Book Excerpt: Mahabharata, An Epic Retold

13/02/2015 8:15 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
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The competition of Prince Bhima and Prince Salya. Illustration from early 20th century. In the Indian epic, the Mahabharat, Prince Bhima and Prince Salya, both reknowned for their strength, fought with maces to a standstill, until Prince Bhima, left, finally won. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***

[Note: This is the day after Abhimanyu's killing, which forms episode 34 of Epic Retold. ER is told in 40 episodes.]

As the first rays of the sun break through the eastern sky, Arjuna surveys the battle formation Drona has arranged to protect Jayadratha.

Shakatavyuha. The cart phalanx. Somewhere in this solid, square box is his quarry.

My brother's face is carved in stone, except for his bloodshot eyes that restlessly flit across the enemy line, assessing, calculating.

I look at Krishna. It is clear he too has not slept much.

Drishtadyumna had predicted the enemy would be arrayed in the cart formation. He had also asked Yudhistira to position himself securely.

'The war will be over if Yudhistira is exposed,' he said. 'Drona will target him, especially now that our attention is focussed elsewhere.'

Today, Satyaki is guarding my elder brother. Drishtadyumna has asked me not to stray far either. The rest will support Arjuna.

As our men crash into the formidable wall Drona has erected, the Kauravas put up a strong defence. Jayadratha is nowhere to be seen.

Leaving Yudhistira and Satyaki in the second line, I surge ahead behind Arjuna.

My brother stands tall in his chariot, deft fingers distributing metal-tipped revenge from the Gandiva in a way I never thought possible.

When Arjuna unleashes the fire arrows, there is panic in the enemy ranks. Our ground troops use the confusion to batter their formation.

Leaping down from the chariot, I join in the mayhem. I spot one of the Kaurava brothers in the melee, engaging Arjuna but briefly.

For a short while I hear the mesmerizing song of Arjuna's bowstring. Then, when I look up, he is gone. Drona's first line lies in tatters.

With Nakula and Sahadeva, I fall upon the Kaurava troops, giving them no chance to regroup. Today, we all slaughter to avenge Abhimanyu.

At one point I see Yudhistira rushing with unexpected fury at Salya. My elder brother matches the more experienced warrior arrow for arrow.

Realizing the danger of Yudhistira continuing on the frontline for too long, I persuade him to leave Salya to me.

Drishtadyumna has moved farther away by the time Salya retreats. I see his chariot through a cloud of dust, cutting deeper into enemy lines.

The sun climbs high, then begins its descent rapidly.

Yudhistira looks at me anxiously when I ride up to him. Through the day, messengers have kept him abreast of news from the various fronts.

'Not much time left!' he says. 'The sun sets early today!'

When I look at him, he adds impatiently, 'Dakshinayana. Today marks the end of summer solstice!'

I realize why Krishna had summoned the astrologers the night before. At least he has a more accurate idea of dusk fall than any of us.

Drona has created a formation within the formation, which Arjuna is trying to break into.

It is almost certain Jayadratha is inside the second formation. The Panchala princes Yuddhamanyu and Uttamaujas are with Arjuna.

Drishtadyumna too is nearby, engaging Drona's division, though their battle seems to be taking him away from Arjuna's forces.

Cautioning Yudhistira to position himself securely and not do anything foolish, I ride back, telling Visoka to find Drishtadyumna's flag.

The light is beginning to fail when we sight Drishtadyumna's men. Even as we approach, I sense something is wrong.

Cutting through a ring of ground troops, I come to a still chariot. On the deck lies a boy, his throat pierced by a single arrow.

Kshatradharma, Drishtadyumna's son. Another sacrifice to the gods of war.

From the furious attack Drishtadyumna is launching on Drona, it is clear who is responsible for the death. I rush to assist the Panchala.

Two chariots cut across my path. My cousins. Perfect targets for my anger!

I leap out of the chariot. Wrenching the wheel of a destroyed vehicle, I send it spinning at the enemy on the left.

Catching it in his midriff, the Kaurava crumbles against his flagpole like a broken bamboo shoot. Roaring, I jump into the second chariot.

When I crush his neck with the metal of his own bow, my cousin lets out a gargling scream. Blood spurts with his last breath.

Two more of the blind man's sons. I do not even recall their names. How many left now?

'Here!' Visoka shouts, driving up close. 'We must go to Arjuna quickly!'

Fear grips me as we race towards where Arjuna is fighting. The light is almost gone. The battle could end any moment.

Before we get closer, I hear a roar. Then the victorious blare of Arjuna's conch.

When the dust settles, I see the fighting has ended. Krishna and Arjuna, followed by the rest of their contingent, are driving back.

At the camp, there is celebration. Yudhistira and Satyaki embrace the tired but triumphant Arjuna. Krishna is smiling.

Yuddhamanyu tells me what happened. Within the cart phalanx, Drona had created a Chakravyuha to tuck Jayadratha away from harm.

Arjuna had broken into the circle without trouble. Yuddhamanyu, Uttamaujas and a group of soldiers had followed him in.

Once inside, my brother had fought brilliantly. Ashwathma and the Bahlika prince Bhoorisravas had challenged him - only to retreat.

Karna had then faced Arjuna. The two fought a dazzling duel.

But as dusk approached and Jayadratha was yet to be sighted, Krishna asked Arjuna to pretend to give up on his vow and withdraw dejected.

Seeing Arjuna turn back, the Kauravas had cheered. For a brief moment, the formation parted to reveal an ecstatic Jayadratha.

That was all Krishna needed. Whipping the chariot around with amazing speed, he presented Arjuna a clear shot of his quarry.

The Gandiva spoke. Jayadratha fell, an arrow through his throat.

Leaving Yudhistira's tent, I walk to mine. A vow fulfilled. Jayadratha killed. But has Abhimanyu been avenged? Will it return him to life?

What about Kshatradharma? And Jayadratha himself? It occurs to me war is an endless cycle of revenge.

Drishtadyumna is waiting for me at the tent. He must have come straight from the battlefield. I notice blood oozing from under his armour.

Knowing no words to console him, I ask Visoka to bring food. Drishtadyumna eats absently. I am glad for the silence.

'Drona must fall,' he says when he finishes. 'I do not say that because of Kshatradharma alone. Drona must fall for us to win this war.'

He adds as an afterthought, 'I almost had him today.'

'Still, today we were lucky,' I say. 'Our losses weigh heavy, but Arjuna kept his word--'

'Yes, his foolish word. Though that was the work of midnight messengers. Not luck!'

Seeing the expression on my face, Drishtadyumna says, 'Krishna threatened to break his vow and fight if Jayadratha did not fall today.'

Drona understood the danger. Krishna as charioteer was one thing, but allegiances would falter if he fought for us.

The old brahmin knew how many under his command revered Krishna.

They would find it difficult to raise a weapon against him. The Kauravas could lose divisions.

'The wily brahmin thought Jayadratha was a fair price to pay,' Drishtadyumna says. 'Why do you think he kept away from the Chakravyuha?'

Ghatotkacha is right. We are worse than animals. We barter our own if it suits our purpose.

Seeing my troubled face, Drishtadyumna says softly, 'War is ugly. There never has been one without treachery. There never will be.

'The righteous war you seek exists only in Yudhistira's mind... Come, we must prepare for the battle at night!'

Chindu Sreedharan is the author of Epic Retold, published by Harper Collins India.

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