The sombre mood continued in the Kaurava camp this morning, the seventeenth day of the war. Until yesterday, they had lost warriors, generals and even commanders. But this was something else. Dusshasana was a member of the exclusive quartet. He was the closest brother to Duryodhana. It was widely believed that the death of one of them would be the beginning of the end.
Defeat loomed dark on the soldiers’ minds. While the death itself was shocking, the calm, methodical manner in which Bhimasena took his life sent shivers down everyone’s spine. The soldiers and generals knew it would embolden the Pandava side, and there would be a renewed vigor in their fight today.
Stories also circulated about how Bhima humiliated Karna, their commander, in battle the day before. The fact that Karna was touted to be equal to, or better than Arjuna, and yet was disgracefully driven from the battlefield by someone whose archery was their second best skills weighed heavily on the cadres. If Karna could not match Bhima, how could he face the wizardry of Arjuna?
Armies are driven by morale, and yesterday’s one man show by the strongest Pandava did not augur well for the Kauravas. Their eyes betrayed the defeat in their minds. Their shoulders dropped. The grip on their weapons loosened, ever so slightly. Their legs moved slowly and reluctantly towards the battlefield. Their horses sensed their fear, and hesitated in advancing.
Karna noticed this, and knew that the only way to rejuvenate the army was to go after the Pandava prize, Arjuna. Today was going to be a do-or-die day. The previous night, he called captain of the armory and ordered extra weapons for the morrow. He sent a word for them to be loaded on to his chariot, much to Shalya’s bewilderment.
“The extra weight will slow us down, Karna. It rained last night. The ground will be soggy and possibly loose. My horses will already be moving slower because wet mud will stick. We don’t want to be stuck in slushy soil on a day like this. If at all, today is the day to travel light”
“And that is why we have you, Shalya. Your job today is to avoid all such areas, and take the best path to kill Arjuna. Pack some extra food for the horses so they can get replenished on the field. Replace their shoes with new ones for better traction. Today, I will kill Arjuna, come hail or high-water! I do not underestimate Arjuna’s strength, but I do not want a repeat of yesterday when we had to turn back for weapons. Every single weapon will get loaded into the chariot”
The response took Shalya completely by surprise. Karna was raised by a charioteer. He should know better than anyone on the battlefield that the conditions will be treacherous for horses. When left to saunter at their own pace, horses can run perfectly well without any risk of injury in any condition. A battle horse pulling payload is a different situation. Here, the speed, driven by the occupant, varies based on the chase. In slushy conditions, the force it takes to pull a foot free with each step can lead to lost shoes, pulled tendons and overreach injuries as a horse lurches forward to escape its hold. Which is why in conditions like this, the chariot has to be lightweight. Adding more weapons – and hence more weight – was completely counterproductive.
Shalya realized it was futile to argue. The finality in Karna’s order betrayed his desperation, and his vulnerability. The commander was willing to take a catastrophic risk. Shalya also knew the outcome of such a misadventure. He knew his horses, he knew the soil. He knew was suicide.
On the other side, Krishna unburdened his chariot. He replaced the heavy equipment with lighter ones. He offloaded maces and shields. He replaced his horses’ hoofs with new ones, fitted with tiny studs for better traction. He arranged for an empty chariot to follow him closely, in case he needed to replace any injured steed.
The previous night, he studied the battlefield map several times. He took his cousins to the model he had built, and went over the route on where to be at what time. He explicitly told Arjuna not to chase Karna today, and to keep a slow pace if chased by him. He knew exactly the area where he wanted to lead Karna, and when.
As the weary armies started to engage in battles, Karna’s instruction to Shalya was singular – head to Arjuna.
Krishna knew Karna’s desperation, and was not going to let Arjuna battle him right away. He wanted Karna to feel humiliated at the hands of a few other warriors, thus denting his confidence, before he faced Arjuna. He knew Bhima would frustrate Karna. He also advised Satyaki to pester Karna from time to time, not letting him settle into a rhythm. The crafty Madhava left instructions for all the Pandava brothers to hassle Karna on the day, blocking his path and hindering his progress. He knew Karna would not spend his energy on killing any of the Maharathis today. He also counseled Arjuna to ignore Karna until later in the day.
By mid morning, Karna was getting impatient. He set out the day seeking his archrival, but was being blockaded by seemingly an endless stream of small time warriors and armies. Not realizing that his desperation was impacting his ability, he kept abusing them and using up precious energy. He turned his anger towards Shalya and accused him of moving slowly, “you are doing this deliberately aren’t you? Because I asked you to load up on weapons. I know horses, grew up with them all my childhood. There is no way they move this slowly unless you’re reining them in. I don’t care about your loyalties, all I need is for you to do your duty as my charioteer”
Shalya kept a gentle silence all through the tirade, knowing fully well that his time to retort would come very soon. He did his best to control the horses, which were getting noticeably tired as the extra weight and the damp battlefield. As noon passed, they needed a break.
Shalya turned to his occupant and said if they don’t stop, they might as well surrender because they will be left chariot-less soon.
Reluctantly Karna agreed. Shalya directed his steeds towards the river. He parked his ride and let the horses loose, allowing them some freedom to drink and graze. He then turned his gaze towards Karna, who was intently watching the field. The location offered them a wonderful view of the ongoing battles. They watched Nakula in action. The older of the twins was a fine swordsman, and a wonderful horserider. He was not in a chariot today, preferring to ride his steed, given the tricky soil conditions.
Karna intently watched Nakula, in admiration of the sheer skill on display. Nakula sliced through enemy battalions was amazing. He took on-foot and mounted soldiers with equal ease. With nothing but swords in both his hands, he fended off volleys of arrows from chariot riding generals. He took on Vrikaasura, the second son of Shakuni who was riding an elaborate 4-horse chariot. He frustrated Vrikaasura by deftly avoiding his burst of arrows. Using his knowledge of horses, he spooked Vrikaasura’s steeds, which swerved and bolted, tossing the Vrikaasura off his cab. Nakula jumped into the air, and in a single swoosh separated Vrikaasura’s head from his body while still airborne, and landed back on his horse. As Vrikaasura’s head dropped onto the slushy battlefield, Karna’s admiration turned to alarm.
Shalya, watching Karna’s face turn from curiosity to admiration to borderline fear, knew it was time to strike.