Karna’s plan was to bring a swift end to this war. His approach was to frantically engage the enemy, capture their biggest prize, kill their star warrior, slaughter the remaining faithfuls, and march to victory. It was clear-headed, no nonsense thinking. He had long been opposed to his predecessor’s war of attrition strategy.
He ordered the armies to be arranged in Makara formation, after his fascination with crocodiles during his forest dwelling days. He admired them for their swiftness and slithery nature, and feared their deadly bite. He always wondered what land animal came the closest to them. Having found no equal, had dreamed of training an army to mimic the reptile.
When he became king of Anga, he had his military chief setup a program to have Anga army cadets witness crocodiles in their natural habitat and train accordingly. The core principles were to be agile and lethal at the same time. Karna personally visited and witnessed their training routines from time to time.
He specially stressed on the frenzy that erupts when food was thrown into the midst of a congregation of crocs. He watched in exhilaration when the weaker reptiles were injured in the melee, to prove to the soldiers why it was important to stay fit and hungry, or else they would end up dead like the weakest of the lot.
At the head of the Makara formation was Karna himself, along with Dusshasana. Karna knew Dusshasana shared his urgency in finishing off the war. They headed towards the Pandavas’ crescent formation in a hurry.
Karna thought that since the other armies did not have the necessary training, if he could put his own Anga army at the forefront, he would see success today. He miscalculated on a few counts. Firstly, his own army was only a fraction of the original size. Some of their generals were butchered by Ghatotkacha a couple of nights ago, causing a gap in hierarchy. Secondly, they were weary from fifteen days of fighting, and weren’t as agile as was needed on such a day. Thirdly, the rest of the armies were woefully out of tune with the training and strategy for the Makara formation. They were being left behind by the surging Anga army, and the gap increased as they forged in, thinning the middle of the formation and exposing the belly of the crocodile to the rampaging Pandavas.
Karna and Dusshasana moved rapidly into the crescent, making quick work of the small armies in the front. They knew their respective quarries and encountered little resistance as they reached the back end of the formation. Karna’s army, though slow, was not too far behind. But the crescent began to close in, as the rest of the Kaurava army lagged behind.
To his surprise, Karna found Bhima at the center of the crescent. He was expecting Arjuna. His chariot sped towards the Pandava strongman.
Kunti’s first born was dueling with her third.
Bhima waited with an arrow strung to his bow. When Karna approached within a few hundred yards, Bhima released it. It sped through with such force that the soldiers heard it swoosh through the wind, amidst all the din.
Karna, having very little time to react, put his shield up in front of him. The force of the arrow jolted him back, and shot a sharp pain through the arm that held the shield. The arrow pierced through the shield, with the tip coming out from the other side. This completely took Karna by surprise, the skill and the power behind Bhima’s arrow. He wondered just for a moment if he underestimated Bhimasena.
Shalya noted this and smiled to himself. If Karna cannot withstand the archery of Bhima, there was no chance of his survival against Arjuna. He deliberately slowed his horses down, knowing very well that maintaining distance was better in these circumstances. It also bought some time for Karna to recover from the blow.
Thankful for the evading action taken by Shalya, Karna jumped into action, stringing and shooting arrows rapidly in Bhima’s direction. He expected Bhima to take evasive action at the volley. Instead, Bhima took out his sword, and displaying an agility disproportionate with his size, cut each of the arrows in half. Karna was astonished. Doubts began to creep into his mind, the same ones that his chauffeur thought a few moments ago.
The duel went on for several minutes, and to Karna’s amazement and dismay, Bhima came out on top every single time. Karna’s shield was riddled with arrows from Bhima’s quiver. He was running out of new tricks to counter the Pandava, and was clearly getting flustered.
One of Karna’s failings was that when agitated and faced with a challenge that he couldn’t overcome, he quickly lost his composure. He would become disoriented and scramble for weapons, picking a sword when a spear would be the preferred choice. As things got worse, his intensity and concentration would desert him, and his memory would fail. Unhinged and unsettled, he would become a sitting duck. It happened a couple of nights ago. But he was able to overcome that.
For a moment, he feared that the father would accomplish what the son couldn’t.
Shalya sensed that this would be a good time to gain Karna’s confidence. He executed several clever maneuvers to counter Bhima. He raced his chariot ahead fast, making Bhima believe they were running away, and then brought it to an abrupt stop, causing his arrows to overshoot. On another occasion, he made his horses jump, causing the chariot to be airborne for a few moments, dodging the arrows. His adept handling of the horses, his awareness of battle situation, earned respect from his occupant. All this time, he did not say much to the Kaurava, only warning or preparing him before a maneuver.
As the battle wore on, it was increasingly evident to the Kaurava commander that Bhima was getting the better of him. He was being attacked powerfully, tirelessly and relentlessly. There was no diminishing in the force behind the attacks. Karna was running out of options.
He needed respite, but was granted none. He asked Shalya to take the chariot farther away from the Pandava. Shalya smiled to himself and obliged. Karna didn’t want to go too far away. He didn’t want anyone to think he was fleeing. But he needed time.
The chariot raced in the other direction and slowed down. Karna took a deep breath, collected his thoughts and picked up three arrows from his quiver. He strung them and closed his eyes. He calculated how far they came, and visualized Bhima’s position. He held his bow down, preparing for an assault that Bhima perhaps would have never witnessed or experienced. His chariot began to make the slow turn, to head towards the Pandava again. He slowly raised his bow and pulled the arrows back, using his full strength.
The chariot completed its turn. Karna was an instant away from releasing triumvirate of arrows.
The next second, he rocked back and fell into the cab. It took him several moments to find his bearings and figure what happened. In his left hand was the bottom part of his bow, broken cleanly just above his grip. The three arrows were nowhere to be seen. The chariot had picked up speed, hurtling towards the crescent formation. The top part of the bow, which had been cleaved clean, had fallen out of the cab and was being dragged by the chariot.
Shalya pulled the reins on his horses to slow the chariot down, allowing Karna some time to collect himself.
The Kaurava commander in chief knew he had to get back on his feet. He held on to something on the center pillar of the chariot and pulled himself up. Only after he stood up did he realize what that something was.
Bhima’s arrow had lodged deep into the center pillar of the chariot, as a grim reminder.
Karna was stunned. Such power, such precision, such skill!
Bhima had calculated the exact time when Karna’s chariot would complete the turn, estimated the speed to perfection, released his single arrow with such accuracy and raw power that it not only broke Karna’s bow, it now had become a permanent ornament in his chariot. It was a surprise that the pillar still stood standing.
Karna was clearly overpowered, and tormented. Even though he wasn’t in mortal danger, it was only a matter of time. He needed support. Bhima was untouchable in his current form. Karna looked around and saw a Kaurava chariot race towards past him towards Bhima in the distance. His nerves calmed. He looked up at the flag to see who it was.
His face turned ashen.
It was his son, Banasena!