exponents of archery on this planet. His arsenal is composed of weapons he obtained from the mighty Parasurama himself. As you yourself said Madhava, he is trained in ways we are not, by the master himself. His craftiness and competence has been proven many times over. Hastinapura has gone from strength to strength since they made him the king of Anga. He is also a valiant man, severely aware of his abilities, and also his weaknesses. If he resolves to kill Ghatotkacha tonight, there is nobody on this side that can stop him”

Those last few words pricked the one man who despised Karna more than anyone else in the Pandava camp. Arjuna knew Karna’s abilities but his own vanity did not allow him to endorse that. Even hurting was that the thoughts were that of his own brother. But he completely understood the sentiment driving Bheema, given his own personal loss yesterday. A father is a father after all.

Unmindful of his brother’s consternation, Bheema continued, “Krishna, you are all knowing. You have been our guiding light from the beginning. In your infinite wisdom, you rescued us countless times when our lives were in peril. Who knows how many times you deflected dangers away from us. We have followed your advice at every turn, at every juncture. The one time you were unavailable to provide your counsel, we lost everything, every little thing we earned and built, including our reputation and self respect, not to mention that we even lost our collective pride, our beloved wife. You have been our friend, cousin, mentor, general, advisor, parent, and advocate during these fourteen days. You have our best interests at heart. You have always stood for dharma. If you told us today to drown in the Ganga to preserve dharma, we would all do that without a second thought”

Krishna felt just a tinge of guilt on hearing the trust his dear cousins placed in him. Only he knew the reasons for some of the dangers he had put them through. But he couldn’t dwell on them at this time. There would be a day, a different time, when he he would explain his reasons.

“So, Madhava, if you assure me that bringing Ghatotkacha in to the war tonight is the best path for dharma, then so be it. If you assure me that this is the best option to neutralize Karna tonight, then so be it. If this will bring about a quick end to this wretched conflict where kin kills kin, then so be it”

As he uttered those last words, his voice seemed to crack and he turned away from everyone. It was obvious to his brothers that the war was exerting a toll on the most powerful Pandava, that whatever his physical prowess, he was a human, and a father underneath.

They didn’t say a word, lest their own affections be betrayed.

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The Pack Of Pariahs


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A perplexed Pandava army looked towards its leadership as the war bugles sounded on the other side. Drishtadyumna calmed his soldiers down and headed towards Dronacharya, to speak about rules of engagement for the night. To begin with, both sides needed a break from fighting all day, both for the soldiers and their tired animals. He also summoned his weapons supervisor, ordering him to send for munitions for the night. Both sides had in their depots weapons specifically designed for fighting under darkened skies, in anticipation of a cloudy day. They needed to repurpose those for tonight. The Pandava commander came back after a short while with the news that hostilities would resume after the sun had set, and would stop at the stroke of midnight. Krishna was impressed with his commander. A night start meant that his plan would work to perfection.

The Pandavas set up a temporary camp at the east end of the battlefield, just as their cousins did on the opposite side. Drishtadyumna set up three layers of trusted soldiers in circles around their camp, to protect their secret plans from being leaked.

Bhima spoke first. “Allow me to lead in, Drishtadyumna. I can decimate their soldiers within no time. My mace is impossible to be cracked. I can take down thousands of soldiers, and I can add a few more of those wretched brothers to my account tonight.”

Drishtadyumna followed next, “If anyone has to lead, it should be me, as the commander in chief. This is uncharted territory for some of you. But remember, I grew up in a very remote village and am used to darkness more than you city folks. My chariot scythes through the Kaurava army. I should be the lead warrior tonight.

One by one, each of the valiant Pandava warriors, including Partha himself, made their case to champion tonight’s battle, much to Achyuta’s amusement. After a few minutes of discussion, he motioned everyone to quiet down.

“Tonight we are not battling against your teacher, my dear cousins. We are not up against someone who creates, understands, and follows the rules of engagement; rules that were made only for daytime warfare. Rules that work when you can clearly see your opponent. These rules were created so that the Rathis, the Maharathis, and the Athirathis knew exactly what was happening on both sides. Your peripheral vision is perfect, as is that of the chauffeur as well as these wonderful beasts themselves. Remember, the animals we have on this battlefield are more or less domesticated, even the mammoths. They have hardly been trained to fight, or assist in the dark. Both the horses and elephants have a keen sense of surrounding in the dark, but that is in the jungle, where there is no artificial noise, no human distraction. Tonight millions of torches will be lit much to the detriment of these animals, whom we have trained to fear torchlight. The fumes emanating from the torches will alter their sense of smell. All the animals will be nervous tonight, and on both sides. In addition, during the day, we can see everything on the ground in advance. The bodies of dead soldiers, animal carcasses, even the imperfections on the ground. We can see them from far and avoid them, or at the very least brace for them. During the night, it is impossible. Your aim and concentration can be disturbed with one little bump on the battlefield.”

“In that case, both sides are disadvantaged. We are evenly matched, so why fear the night?”, asked Sahadeva innocently.

“That, my young Pandava, is where the mastermind behind tonight’s nocturnal battle comes in”, said the ever smiling Krishna, looking amused that none of the brothers realized who he was talking about. His face then turned grim, displaying the ominous portent of what he was about to say. He stood up, turned towards the Kaurava army, took a deep breath, and turned around, facing the indomitable Pandavas.

“As many of you know, Radheya trained under Parasurama for many many years. They trained in the wild. They trained in rain and shine. They trained under conditions that we city folks cannot even fathom. They trained with real wild animals, under real wild situations. They trained in the night. They lived in the jungles in the night. They recognize every little night sound. They can distinguish between day sounds and night sounds. They can identify friend vs foe in the night, without looking. They have a heightened sense of vision, hearing and smell. If I send one of you into the jungle at night, I know very well you will be able to discern between friendly sounds and dangerous. But amidst the din of this war, your senses are weakened. These wonderful animals we trust, their senses are heightened, and as they exhaust quickly, are prone to make mistakes. As you know, one small mistake is all that it takes in a war like this”

He continued somberly, “Importantly, Karna spent a lot more time in wilderness than any of you, notwithstanding the time after your wax house burned down, or the years in exile. He has trained for this. He raised an army with the specific purpose of attacking enemies at night. He has annexed multiple provinces under his Anga kingdom by waging wars at night. His small band of night warriors are trained well for this. They can wreak havoc tonight. He also has several weapons in his arsenal that can light up the sky with pyrotechnics, and shower fire, incinerating everything under them. While our warriors have the antidote weapons, our foot soldiers don’t. Tonight, if we don’t control him, he can reduce our battalion strength to a minimum”

He concluded with one statement, “Tonight, the Kauravas have the advantage”, and waited for that to sink in.

“Unless”

The Pandava think tank looked up. The look on Madhava’s face did not change. His typical mischievous smile was absent. It was clear, that he was unsure about this situation. And there weren’t many such situations with this omniscient.

He turned to Bheema, “There is only one man that can repulse Karna tonight. This man was born in the woods, raised by the bravest woman I have known, and is the most fearsome warrior in darkness. He has the bulk of a bear, the courage of a tiger, the agility of a deer, and the eyesight of a bat. He and his band of fighters do not fear the dark, they revel in it. To the Kaurava army their exploits will look like voodoo. The troop consists of thieves, castaways, derelicts, vagrants, and handicaps. Some of them are disfigured, others hunchbacks. They were shunned by the society and found refuge in the woods. They bonded in the forest, taken in by their leader. They found ways to survive, and entertain themselves. They create incendiaries out of thin air. They make sounds in frequencies that trick your brain. They form mesmeric chemicals out of herbs. They have amongst them several pairs of twins who dress in a way that makes you think there are two heads on the same body. They have tamed wild animals and ride them at a speed our best horses cannot match. They wear camouflage that make them appear to vanish into thin air. They wear invisible armor that arrows cannot pierce and bounce off, like on a metal. With them on our side, we can wipe out a whole battalion of the enemy tonight”

He saw color return to the faces of his audience, after hearing this, except one.

Bheema turned away and sat down. He instinctively reached for his mace, and began to rub his sweaty right palm on its handle, as he always does when contemplating a tough decision.

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The Sunset Of Dharma

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Duryodhana was livid. Two headless torsos lay to the west, the son’s in his grand chariot, and father’s just a short distance away, under a giant tree. They could have been saved. They could have been protected. The man in charge of protecting his brother-in-law appeared clueless. How could the mighty Dronacharya, the grand master of all weapons, the architect of countless victories, the authority on war strategies, fail? He couldn’t have. He willfully allowed this to happen. He would’ve known about the eclipse. Why didn’t he warn Jayadratha that the sudden darkness was temporary and that the sun would resurface? The traitor!

Karna read Duryodhana’s mind. He had always found the older generation of commanders bothersome, with their adherence to traditional wartime rules. He knew that the longer this war stretched, the more disadvantaged the Kaurava army would be. Kauravas had the dominance of numbers to begin with. They had 11 akshauhinis to Pandavas’ 7. Time allowed Arjuna to chisel away, polishing off one akshauhini after another, bringing parity to the two sides. Karna always advocated swift action, and if that required some rules to be bent or broken, then so be it. Even for Jayadratha, he had a devious idea that he knew Drona wouldn’t even listen. There were so many chariots that looked liked Jayadratha’s. If they had decked up a few, flown Jayadratha’s flag on each one of them, and manned them with impostors, assigned each of those impostors to some of the greatest warriors in the Kaurava army, it would have been impossible for Arjuna to find him. The original Jayadratha could even have stayed in his camp, sipping soma all day. The day would have ended. The war would have virtually ended. Alas!

But now, he had an opportunity. Duryodhana was enraged. the humbled Dronacharya would be conscience-stricken and extremely vulnerable. This would be a time to bend the rules.

Aside from the acharya, there was only one person on the Kaurava side who would protest. Ever since he protested the game of dice, and the attempted disrobing of Draupadi, the third Kaurava brother Vikarna had fallen out of favor with Duryodhana. He would undoubtedly voice dissent to what was going on in Karna’s mind. But he can be brushed aside. People playing by the rules were so predictable. They believed in the basic decency of human beings, and that the majority voice would be upheld. If he was the lone dissenter, Vikarna would easily fall in line.

Karna sounded his conch to halt hostilities, charioted up to Duryodhana, and beckoned him to follow him up to the commander. They both rounded up the biggest warriors and rode up to Drona. From a distance, Krishna saw them approach their commander. He read Karna’s mind, turned his chariot around, and rode in the direction of Bhima, stopping midway to give instructions to a messenger boy to head up to the forest behind the Pandava camp.

“Acharya, please do not be upset and discouraged at this temporary defeat. We know you did everything within your ability to prevent this. We know you instructed Jayadratha to stay low until explicitly otherwise. We all know how conceited and boastful he was. If he had only followed your instruction, he would be alive. Arjuna would have been heading towards self immolation, and we would have declared victory tonight” Karna’s introductory praise drew some scorn from Duryodhana, but he decided against protesting. Karna continued, “As much as I despise him, I have respect for Dhananjaya’s capability and expertise. I know he has in his arsenal weapons that can decimate us several times over, and he choses not to use them because of his love of humanity. I am aware of the destructive power of those weapons. Several generations henceforth would be severely affected with illness and disease. It would take a hundred years before a generation would be able and epidemic-free. The environmental effects would be devastating, leaving our beautiful Hastinapura and its surrounds famine-ridden for decades. Arjuna is a supreme commander of weapons, and an able enemy. I commend him for not using his catastrophic arms. He knew Jayadratha’s pomposity, and used the simplest guided arrow to behead him”

Whatever angst Drona experienced on seeing Karna approach him disappeared with the praise heaped on Arjuna and his capabilities. “I am fortunate, o great acharya, that it is you and not I that is the commander of this army. I cannot fathom the strife within that you experience, every single minute of this war. That you have overcome your internal conflict and carried out your dharma is exemplary. History will never forget you. You will also be very proud to be matching up against your own pupil, and seeing your training come to fruition”

Dronacharya’s heart warmed at this praise. Even with all his erudition and self-control, he was human. Karna’s praise of him, his verbalization of Drona’s mental battles over the past fortnight earned a smile and respect from the acharya. Until now, he was torn between blaming himself for his inability to keep his word in protecting Jayadratha, while being dazzled at the archery of his best student. But now, with Karna’s words, he seemed at peace. He was overcome with emotion, but the only outward expression of it was the lowering of his shoulders.

“Who would have thought, that the sun would set for a brief moment on this day, and rise again, shining ever so bright. You and I know the wonders of nature, we know about such once-in-a-lifetime celestial events as the eclipse. We know that this is not sorcery, but the edict of nature itself. Look at the sun now. He seems to have emerged from behind the moon like a tiger that has broken its shackles. He rises like it is a new sunrise. Who would have thought that we would be fortunate enough to witness two sunrises in a single day? I say we continue, just as we start a battle at sunrise. We fight till crickets chirp. We fight till the last torch burns out. We fight to extinguish the light from the Pandava army. We may not kill the Pandavas tonight. Hell, we may not even win this war. But tonight, we make sure they won’t have much to rule over. Tonight, we avenge our son-in-law. Tonight, we avenge our beloved Pitamaha!”

The roar from the surrounding battalion was deafening. Any protest or reservations Drona or anyone else had on continuing the battle into the evening was lost in the fervor. Some soldiers were already moving in the direction of the Pandava army. Drona didn’t have much control over the what was happening. He went with the flow. It was hard to contradict Karna’s logic. To the untaught and unschooled who didn’t understand the complex cosmic dance between the earth, sun and the moon, it was a second sunrise. They were trained to start fighting at sunrise. And they were doing just that.

Fourteen days after the start of the war, the rules of engagement were broken. There was no turning back.

On the other side, the man who was waiting for this moment smiled. He knew dharma very well. He also knew that the world was not equally divided between the fair dharma and the dark adharma, and that there was a lot of grey in between. He was born in the grey. He blossomed in the grey. He fourished in the grey. He was grey himself. Without dropping his smile, he turned to his cousin and said, “Partha, behold the power of magic tonight. Behold the sorcery of nature. Tonight, civilized men will learn of that which lurks in the woods, and they will be terrified. Tonight, we destroy the only thing that is capable of stopping us from winning this war”

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