The Hope Falls

Continued from here

The duo made quick inroads into the Pandava formation, with Shalya focusing solely on the reaching Arjuna’s chariot, as quickly as he could. They encountered other Pandava warriors on the way, but Shalya skirted them adeptly.

Krishna kept a close eye on the approaching flag with the white conch. He had to time his movements right, if he was to lead Karna into the swampy area. He looked at Arjuna and asked a strange question, “Partha, do you trust me?”

Arjuna, caught off guard with that question said, “Of course Madhava, why do you ask?”

“Lower your intensity for a bit. Take a breather. I see Karna approaching. He will be gunning for us today. I have no doubts in my mind who will be victorious. But remember, the ground is treacherous today. As we duel with them, we will be running around the battlefield. to keep the horses safe. There will be lots of tossing around. So take it easy for a few moments”

As they were taking it easy, Karna spotted them, and drove a volley towards Kapi Dhwaja. On Krishna’s insistence, Arjuna ignored the volley and did not engage. He picked on smaller warriors instead, cutting them and their companies with a vicious barrage. Krishna steered deeper into the skirmishes, and away from Karna.

Karna, mistaking Arjuna’s disinterest for apprehension, urged Shalya to give chase, and keep the cousins in their sights. As Krishna went deeper, the ground got softer. The brilliance of Krishna’s mind became apparent as his steeds gained speed, while Shalya’s struggled. This briefly irritated Karna. He summoned all his strength and sent a flurry of arrows towards his enemy.

Continuing his plan, Krishna slowed down. A couple of dart whizzed past him and Arjuna, emboldening the Kaurava to send more. Krishna smiled to himself. He looked at Arjuna and waved his hand assuredly. Arjuna for his part replied feebly, knowing fully well that his mentor knew what they were doing, and that somehow all this was part of a grand scheme; one arrow hit and bounced off Arjuna’s shoulder plate, and another lodged inside the cabin.

Planning the final piece of the puzzle, Krishna whipped his horses and loosened his grip on the reins. They picked up speed and headed deeper into the battlefield, well inside Pandava territory, and precisely towards the marshy area where Krishna intended the final battle to happen.

Karna smiled, and ordered Shalya to follow them. Shalya for his part, had been watching Krishna and his unusual moves with the horses. He was not convinced it was a good idea to chase. He said it out loud, “Have you noticed Radheya that Krishna’s horses seem to have more traction than ours? There is something amiss in all this. I smell a plot. We’re pursuing them deeper and deeper into the field. The ground is getting marshier. I suggest we stay our ground and fight from here”

But Karna was not in a mood to listen. Blinded by ambition, clouded by hatred, and bound by friendship and loyalty, he said, “This is my command to my charioteer. Stay in pursuit”

They approached a secluded area where only the two chariots remained, Shalya’s chasing Krishna’s. Krishna saw the swamp in the distance, which was formed by water flowing down a mound on one side. The mound was wide enough to fit his chariot, but had a steep grade. While it would cause his horses to slow down, the hillock had firm ground. He smiled and nudged his horses to the right, up the hill.

As soon as Karna saw his enemy’s chariot go up the hill, he did a quick mental calculation and ordered his chauffeur to say straight, “no matter what happens, keep going straight. I want to get ahead of them and face them from the front”. Shalya looked at Krishna’s chariot take the gradient route and knew instantly what the game plan was. He tried to slow down but it was too late. The orders from behind were clear. He kept his course.

As Krishna’s chariot began to make the ascent, Karna caught up alongside, at the bottom of the knoll. But much to his surprise, his horses began to slow down, as their hooves began to get stuck in the ground under them, which turned from wet to swampy. They ground to a halt, squealing, unable and unwilling to drag their payload. On the top of hill, Krishna proceeded unhindered. He slowed his horses down, allowing them to make the ascent steadily. By the time they began their descent to the other side of the hillock, Karna was a sitting duck. His horses were knee deep in mud. His left wheel was sunk deep into a mud-filled ditch. His chariot was propped on its left side, unbalanced and precarious.

That was when Karna realized what a masterstroke this was from Madhava. Arjuna’s chariot made the descent slowly and turned around slowly and deliberately, facing his menacingly. Fear engulfed the Kaurava commander. He had nowhere to go. He should have listened to the advise of his charioteer. He took a deep breath and addressed Shalya, “O king of Madra, you were right. Against your counsel, I brought this upon myself. How do we extricate ourselves out of here?”

Shalya was as blunt as he was calm, “There is nothing the horses can do for you now, Radheya. There is only one way for them move – cut their riens free. Even then they may require assistance. The chariot is immovable at this point. You need someone to lift the left wheel and get the vehicle out of this marsh, in order for us to move forward. There is only one person amongst the two of us that has the strength to move that wheel, and it’s not me. My job is to have rode you in battlefield, and to give counsel where required. I have done both. My role ends here. I cannot be of any more help”

Saying this, he pulled hard on the reins, and used his dagger to cut them free. He loosened the harness so the steeds could walk away free. Using his whip, he gently urged them to move. With great difficulty, the horses, nudging each other and struggling, made it out of the swamp.

It was now down to four men, two of them sitting firmly inside one chariot, and the other two perched perilously inside another.

Karna understood Shalya’s position. He looked at his enemy. Arjuna had his bow down, in line with the rules of engagement. Krishna’s face, while intense, betrayed pity. Shalya turned towards the front of the chariot, looking away from his commander, and sat firmly.

There was no stronger statement of noncooperation than Shalya’s stance.

Karna slowly descended the chariot from the right side, and looked around. He could not call anyone for help; he was deep inside enemy territory with not a Kaurava soldier or warrior in sight. He waded his way around to the left and held the spokes in his hand. Using his powerful shoulders, he attempted to push the wheel out of the mud. It did not budge. He made several grunting attempts without success. He was getting tired, his hands were dirty and slippery. Each push seemed to be more strenuous than the previous. He decided to take a break.

To his left, directly in his line of sight was the chariot whose occupants he hated the most. Somewhere far to his right was raging a battle where nobody seemed to care about his plight. He contemplated his action for a moment. He didn’t have a choice. The only way to get out of this mess was to extricate themselves out of the bog. He would attempt a few last pushes. If he was unsuccessful, he would go back to his cab and resume his duel with Arjuna, and hope to last till sunset.

As he bent down, from the corner of his eye he noticed the enemy chariot move. Krishna had shifted his horses just enough to place Arjuna at right angles to Karna. Surprised, Karna turned his head in the direction.

Arjuna was as surprised by the turn as was Karna. Krishna parked his horses and turned around, intensity billowing from his eyes, “What are you waiting for? This is your chance to kill the commander in chief of the Kaurava army, to end this war, to claim what is rightfully yours. Why isn’t your Gandeeva strung up?”

Surprised, Arjuna mumbled, “But Madhava, he is unarmed, and dismounted from his chariot. It is unrighteous to engage him”

For the first time ever, Arjuna noticed a frown on Krishna’s face, “Unrighteous? Have you forgotten your duty Partha? Your duty is to your brothers, your family, and your kingdom and its people. Your duty in this war is to demolish your enemy, by all means necessary. Here is a man who disrespected your skill and stature every time he saw and met you. Here is a man who insulted your wife in front of an assembly. Here is a man who connived with your enemy to send you to exile. Here is a man who led an army against you when you came out of exile.”

“Dharma is when a righteous person is killed in a righteous way, Savyasachi. Dharma is when a respectable warrior is attacked from the front, and in a befitting battle, defeated respectably. Dharma is engaging an honorable man in an honorable duel. Dharma is waiting for an ethical man to rearm himself before you challenge him. Men who have no regard for dharma should not be held in the same esteem. There is no shame in defeating such men using whichever means necessary. Future generations will need to know that dharma will not sit and wait while dharma is strangled”

“This battle has raged on for seventeen days. Eighteen akshauhinis have fought this war. You have decimated the Kaurava armies. Yet Duryodhana continues to harbor hopes of victory. Because his only hope lies in front of you, proud in his corrupt and immoral ways. Here is the man who ganged up against your son and killed him mercilessly. Have you forgotten how Abhimanyu was surrounded, and attacked while unarmed and dismounted? Did you forget what Karna did to him when Abhimanyu lifted his own chariot’s wheel? Did he display righteousness?”

“Pick up your Gandeeva and cut down this man. He does not deserve your mercy”

As the words flowed, Arjuna’s veins tightened. Visions of his murdered son flashed in his mind. Unwillingly yet decidedly, Arjuna raised his bow and aimed his arrow at the beleaguered enemy commander. The Gandeeva arched reluctantly as he drew the string back. His aim did not falter. The tip of the arrow targeted Karna’s throat, and nothing else. Arjuna hesitated a moment. He wasn’t sure why, but he felt sad. He suddenly felt an affinity to his opponent, like he was about to kill his own brother. He brushed it aside, assuring himself that this feeling was only because he was going to lose a worthy warrior.

Karna looked up at Arjuna. His eyes went from surprise to resignation within a moment. He turned and stood up, unarmed but proud. He took a deep breath, expanding his chest. Before he could let the air out, the sharp tip penetrated and lodged in his throat, blocking his windpipe. The king of Anga struggled for a few seconds as his lungs exploded, unable to exhale. He clutched his throat but only managed to break the shaft. His physical fall began soon after, as his brain, devoid of oxygen supply, began to shut down. His muddy palms tried for a brief moment to hold on to the wheel, but the end came briskly.

For the third time in the past eight days, the commander of the Kaurava army fell. This was a giant among men. The man whom Duryodhana trusted. The man who was going to bring victory to the Kauravas. The man who was wronged his whole life. The man who could’ve ruled both the kingdoms had his identity been revealed. The man who gave everything to friendship. The man whom Kunti gave birth and cast aside, unwanted. That man’s lifeless body fell into the wet, muddy slush, uncared and untended.

As victorious bugles sounded around him, Krishna turned his chariot away and raced towards the Pandava camp. Nobody noticed the tear that ran down and flew off his cheek, disappearing into the late afternoon atmosphere.