The Perfect Match – II

Continued from here

Shalya poured himself a large chalice of Soma, gulped it down and staggered on to the divan, legs stretched out. His attendants quickly got to work, pouring warm aromatic oil on his arms and legs and massaging them, relaxing his muscles and calming his mind. He closed his eyes and remembered his conversation with Krishna just before the start of the war.

“They hoodwinked me Madhava, I had no idea that it was Duryodhana that setup the grand reception for me. The arrangements, the comforts, the food, the wine, perfect! And the women, they were exquisite. I had never experienced such pleasure in my life. I and my men had the most gratifying time during those 24 hours. It was unbridled indulgence. We were completely bowled over.”

“I was certain this was Sahadeva’s idea. He knows my tastes better than anyone. It was a grueling journey from Sagala. We had been traveling for several days. Our men left their loved ones behind, perhaps never to see them again. I assumed my dear nephew was making sure they experienced pleasure to the fullest. It never occurred to me or any of my generals that this could be a ruse. In that delirious stupor, I announced that I and my army will die for the host. When Duryodhana revealed himself, it was horrifying to me”

“I do not know what to do. I do not know how to break this to my nephews. I am ashamed. I immediately arranged to meet with you, and I need your advice”

Sweat forming on brow, Shalya opened his eyes, glad to realize he was only reminiscing the past. His attendant applied a soft, damp cloth on the forehead and gently pushed him back to the couch. He closed his eyes and remembered the rest of the conversation.

“How can you be so naive and senseless, Shalya? How did you even think that Pandavas had the means to indulge you in such an extravagance? They don’t have a house to live, they have been living like vagabonds for the past fourteen years. They have been begging for food and clothing. And you thought they supplied exotic women to you? Were you so desperate, or were you already under the influence? You betrayed your nephews, you betrayed your sister. You betrayed dharma.”

“However, I hear the contrition in your heart. Your love for your nephews is pure. Your respect for your step-nephews is genuine, and you truly want to see Yudhishtira on the throne. I also know that you will do anything to support Pandavas. Unfortunately, you and your army are already committed to the Kauravas, and you cannot go back on your word. You must do what you promised. Your army must fight against the Pandavas. They may perish on the wrong side, but they at least hold their heads high, having followed leader who kept his word.”

“As for you, you yourself have to choose your loyalties. In this war, there will be people fighting on one side, but secretly wishing the other side won. It is treason, but only if caught. Some of them will die during the war; other, more accomplished warriors may survive and thrive. I will not ask you to cheat, I will not ask you to turn on your benefactors. You have to fight your own war, on the field and in your mind.”

“Again, I will not ask you to choose your loyalties. You have several talents that are of use to both the sides. Your valor is unmatched by many. You are skillful at spear throwing, second only to Yudhishtira. Your knowledge of horses, chariots and engineering is supreme. Above all, you have the gift of the gab. With your strong, definitive, and decisive talk, you can easily raise the morale of a warrior, or undermine them, if the need arose. To me, your blunt, forthright assessment of friends and enemies, and the ability to honestly communicate that back to the leaders will be of most importance to either side”

“And one last time, I won’t ask you to choose your loyalties”

As the masseur rubbed his forehead and massaged his hair, the clouds in Shalya’s mind began to thicken. He began to relay Krishna’s words in his mind, searching for innuendo and any hidden message: choose my loyalties; use my skills.

Dharma clearly belonged to the Pandavas, but for fifteen days he had been fighting for the Kauravas. He was torn. The fifteen days of war, the wonderful time he his army experienced before, his pledge to support the host, and the conversation with Madhava played back in his head several times. As his muscles tensed, the masseur applied more pressure, up towards the back of his head and down, to the nape, then to top of the spinal cord and out on to the shoulders. The masseur worked hard, running his hands back and forth, easing and increasing pressure, expertly hitting the precise muscles and soothing Shalya’s nerves.

The masseur’s magic worked. The mist cleared in Shalya’s head. He opened his eyes, as if from a trance, startling the masseur. He thanked the attendant and asked him to finish up. Servants arrived immediately to wash his hair and dry it. They applied a refreshing paste to his face and neck, and wiped it away with a warm scented damp cloth. He emerged refreshed and radiant. He sat down in his ornate chair, taking another chalice-full Soma and sipping it leisurely. He twirled the extravagant gold chalice slowly in his right hand.

He began to mentally lay his plan out.

Kripacharya was the first to enter the tent. He noticed that Shalya’s demeanor was calm and approachable. For his part, Shalya stood up, bowed to the elderly acharya, and beckoned him to take a seat right across from him. He signaled his attendant to pour the acharya some Soma in a copper chalice, knowing Kripa’s preference for modesty.

“You have to pardon us, O king of Madra. Radheya meant no disrespect to you”

The calm voice and sagely delivery was alluring. It removed any residual offense Shalya had taken earlier.

“War was not our first choice, nor our last, yours and mine. But it is upon us. The fight is between dharma and adharma, but strife doesn’t know the difference between the two. Not wrongly, Kauravas feel they have the right to win this war as much as the Pandavas. You and I only play a part in that attempt to win. Our loyalty lies to the throne, and not towards any individual taking part in this war. Your skills are of utmost importance to the throne. You are well within your rights to refuse. But as a servant of this throne, I beseech you to accept the offer and take up the reins to Karna’s chariot tomorrow.”

Shalya understood the desperation in Kripa’s voice. He also couldn’t refute the elder’s incontrovertible argument.

Just as Kripa finished speaking, Karna entered the tent. He had stripped himself of all the armor and ornaments. Bare-chested and wearing only a dhoti, he appeared humble yet imposing. As soon as he walked in, he stopped, faced Shalya, folded his hands, and bowed his head in reverence. When he spoke it was soft and deferential.

“O great king of Madra, pardon me for my rudeness earlier. I did not mean to dishonor you. You are a magnanimous person, king! In exchange of one night’s pleasures that Duryodhana stealthily arranged for you, you kept your word, even if it meant warring against your kin. It is a very uncommon trait”

“You were also absolutely right. You are the right person to be the commander of this army. You have done this before, and you can handle armies much better than I can. I do not covet any position or title. My only goal in life is to repay the friendship bestowed upon me. If you want to lead this army to victory, I will gladly hand over the responsibility”

He then kneeled down, prostrated himself, and touched Shalya’s feet.

“I seek your blessings, great king!”

Shalya’s chest swelled with pride. The sight of the commander of the mighty Kaurava army, at his feet, begging for forgiveness appealed to his vanity. But he had a job to do. He remembered Krishna’s words again and again.

He knelt down and touched Karna’s shoulders, gently nudging him to sit up. Both men slowly stood up, facing each other. Shalya looked straight into Karna’s eyes.

“My dear Radheya, you are a very valiant and worthy warrior. My outburst was an emotional, knee-jerk reaction that was unwarranted, driven purely by my pride and affectation of myself. The long war, the unmitigated loss of life around us has had its toll on me. It is no secret that I have kin on both sides of this war, as do many of us. Many men I have known all my life, dear friends, respected elders, are all either dead or maimed for life. I have realized that at the end of this war, either I will be dead, or almost everyone I know will be. Maybe both. It is not a good state of mind to be in.”

“You are correct in your assessment. If there is anyone that can match the crafty Krishna on the battlefield, it is me. I am probably even better qualified, having spent a lot more time breeding and training horses. I will be your charioteer”

Karna was visibly relieved at the turn of events. He was already planning his route for the morning, when Shalya interrupted.

“There is one other thing that Krishna is good at, as I have heard through my spies and I believe it has been working to their advantage. Krishna communicates with Arjuna incessantly, guiding and directing him, keeping him upbeat, and most importantly, keeping him honest.”

Shalya’s observation drew looks of admiration from his guests.

“A charioteer is like the head, while the warrior is like the rest of the body. Like our eyes and ears, the charioteer sees and hears things on the battlefield, communicates back to his occupant and keeps him out of danger. There are times during the war when the warrior may go berserk, consumed by the emotion of the moment. There will be occasions when he is blindsided by desire, overtaken by passion, or devoured by fervor. During those times, the charioteer must keep him humble, grounded, educated. That is not only a charioteer’s job, it is his duty”

“I have never faced Arjuna in battle, for obvious reasons. I never fought alongside him either. But from tomorrow, I will have a ringside view of his prowess. Based on what you mentioned earlier today about him, it gives me a unique glimpse into his strengths, but more importantly, his weaknesses. Together, we can exploit that. I will promise you that when you duel with him, I will watch and capture his every move, and report back to you”

“I will be honest in my assessment. All I ask in return is you respect my opinion”

Karna thought about Shalya’s proposal. Everything Shalya said was undeniably and irrevocably logical. He wondered how he missed it himself.

He nodded in acceptance, folded his hands and turned towards the exit. Kripacharya put his chalice aside and bade a good night to the Madra king.

As he walked towards his tent, Karna felt a sense of unease. He replayed the entire sequence in his mind, scrutinizing Shalya’s face and demeanor for inconsistencies. He didn’t find any.

Yet, he felt a knot in the stomach, a disquiet in his mind.

He went to bed convincing himself that it was nothing, and that he was overthinking.

He was wrong!

The Perfect Match – I

After respectfully consigning the mortal remains of Dronacharya to sacred flames, the Kaurava think tank huddled in a tent. Duryodhana decided who the next commander should be. But the question was about how to make him succeed.

There was an atmosphere of gloom in the room, as Kripacharya was the only remaining elder, and he began to feel the absence of his two contemporaries. He felt angry at the way Dronacharya was killed, but realized in his own philosophical way that the acharya paid for his actions. He was decidedly sad, and his sorrow cast a shadow on the proceedings.

Dusshasana was the first to speak out, and when he did, he betrayed his disrespect to elders, and contempt towards situations.

“Now that we have Karna at the helm, we can finish this silly war in a couple of days. Arjuna can be defeated tomorrow, and the rest of them will fold immediately. The day after, we attack their camp and take their women. Draupadi will be happy to to see us again”, he concluded with a perverse smile.

Kripacharya heard it, didn’t care to glance towards the petulant Kaurava, but turned towards Karna. His response to this rhetoric would define his leadership, Kripa thought. And Karna did not disappoint him.

The newly crowned commander was not irritated, nor roused. He calmly said, “It would be at our own peril to underestimate Arjuna, my dear friend. As much as I detest him, he is an archer par excellence. His skill is supreme, and his stamina is unmatched”

“Arjuna has practiced archery from when he was a child. He grew up with weapons around him. He has had the best instructor in the world. He has had the best training facilities, the best diet, and the best environment. What better than to be born a prince in the great Kuru kingdom?”

“Even then, he went above and beyond, and trained hard. He breathed archery. He practiced ambidexterity and became an expert. He practiced in the dark, trusting his auditory faculties. He is truly a challenging and worthy adversary”

Karna’s delivery ensured the plaudits were not praise, but cold, hard facts, as though he was sizing up his opponent, and not awed by him. It was as though he was calculating, carefully, how to counter the Pandava.

“If there is anyone on this battlefield that can disable or kill him, it is me”, said Karna calmly, again careful not to sound pompous.

“I haven’t had nearly as much good fortune as Arjuna, but I match him in every way. Through hard work, superior ability, and unflagging determination, I have made myself worthy of leading this massive army. I can proudly say we now have a realistic chance to winning, given that we don’t have certain weaknesses that plagued the previous commanders. However, we must plan it precisely”

Again, he made sure his tone was very stoic, and his lament about Bhishma and Drona was factual, and not a complaint.

It was an artful censure of the past fifteen days.

He continued without stopping, “Surrounding and protecting Arjuna are a host of celebrated warriors, each equal to an army on his own. Abhimanyu, Drupada, Virata did well to serve and protect the Pandava hero”

As an afterthought, betraying his scorn he added, “Even that giant creature-son of Bhima last night”

Only Shakuni noticed the slight tremble in Karna’s voice when speaking of Ghatotkacha. After all, they would be having an entirely different conversation today, if Karna hadn’t pulled out his ace weapon last night.

“Even without the glorious champions that we have felled, getting close to Arjuna is next to impossible. The other four brothers and his brother-in-law know how prized he is to us. They will lay their life down for him. They will form that impenetrable barrier.”

He wanted to continue but Duryodhana was the first to break the monologue. He too surprised Kripacharya with his restraint, “My dear Radheya, the next couple of days will make or break this war for us. We have lost two of our commanders while their chief still lives and fights”

But he didn’t hold his control for long. Conveniently forgetting that both sides flouted the rules of engagement, he soldiered on, “Both Pitamaha and Acharya were victims of stratagems. It angers me to no end that they used devilry to cull our army last night. The uncivilized wretches of Ghatotkacha’s army shouldn’t even have been allowed in this war.”

“However, we let them. We engaged them, and we killed them, fair and square. But now it is time to throw all rules aside, and finish them off. Why even face them in the battle? Why not secretly attack their camps during the night, when they’re sleeping? Who remembers how we achieved victory? The only thing people will remember is Duryodhana was the king of Hastinapura. People will forget the means soon, and only remember the ends.”

Ashwatthama winced at that cowardly suggestion, but did not say a word. He looked silently at Kripacharya, whose eyes turned moist.

Karna turned quietly towards his best friend, careful enough to not betray any emotion, “We wouldn’t need to do that as long as I am alive, Duryodhana! I am more than enough for all of Pandava armies. I have within my arsenal weapons of limitless destruction. I don’t use them because they are prohibited. But if we are pushed to the brink, that is exactly what we will do. Any one of them will wipe out the Pandavas, no matter where they hide”

“There is only one thing different between me and Arjuna. And that is the only thing that works to his advantage. If we take that away, nothing can stop me”

Everyone exchanged glances. They knew what, or whom Karna was talking about. But they also knew the answer: There was no match to the divine lord.

“A capable charioteer”, announced Karna.

Kripa, Ashwatthama, and even Shakuni exchanged puzzled looks. If they had to pick one character of Krishna that set him apart, it would certainly not be his riding skills.

“Krishna is a master of the horses. He can wield those wild steeds like a virtuoso playing an instrument. It’s as if he has a direct line with the horses’ minds. They listen to him, they read his mind, and he theirs. He has such a tremendous awareness of their needs, that I have not seen a single arrow even graze one of them. Spies tell me he has used the same four horses since the first day. They are neither hurt, nor exhausted. They seem to have new life infused into them every morning. It is some sort of sorcery that the Yadava wields.”

“What it does to Arjuna is free his mind completely of the worries of mobility, fear of sneak attacks, or being stalled in the middle of the battlefield due to injury or death of his charioteer. He has only one job – battle”

“We need our own Krishna; someone who has such expertise with charioteering that I don’t need to worry about where I am going, or who will attack me. There is only one such savvy person amongst us – Shalya. Horses and horse-breeding has been his passion. He has trained some of the best charioteers in the world today. I can’t think of anyone better than him to ride me the next couple of days. He is the perfect match to Krishna”

Shalya, who had silently been watching the goings on, rose up in anger, and violently pushed his chair back.

“I am the king of Madra! I command an army all by myself. I have killed many warriors myself in this war, including Uttara Kumara. I have saved many of you from certain death in the past fifteen days. I should have been next in line for commander. Instead, this is how you repay me? By making me a chariot to a Sutaputra? Nobody here has an army still standing as big as mine, nobody here has the experience of being a commander in chief, except me. This is an outrage and an insult!”

He threw his chalice of Soma to the ground, and stormed out of the tent.

He walked into his tent, enraged and exasperated.

Continued here

The Lying Truth – Final Blow

Continued from here

Dronacharya turned to his generals and asked if they could see Ashwatthama’s chariot. When they replied in the negative, his suspicion grew. He asked everyone around him to look for his son’s flagstaff. Meanwhile, sounds from the other side grew more boisterous, with chants of “Ashwatthama dead” reverberating the area.

With lingering doubts in his heart and ringing sounds in his ears, he proceeded cautiously. He ordered that he be notified as soon as they found Ashwatthama’s flying flag or chariot.

He then did something bold, something reckless. He decided to head into enemy territory to find the truth.

He headed straight into the diamond.

Meanwhile, Yudhishtira was still confused. Krishna was celebrating, so was Bhima, as was Drishtadyumna. He wasn’t sure why they were celebrating at the death of an elephant, and a rogue one at that.

He didn’t sound his bugle, but seemed happy. He didn’t notice Drona’s chariot in the distance approach them; Krishna did.

The crafty Madhava stopped his chariot, jumped off, ran to Yudhishtira and hugged him. Then they both raised their hands victoriously. Krishna was deliriously happy, and blew his conch loud and long, triumphantly.

He continued to chant, “Ashwatthama Hatha-ha, Ashwatthama Hatha-ha”, and laughed ecstatically.

Drona watched them celebrate from the distance, reading Krishna’s lips. The heart heard what his eyes refused to believe. His son was dead? How was that possible? He looked around for obvious signs of a dead warrior, a destroyed chariot, something. He found no evidence.

He didn’t think Krishna would lie, but knew him to be crafty. He needed confirmation. He needed someone trustworthy, someone with unflinching integrity to tell him that his beloved son was indeed martyred. He knew only one such person; and to his anguish, that person was celebrating too.

Could it be true? His pride, his treasure, dead! No, that cannot be. Bhima or Drishtadyumna did not have it in them to kill Ashwatthama. Arjuna was capable, but his son would be intelligent enough to not engage Partha to that extent.

Something wasn’t adding up. His mind was cloudy, his thinking was muddled. The confusion tore him apart. He began to loosen the grip on his bow. A pall of sorrow began to creep into him. His feet seemed weak.

He still needed proof.

Krishna read the acharya’s mind, even from far away. He turned around, towards the army, ensuring his back was to Drona, and shouted with both his arms up in the air, “Ashwatthama Hatha-ha, kunjaraha! Ashwatthama Hatha-ha, kunjaraha!”

Drona did not hear what he said. All he saw was the army go berserk when Krishna uttered something. His misgivings began to consume him. He lowered his bow.

Krishna turned around and persuaded Yudhishtira to repeat his chat. Yudhishtira smiled and said, “Ashwatthama Hatha-ha, kunjaraha!”

Right at that instant, the crafty lord played his shrewdest card. Just before Yudhishtira uttered the word kunjaraha, Krishna quickly came up from behind, blocked Drona’s view of Yudhishtira’s face with his own conch, and blew it loud. The acharya never saw Yudhishtira say the word kunjaraha.

All he saw was Yudhishtira utter the words “Ashwatthama Hatha-ha”. Tears came instantly into his eyes, moistening and clouding them. He didn’t see what else the Pandava elder said.

As the horns blared around, Yudhishtira said the whole thing again, but Drona was too heartbroken to hear anything.

His world came crashing down. Ashwatthama was dead!

His shoulders hunched, his fingers let go of the bow. It fell to the floor of the cab. He staggered, struggling to hold balance.

The acharya closed his eyes as tears streamed down his cheeks. All that he worked for in life, to provide a better life to his family, was gone! His entire life flashed in his mind; his childhood and youth, his friendship with Drupada and the eventual fallout, his poverty, his apprenticeship under Kripacharya and the appointment as the guru for the cousins, his coronation as the Kaurava commander in chief, and finally the killing of his archenemy.

He made a decision. He asked the charioteer to stop the chariot, stripped himself of all armor and weaponry, and alighted. He walked around, put a gentle hand on his driver and ordered him to leave.

A stunned audience watched, as the royal preceptor of the Kuru kingdom looked up and prayed to the blazing star in the sky. He sat down in padmasana, closed his eyes, and went deep into meditation.

A short distance away, the three Pandava brothers along with Krishna and their brother-in-law watched the unfolding of events. Yudhishtira, Bhima, and Arjuna were perplexed at the acharya’s actions. Why did he lay his weapons down? Were the Kauravas surrendering? Was he giving up his post? Then why isn’t he walking away? Why sit down in the middle of battleground?

One man knew the reason. He toughened his demeanor and looked at Drishtadyumna.

It was time!

The Pandava commander acted swiftly. In a single motion, he pulled both his swords from their scabbards, hopped off his chariot, and ran towards the elderly man rooted a short distance from him. Anger swelled in his heart as he raced towards his victim.

He remembered his beloved father, just as the other man remembered his son.

Slowing a few yards from the acharya, Drishtadyumna crouched and slid on his knees towards Dronacharya. While in motion, he raised both his swords, then crossed his arms, bringing them parallel to the ground in front of him, making a scissors out of the swords.

He stopped in front of the brahmin; swords level with the man’s neck.

A horrified Yudhishtira watched helplessly from a distance. He wanted to yell out, but words did not come out. It was too late.

In a single forceful motion, Drishtadyumna uncrossed his arms and spread them wide.The sharp blades of his swords sliced through Dronacharya’s neck on both sides, and cut through the spine, severing his head from the rest of his body; the action so quick and precise that the head stayed in place for several seconds before dropping back, lifeless.

The rest of the body sat there, headless and motionless, in padmasana.

The Pandavas dropped their heads, wistful.

Krishna closed his eyes, took a deep breath and let out a sigh.

Drishtadyumna rose to his feet and walked calmly back to the chariot. He took the piece of his dead father’s dhoti that he had torn out, wiped the blood off the swords, neatly folded the cloth and placed it safely alongside his father’s bow.

The conches began to sound, reluctantly mournful.

The Lying Truth – VI

Continued from here

Drishtadyumna’s chariot was unburdened of the body of Drupada when they reached the Pandava camp. The commander in chief instructed that the crimson stains remain in the cab until he avenged his father’s death.

He boarded his ride, looked up at the sky and closed his eyes. He looked to his right, and saw Yudhishtira wiping his tears while boarding his own chariot. Immediately behind was Phalguna, his Gandeeva held as firmly as his resolve to cull Kauravas today. Of the five brothers, Drupada liked Arjuna the most, just like his daughter does.

Krishna walked to his commander and whispered something in his ear. Drishtadyumna nodded, and announced that he would stay by Yudhishtira’s side for the rest of the day.

Mounting his own chariot, Krishna turned to Bhima, who was not far behind, “Keep your strength in tact, and your mace handy. You will deal with an elephant shortly. Just remember: wild animals deserve no mercy”

Battles resumed, as the diamond formation attempted to forge ahead and make inroads into the Kauravas’ lotus. Drishtadyumna told Yudhishtira that they will need to defeat the lotus’ elephant brigade in order to get to Dronacharya. He doubled his own contingent with the beasts; the only way to fight a herd of elephants was with to have one of your own. He suggested the eldest Pandava stay by his side, as Yudhishtira’s expertise lied in spear throwing.

They advanced, slowly but certainly. Yudhishtira found it strange that both his celebrated brothers were tailing him closely, along with a certain mahout on an elephant he noticed was moving slower than the others, as if it was drugged.

The powerful quartet progressed unhindered, until they reached a reinforced wall of cavalry and elephants in the Kaurava formation. The barrier was more challenging than usual, even for seasoned warriors like Arjuna and Yudhishtira.

As the battle wore on, the one elephant accompanying the Pandava brigade seemed to pick up pace, but was becoming increasingly difficult to control. Twice it came close to Yudhishtira’s chariot. Yudhishtira’s charioteer steered clear, but warned the mahout to control the beast. A single misstep would put the Pandava king at serious risk. Krishna asked Bhima to come up alongside his brother.

As the battle raged around him, the tusker got increasingly unstable. He trumpeted wildly, going sideways and trampling soldiers on both sides. He ferociously lashed his trunk, throwing cavalrymen off and driving horses wild. The soldiers around became fearful of the beast, while the captains looked to the mahout to get his beast under control.

Krishna watched from a safe distance. He knew it was only a matter of time. And as he watched, the inevitable happened.

The elephant began to go berserk. This time, he turned on his mahout and threw him off his back. The mahout landed on his back, almost directly under the tusker’s hind legs. A soldier pulled him away just in time, saving him from certain death.

The mahout-less pachyderm was now unrestrained. He headed straight towards Yudhishtira’s chariot, with his trunk curled up, trumpeting wildly. Bhima knew it was time for action. He picked up his mace and swung hard, aiming at the center of its head. The weapon dashed through the air, its pointed head speeding towards its target.

The mace fractured the elephant’s skull instantly, stopping it dead in its track. As blood gushed out, the animal become disoriented and stopped. It swung wildly one last time and began to fall. At that same time, Yudhishtira hurled a spear at it, perforating its thick neck and cutting off oxygen.

The animal teetered for a couple of seconds, and fell to its side, dead.

“You killed Ashwatthama, You killed the giant”

A bemused Bhima looked towards his cousin as Krishna made the announcement. Before he realized what was happening, Krishna picked up his conch and sounded the bugle for the death of an enemy warrior. He also instructed the mahout to be taken out of the battle, and ordered the soldiers to haul the elephant’s carcass away as quickly as possible.

The bugles continued unhindered, as Bhima followed Krishna, and Drishtadyumna picked up as well. The neighboring generals and captains blew their own conches, following their leaders.

The Kaurava side heard the sounds, perplexed. They wondered who on their side had been martyred. The Pandavas hadn’t had much success after Jayadratha, so this must have been an important warrior for them to kill. The atirathis looked up, just above eye level, scanning for flag posts.

Krishna then changed the tune on his conch to celebratory, again much to the amusement of everyone around him. But they followed him nevertheless. First Bhima, then Drishtadyumna, Satyaki, and finally Arjuna, all blew their conches in exultation. The mood suddenly turned exuberant among the Pandava armies. The soldiers roared in triumph, as word spread within the Pandava army that Ashwatthama was killed.

Yudhishtira, the calm head amongst the din, was unsure what was going on. He heard the conches blare and looked to Krishna, puzzled. He wanted to be certain of whom the Pandavas had killed, before blowing his own.

The news spread faster than a wildfire, and reached the man for whom it was intended. Dronacharya laughed it away, knowing fully well that his son was invincible, and Pandavas did not have it in them to kill him. He continued.

But, self-doubt is a dangerous thing.

And it began to gnaw at the acharya

Continued here

The Lying Truth – V

Continued from here

The duel raged on, with no clear winner in sight. Both the acharya and his childhood friend were running out of weapons and countermeasures. They outdid each other in inventing new ways to attack and newer ways to reverse.

To the viewing public, it was a treat to watch.

Some distance away, the Pandava commander in chief was extricating himself from the lotus formation and heading towards his father. He was frustrated by small time chieftains in the Kaurava army, boxing him and delaying his advance. The delays would have a telling effect on the duel.

Another man was equally frustrated, unable to extract revenge on Drupada. It seemed like the aging king had improved his combat skills over the years, effectively countering the grand-daddy of weaponry.

This was Drona’s best opportunity, ever, to kill Drupada. He would never get this close to him again. He also knew that he had only two horses to Drupada’s four, and that his steeds were getting tired. Tired horses would slow him down, and put him at risk. It was time to abandon all propriety.

His two accompanying generals, in their own chariots, were being mute spectators to this bout, like everyone else. It was time to seek their help. He looked to his right and gave a signal. He got a nod in return.

The plan was set!

Drona quickly turned towards his enemy, and sent down a barrage of arrows, firing them in quick succession, each fired at a slightly different angle from the previous. Drupada’s charioteer saw that, and quickly steered his horses to evade the oncoming missiles. His mission was clear: keep his occupant safe and stable.

Drawing on his expert piloting skills, he dodged the darts, and ended up in a direct line of sight with Drona. At the same time, Drona’s general took advantage of this position, and shot an arrow – illegally – straight at the enemy charioteer. The arrow went straight through the poor driver’s palms, and pierced his chest. He writhed in pain and fell back.

The impact of the arrow jolted back the reins in his hands. The horses took off, taking this as a signal to dash ahead. The impact threw Drupada off balance, requiring him to momentarily lower his arms to hold the walls of the chariot’s cab.

Meanwhile, the distance between Drona and Drupada decreased rapidly, as Drupada’s horses, undisciplined by the dying and disabled charioteer, raced dead ahead, towards Drona’s waiting chariot.

Drona adjusted his ride to get a better line of sight, waiting for the fast approaching chariot, and its bewildered and disoriented owner.

Drupada didn’t have the time. Before he recovered and lifted his protective shield up, death was at his doorstep.

Drona, eyes fixated on his friend and enemy, was ready for this moment. He followed the opponent’s chariot trajectory like a hawk watches its prey. As the chariot approached, he pulled the bowstring back, and released. The arrow shot through the air, pierced Drupada’s armor in his chest, and mortally wounded him. He threw his head back in pain, stumbling and holding on to the center pillar of his chariot.

He coughed up blood, and knew his time was up.

Just at that time, Drishtadyumna entered the scene, witnessing a murder in progress. He slumped helplessly as he saw his father hold on to dear life. He desperately wanted to help, but there was no distance between Drupada’s chariot and Drona’s for him to intervene.

Drona saw Drupada’s son from the corner of his eye, and flashed an evil smile. He picked up his lance and held it out. As Drupada’s chariot passed him, he poked hard with strong hands, impaling a dying Drupada. The sharp point went through the king’s limp body and came out on the other side, blood spewing out of his chest and back.

Drona then lifted the spear up, hoisting Drupada’s body and hurling it. The dead, lifeless body of the king of Panchala fell with a thump, in front of his son’s chariot, while a shellshocked crowd watched in horror.

The lavish chariot of Drupada crashed to the ground, as the horses broke free and bolted.

The Kaurava chief turned to his general and nodded in acknowledgement. Even though it was illegal, it was great teamwork, and perfect timing.

They turned around and sped away, realizing that they better get back behind their own lines before the enemy recovers from the shock.

Drishtadyumna dismounted his chariot and ran to where his father lay. With tears flowing down his cheeks, he pulled the lance out and broke the arrow lodged in his chest. He picked up the body and placed it gently in his own chariot. He sat on the floor of the cab, by his father’s mortal remains, and asked the charioteer to head to the Pandava camp.

The chariot moved slowly, solemnly, like a hearse.

Drishtadyumna tore off some of his own clothes, made them into balls and placed them into the gaping wounds on the dead king’s body. He took his father’s head and placed it on his own thighs, cradling it carefully as the chariot picked up speed.

Word spread of Drupada’s death, and the chicanery employed by Drona.

Yudhishtira was the last to hear it. He closed his eyes for a few moments.

When he reopened them, they were red.

Only one man knew it was out of anger and not grief, and he was ready to take advantage of it.

He turned to one of his orderlies and asked him to contact last night’s mahout.

It was time to bring out the rogue elephant!

Continued here

The Lying Truth – IV

Continued from here

The fall of Virata spread through the Pandava ranks and saddened Yudhishtira. During the twelve months of Agnyatavasa , Virata had become a good friend. He sought more information about the manner of killing, and soon heard a more exaggerated account of Dronacharya’s attack on a virtually unarmed warrior.

His faith in the righteous conduct of this war suffered yet another setback, and would shape his decision later in the day.

A short distance away, Drishtadyumna heard the direction Dronacharya was heading, and was instantly worried. He knew the rivalry between his father and the acharya, and had heard enough through the grapevine that Drupada was one of Drona’s main targets, from the outset. His immediate goal was to catch up with his counterpart, defeat or disable him, and protect his father. To do that, he needed to outpace everyone on the battlefield. He was deep inside Drona’s lotus formation.

Several paces ahead, the Kaurava commander in chief moved quickly, unobstructed in his quest for revenge. He saw the Panchala king’s grand chariot in the distance, driven by four magnificent horses. The chariot reflected the opulence of Panchala kingdom. Elaborate and decorated with gold and silver, it was the largest chariot on either side, with an exclusive cab for the chauffeur. The main carriage, large enough to house two full size beds, was used mainly for travel. But Drupada had it customized to be used for wars. Built modularly, the chariot could convert from a war machine to a comfortable cruiser within no time. Drupada did not fancy tents, and sleeping in them scared him. He always preferred to use his chariot as his resting quarters, even during wars.

“That should be mine”, thought Drona when he first saw Drupada’s extravagant wagon. “Half of everything he owns should be mine, the lying rat!”

The anger within grew, as he recalled the promise and Drupada’s betrayal. Today he would avenge the insult he was meted out in the court hall that day.

He asked that they slow down and circle the king from a distance.

Drupada saw him, and asked his own charioteer to come to a halt. He instructed his protective circle to clear. This would be a duel. He did not want a single unrelated soul to perish in this vengeful battle. He decided not to fire the first salvo, out of respect for his friend. He waited, standing proudly in his cab, his bow strung, and his arrow pointed skyward.

A small audience gathered, with men on cavalry, on elephants, and on foot, eager to witness this battle of the rivals. King against teacher; friend against friend.

The first arrow did not surprise Drupada. A weapon loaded with venomous tip called Sarpastra. The venom was extracted from the most poisonous cobras in the land, injected into the porous tip of the arrow, and sealed shut. Some seals were designed to open in mid-air, sprinkling the venom on people underneath. This one though, designed with a small incendiary inside the tip, was designed to detonate on impact, and splash the area with poisonous gas and fluid, instantly killing or disabling the target.

Drupada had read his opponent’s mind correctly. Drona’s first target was not Drupada himself. He was not looking for an instant kill. He was looking for a drawn out battle, to tease and torture his victim, give him a slow, harrowing death. The king watched the missile approach, and knew it was meant to kill his beloved horses. He immediately launched his countermeasure. The only way to control the aftereffects of a venomous explosion was to let the detonation happen, but happen in a controlled, sealed, well directed container.

He released his weapon, whose arrowhead was not a tip but a sphere, large enough to absorb the approaching arrow, and ingest the poison.

The sphere met the Sarpastra mid-way. The mouth of the sphere opened instantly on impact, like the claws of an eagle, and within a fraction of a second, allowed the arrow tip to enter its vacant chamber. The mouth was built with the thinnest of metals coated with leather. It was designed to keep the approaching tip intact and not let any detonation happen in open air. It did its job admirably. The back wall of the sphere, attached to the shaft, was thicker, allowing the poison-laded tip to fracture, and discharge its contents. As soon as the poisonous tip hit the back wall, strong hinges began to shut the entire sphere close. The hinges activated sharp, strong teeth on the collapsing mouth of the sphere. The teeth bit down hard on the offending weapon just behind the tip, severing the shaft in two.

As the audience watched in wonder, the Sarpastra was devoured; the poisonous tip disappeared into the magical sphere and the rest of the shaft fell to the ground, utterly useless. The defending weapon then turned aggressor, slowing but not stopping. Built stronger, it now headed in the acharya’s direction.

Drona knew there was no way it could reach him, but was ready for it nevertheless. He pulled out a crescent shaped arrow and strung it up. It was a wise move from the teacher, because to his surprise, the sphere got a boost midway, and gained speed. Drupada had expertly fired another arrow, hitting the first one in its nock, and changing its direction very slightly to head straight towards his friend’s neck.

Drupada instantly released his own countermeasure, locking the sphere with his crescent shaped tip, and bringing both the weapons down just a few yards from his own chariot. There was no explosion, no release of noxious fumes. Damage was contained. But it angered Drona to no end. He thought he was the expert, but clearly underestimated his opponent and friend.

He had to abandon his earlier plans and go for the jugular.

And that is exactly what he did!

Continued here

The Lying Truth – III

Continued from here

As soon as Dronacharya heard about the Pandavas’ formation for the day, he knew exactly where Drupada would be positioned. The Vajra Vyuha was designed as a defensive attack formation. The individual battalions of the army are laid out in the shape of a diamond, with an array of commanders out front, a bulged but reinforced second line of attack, and a defensive backend tapering off bringing up the rear.

Dronacharya knew Drupada’s preference, the left flank, at the edge, and will probably divide his armies between the second line of attack and the rear end. If he could pierce the frontline commanders, Drupada would be his quarry today.

The conflict started uneventfully, with neither side willing to go into full attack mode, fearing reprisals. The Pandava section was decidedly nervous this day, having lost two peerless warriors in the past two days. One more such loss would dispirit them. The ruthless killing of Jayadratha seemed a distant memory to them.

The Kauravas, on the other hand, were fearful of a full-blown attack, with Arjuna coming out with his weapons blazing. They expected a merciless, unstoppable Partha this morning. Their instructions were to save their dwindling numbers wherever possible. With that in mind, Dronacharya laid out a totally defensive lotus formation.

The first signs of anger came from Drishtadyumna, who vexed Duryodhana and Shakuni with a barrage of arrows, aided by his cavalry of spear throwers, who killed Shakuni’s charioteer, with a javelin hurled with such ferocity that the chauffeur was ejected from his seat and ended up in the cab, pinned to the sidewall, as a dumbfounded Shakuni watched helplessly. He was quickly surrounded by able horsemen who shifted him to another chariot and rode him away, far from the raging commander in chief.

Smug from his victory over Shakuni, Drishtadyumna proceeded towards Ashwatthama. His chariot plowed through dozens of enemy soldiers, and headed on a collision course with him. The acharya’s son saw the approaching enemy from a distance, and changed his angle slightly. With expert precision, he shot three arrows at once. They whizzed past the squads to land right in Drishtadyumna’s path, causing his horses to veer off course suddenly, and throwing him off balance. But he quickly recovered and rained a barrage towards Ashwatthama, knocking his crown over. A furious Ashwatthama picked up a spear and hurled it with full force towards the Pandava commander, but missed it by several yards. He then attempted to dislodge Drishtadyumna, aiming his darts towards his horses. But the commander’s charioteer expertly steered them away.

Drishtadyumna picked up two spears and launched them in succession. The weapons found their targets. The first hit Ashwatthama’s bow, shattering it. The second broke his chariot’s flagstaff.

Sensing danger, his charioteer immediately turned around and fled deep into their territory for safety. But his flagstaff lay on the ground, crushed, and lost for the day.

There would be no way to trace the whereabouts of Ashwatthama today.

A short distance away, acharya Drona headed unimpeded towards his one time friend. A full display of his abilities were on display as he cut through the diamond formation. His strategy was to attack diagonally into the formation, instead of moving in straight lines. He also went lean, with only him and a couple of accompanying generals. His knew his solo incursion would go unanswered; he also knew very well how to escape, if it got hairy. This side of the formation was not commanded by Arjuna, so he was safe. Either way, there was nobody – including his favorite disciple – on either side who could hurt Drona while he had his weapons in hand.

He did not expect the whir of darts from his right side. He looked around and saw Virata and his small squadron approaching in a haste, on elephants. The height gave Virata considerable advantage, as he showered a hailstorm of arrows towards the Kaurava commander. Deftly evading the barrage, Drona first signaled his generals to avoid engaging the army, as it was a waste of their time. He attempted to circumvent the herd but was frustrated at every step. The giant animals were too strong and powerful for his chariot. His charioteer, even though expertly steering in between and past the elephants, warned Drona that the horses would be intimidated and tired, and that it was not a good thing if they would be stuck in the middle of the formation.

Drona instructed his charioteer to head towards Virata’s elephant, as there was only one way to end this resistance. As soon as the decked up pachyderm came into view, Drona released his reinforced arrows, with the hope of piercing the animal’s armor and disabling her. But her armor was thick, designed and built to resist the most powerful arrows. The shafts just ricocheted off.

Angry and frustrated, Dronacharya now asked his driver to speed away from the beast, straight in front, and turn around to face her. With considerable distance between the two, he was able to focus on the elephant’s occupant than the animal herself. But he miscalculated slightly. The distance gave the high sitting Virata additional advantage, as he began to throw spears towards the chariot. Any mishap to one of his horses and Drona was a sitting duck. He needed to act fast. He picked up one of his special arrows, aimed towards the elephant’s head, pulled back, and released. The arrow found its target.

The mahout dropped from the top, but as he dropped, the reins got tangled in his falling body, causing the cab to lose balance, wobble and eventually tumble down, taking its royal occupant with it. Virata recovered quickly from the fall, and bent down to pick up his bow. But the sharp tip of an arrowhead pierced through his thigh, causing him to cry out in pain. He tried to pull the arrow out, but a rampaging Dronacharya, throwing all customs to the wind, released two more arrows, piercing through Virata’s back and shoulder. The impact spun Virata around, facing his assassin.

Primal instinct took over Dronacharya, looking at Virata. Anger and thoughtlessness consumed him, as he picked up yet another arrow, pulled it back from his bow and released at full speed. The shaft sped through the air, finding the cervical nerve right at the center of Virata’s neck, cleaving it into two and instantly killing the king.

Four arrows were driven into a man who was down and unarmed, and fell off his vehicle, by the protector of defense, by the man who wrote the rulebook, by the man who was to be the model of righteousness.

The commander of the Kauravas headed towards his foe

Continued here