As the sun rose, Krishna put his plan in action. He knew for certain that Shalya would be made the charioteer to Karna. He knew it because he knew Shalya’s amazing skills with the steeds. But more importantly, he knew his weaknesses, and when Sahadeva suggested that they arrange a welcome party for his uncle, Krishna shot down the idea, knowing fully well that the other side would do the same.
He needed Shalya on the other side. Of the several ways to corner Karna, using Shalya was the easiest. The day would come when the Kauravas would run out of options and get desperate. It was a matter of time before Karna would be made the commander, and his primary goal would be to kill Arjuna. Until then, his objective would only be to reduce the Pandavas army, battalion by battalion. There was a reason behind Karna’s reluctance to engage Arjuna directly while playing second fiddle to the acharya.
Karna, for all his skill and bravery, was in general short on confidence when it came to dueling with the best of the best. Having recently been defeated soundly by Arjuna in the Virata, he doubted his ability against the Pandava. Which is why apart from a few skirmishes, he avoided a prolonged duel. But all that would change when he became commander in chief. He would now be front and center, expected to lead from the front, obligated to go for the big kill. He cannot escape direct combat. For that, he needed to be on equal footing, he needed the best driver for himself, someone with skills comparable to Krishna. Someone who will put the warrior’s mind at peace.
There is one such person on the Kaurava side, a horse breeder, expert driver, skilled in engineering, a student of soil science, with an intense devotion to Dhritarashtra and his family. But Sanjaya was craftily brushed aside by Krishna, having been assigned the role of relaying the war’s proceedings to the blind king.
On the Pandavas’ side, there were two such experts, Shalya being the second. When the topic of war was first broached, Shalya was believed to be the rightful choice for Arjuna’s charioteer. But Krishna had better plans. He wanted his own man on the other side. He knew Shalya’s army was mighty, strong, and celebrated, and that Shakuni had reached out to him for support, citing physical proximity and neighborliness of the Gandhara and Madra kingdoms.
While Shalya’s strength was his ability to steer, his failing was his chattiness. He could get under someone’s skin by constantly putting them down. Often times he did not know when to draw the line between friendly banter and overplay putdowns. Added that that, his raspy voice, which turned shrill when he was in his element, irritated people to no end. Krishna also knew that Shalya was impulsive, and had a weakness for indulgence. He let the Kauravas entertain the Madra king, knowing Shalya would declare his allegiance unknowingly. The pieces were set. The game was on. It was time to get Shalya to talk.
Laying out his plans for the day, Krishna noticed clouds in the distant sky. He consulted meteorologists, and asked if there were chances of rain, when, and how intense. They told him they do not expect it to rain during the day today. The night would be different though. There would be a downpour like no other. Perhaps the skies have seen enough bloodshed that they wished to wash away stains of dried crimson fluid that had begun to turn permanent on this wretched land.
He then spoke to the soil expert to learn from him which parts of the battlefield held loose soil, so that he can avoid them the next day. Then it stuck him: Maybe he shouldn’t avoid those parts tomorrow. Maybe he should head in that direction, and maybe even lead someone there. A plan formed in his mind. He sought and obtained more details on the area with loose soil, of specific spots that could get too swampy for chariot wheels. He decided they should spend some time today in the area to dig up some dirt and loosen the soil even more.
He smiled to himself. Change of plans, he was not going to activate Shalya today. He hoped Shalya had the good sense to keep his mouth shut today.
Krishna knew that it was impossible for the Kauravas now to replace Shalya with someone else as Karna’s driver. If they did, Shalya, out of resentment, would pull out his army instantly, loyalties be damned!. That would hurt them more, given that after fifteen days, their army was more or less wiped out. They could not afford to lose a whole division. They were compelled to put up with his antics. They did not have a choice.
Karna was a different story. He was a man with tremendous self control. He could immunize himself to Shalya’s shenanigans. He could force himself to tune the negativity out, and focus better. It could be counterproductive, and make him more devastating. It was important for Krishna that Shalya be patient and wait for the right time.
For his part, Shalya started the day thinking of his immediate duty. For all his impetuousness, he was an intelligent man. He could not go all in immediately. There was no guarantee that Arjuna and Karna would duel today. If he starts denouncing Karna and the Kauravas right from the start, it will trigger defense mechanisms and Karna may grow immune. He needed to wait it out and do it at the right time. Above all, he had a duty to fulfill, no matter his loyalties. Today, he was going to be a charioteer, and a silent observer.
Krishna quietly went into the tent and asked for the cartographer. He took a map of the battlefield, and began to circle some areas with a piece of coal. There was one spot he seemed more interested in. He called the soil experts and local tribesmen, and asked them to build a clay and mud model of the spot and its surroundings. He asked that the clay, mud and soil for the model be brought from the specific area in the battlefield, and that everything – including elevation changes and landscape – mimic the battlefield precisely.
“Once you build the model, call the meteorologist. He will tell you exactly how much water to sprinkle on the model”
The perplexed group exchanged glances.
But the man knew exactly what he was asking.
He walked out, smiling.