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!

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