A/N: This is an excerpt from my soon to be published book. Please read and review
“He died a hero’s death,” said Drona.
“I know,” said Duryodhana. “But it is small comfort to me.”
“I have no comfort to offer,” said Drona. “We have avenged your son’s death. His slayer lies dead. Your son died in battle as befitting a Kshatriya.”
Duryodhana nodded. “What you say, my mind accepts. But my heart is still grieved.”
“Then I will leave you alone with your grief,” said the Acharya.
“Thank you for coming,” said Duryodhana.
After the Guru had left, Duryodhana turned to Karna who was sitting silently. “I am glad you are here.”
Karna nodded. The intensity of Duryodhana’s grief appeared to have lessened and he seemed to have recovered some part of his composure. But Karna knew it was only a façade. His friend was trying to be strong, for he could not afford to be weak. They were at war and he was their leader. So he will try not be overwhelmed by his son’s death and pretend his heart wasn’t broken. Karna understood this.
“Drona was only trying to help,” he said.
“I know. But I don’t think anyone can help me with this. I still have to live without him. I still will have to tell his mother-” his voice broke and a sob forced its way past his lips. He sat down and buried his face in his hands.
“He was too young to die! How will I ever survive without ever seeing his face? What meaning does my life have now?”
“He would not want you to think this way,” replied his friend. “He was a Kshatriya and he knew his Dharma. And you know it better than I do. You still have a war to win. You still have your army and your brothers and your friends.”
“Even a victory would be hollow after today. And I have lost so many of my brothers. Damn Bheema! And damn all the Pandavas!”
Karna kept silent. He could not damn the Pandavas even to make his friend feel better. He sighed. “I think it will be better if you could get some sleep,” said he. “The war’s not yet over and you need your strength.”
“My strength,” said Duryodhana. “My strength lies dead in that battlefield. How can I sleep? And yet, the battle has to go on. My boy lies dead in the battlefield and yet I must fight. And that coward Jayadratha wants to leave the battle!”
“You can’t blame him,” said Karna. “He’s scared.”
“Scared!” snorted Duryodhana. “He’s a Kshatriya, a King. Why does he ride to battle if he’s afraid to die?”
“It’s one thing to die in battle,” replied Karna. “But it’s a whole new matter when you have stay in the middle of a vyuha waiting for someone who has sworn to kill you within the day. And it is Arjuna who has made the vow. That is not something to be taken lightly.”
“None of us are taking it so. You heard the Acharya earlier. We will be providing Jayadratha with the strongest defence we are capable of. And not because he’s my sister’s husband either. He’s an ally and he’s valuable to us. And we will do whatever possible to protect him.”
“It will not comfort Jayadratha much. He’s really afraid of Arjuna.”
“He won’t have to be. Not after tomorrow. Tomorrow, the Acharya is going to array our forces in such a manner that Arjuna will not even be able to approach Jayadratha! And if he fails- ah Karna, he has sworn that he would take his own life!” Duryodhana gripped Karna’s shoulder. “We could see Arjuna’s end tomorrow!”
“An end I would be sorry to see. I would dearly love to be able to defeat him!”
“You can do that tomorrow! And if you do, I’m sure you will close the mouth of all those loud mouthed admirers of his! Including that of our Senapati!” Duryodhana’s eyes shone. “This war could be won tomorrow!” He looked at Karna, “You need to go to your tent and get some rest! Tomorrow is a big day!”
Karna smiled, nodded and left. But he did not walk towards his tent. Instead he directed his steps towards the battlefield. Away from Duryodhana, his troubles rose to the surface of his mind. Duryodhana’s presence was a narcotic that made him forget everything else. But once away, he was once again reminded of who he was and the secrets buried in his heart.
But today he was worried not about their chances in the war, but about Arjuna. The oath he swore was no light thing. But if he failed- Karna could not bear to think of it. Of course, Krishna would be with Arjuna. He would never let anything happen to him. But still, Drona was a superb strategist. And none of the Kauravas would hesitate to employ whatever means necessary to achieve their goals. After all, none of them needed to defeat Arjuna. They only needed to delay him. And to keep him from reaching Jayadratha before sunset.
‘Do not set tomorrow, father,’ Karna begged silently, even though he knew it was not going to happen. ‘Do not set till my brother has fulfilled his oath and avenged his son. Save him!’
And then he was feeling guilty. Guilty that he was worried more about Arjuna’s life than about Duryodhana’s victory. But he could not lie to himself anymore. He loved his brothers. All of them. And the thought of any of them dying in this war was something he could not even contemplate.
But he loved Duryodhana too. And he could not even think of the possibility that his friend could die. The conflict was tearing him apart. His love for his friend was constantly at war with his love for his brothers. Duryodhana had his loyalty but he could no longer say that his heart belonged to him; his brothers held equal claim to it.
Karna stopped. Unconsciously he had walked to where Abhimanyu had fallen. He sank down onto the ground beside the boy’s corpse.
‘My nephew,’ he thought and tears prickled his eyes. ‘Forgive me. I helped kill you. I cut your bowstring from behind and stood by and watched while warriors more than thrice your age and experience surrounded you and destroyed your weapons. I could not spare your life. Forgive me!’
Karna bowed his head in anguish. Grief for the boy, for his parents, and his wife, now a widow, threatened to overcome him. And there was also shame. Shame for what he had done. Grief for himself; for the depths to which he had sunk.
He remembered his words to his father in the dream; the dream where his father warned him of Indra’s ploy to acquire his armour and ear rings. He had told his father, “Death happens only once. Yet dishonour follows one to the grave. I would rather die than lose my honour by breaking my sworn oath.”
How arrogant he was! And now, the honour for which he had disobeyed his father’s behest was already beyond him. Being a part of this boy’s murder had already besmirched his name and his soul beyond redemption.
How his parents had both entreated him! To leave Duryodhana and to join with his brothers! Yet, he had refused both of them. Just like he refused Krishna. Krishna, the omnipotent. The words he had used- honour, loyalty, gratitude, love-rose before him like spectres.
Now he had no honour left and he was no longer certain where his loyalties lay, he loved his brothers as much as he loved Duryodhana, all he had left was a debt of gratitude; a debt that he had never been called upon to pay. “I want your eternal friendship,” Duryodhana had said. That was all the other man ever wanted. Whatever he did for Karna was done out of friendship and he never wanted anything except Karna’s love in return. But now Karna’s heart was as divided as his loyalties. He was no longer the friend who wanted nothing but victory for Duryodhana.
He looked again at the boy. What a warrior he was! But then, what else was to be expected of Arjuna’s son and Krishna’s nephew! Ah, he was brilliant! Even as the boy’s arrows were piercing his armour, he had felt a surge of pride at his prowess! This was his nephew!
Why had he listened to Drona’s advice? Why had he even sought it? And yet- he had a choice. He didn’t have to accept the advice. After all, the warrior hadn’t been born who could not be killed in fair fight. He could have told Drona that. But he didn’t. Their soldiers were being slaughtered. And they were relying on him and the others to stop the boy. In the end, they had done that heinous act. And no matter how he looked at it, he could not excuse himself for his role in it.
He wondered if any of the others were suffering this kind of turmoil. Maybe not. After all, for them it was a simple decision. They had a war to win. And for that, they had to kill the boy.
But he hadn’t held back either. No matter how he now regretted the deed, he was part of it. All his ideals of honour did not stop him from disarming the boy from behind. How truly despicable he had become! He was no different from Drona who had given the advice.
‘My regret makes no difference,’ thought he. ‘If anything, it only makes me worse than I really am. I did it, knowing it was wrong. What use regrets now? How can I claim to have followed Dharma after this? I am the worst sinner of all!’
Someone sighed from behind him. Karna turned around, startled. So lost in his thoughts was he that he had not heard anyone approaching. He looked into the face of the one person he least expected to see.
“Karna,” said Krishna, though his greeting was cool.
Karna turned his face away and closed his eyes. Krishna’s voice contained none of the warmth that had been there in their previous two meetings. And yet, it was soothing to Karna. That voice was more familiar to him than the sound of his own breathing, that voice and the words they spoke had been haunting his thoughts and dreams for over a month. But today, he knew Krishna was angry. And in a way, it made him glad.
“Why are you here, Krishna?” he asked. “Why are you not with your sister and your best friend, grieving?”
“Why are you here?” countered the Lord, “Why are you not with your people and your best friend, celebrating?”
“I am leaving,” said Karna as he rose, though he could not help direct a glance at the fallen prince.
“If you had listened to me, this would never have happened. You can’t walk with evil men and not expect to be tainted!”
“They’re not evil!” said Karna, angrily. “And it was my choice!”
“Still loyal, still dutiful,” said Krishna. “But again I ask you, why are you not celebrating? Why are you here, mourning the death of your enemy and hating yourself for what you’ve done?”
Karna did not reply, but turned away to leave.
“Do not leave,” said Krishna. “I am only trying to save you.”
“Not even you can do that,” said Karna.
“I do not profess to have control over men’s destinies or their deeds,” said Krishna, “but the path you walk now need not have been the only one. Why didn’t you listen? Why didn’t you come when I called you on the first day of the war? Why did you have to do this?”
“Why are you so concerned, Krishna? Because you think it is too late for me now? You know it has been too late for me from the day I was born. My path had been set before me from the day Duryodhana called me friend and bestowed Anga on me. Ah Krishna, if you knew what a burden you had placed on me that day when you told me who I really was! Before that day, my path was certain, my loyalties were clear, my heart was whole. But now- I’ve made my choice and yet, I can’t be true to it, my loyalties are divided and so is my heart.”
“Yet, you would stay with Duryodhana? You have admitted you care for your brothers, yet you would fight them?”
“Didn’t Bhishma care for them? Doesn’t Drona? Then why am I so different? My duty is clear, Krishna. No matter what conflicts rage in my heart, I have no doubts as to my duty.”
“Your devotion to duty is admirable. But you are carrying it to insane lengths, just like Bhishma did and Drona too. Any man who follows Adharma, no matter how noble his reasons are, perpetrates it and their punishment will be swift and certain. If you are set on this course, Karna, the only return you can expect is death.”
“I once told you, Krishna, that I would sacrifice anything for Duryodhana. I’ve already sacrificed my honour. It is only right that my life should follow!”
“When a man desires so ardently for death, who can save him?” said Krishna. “And yet, Karna, I tell you out of my love for you that if you were to forsake Duryodhana, you may yet be saved.”
“I do not wish to be saved! Why should I wish to live? I have been born, the scion of a most noble Kshatriya family, the refulgent Surya my father and yet I’ve been branded a suta-putra all my life! On the eve of the most important battle of my life, I learn that my worst enemies are my brothers by birth! And out of his love for me, Grandsire Bheeshma made it impossible for me to fight for the first ten days. Ah, Krishna what dark thoughts I had during those days!
“Now that I am finally in the battle field, my love for my brothers debilitates me. I cannot fight as I should when I come face to face with them or their children! Ah, Krishna, had I not known the truth, there would have been no need to resort to unfair means to kill this child today! Why should I care for prolonging this life of mine? I have been in torment ever since I learned the truth.
“The truth that is burning me, I am unable to confide in anyone. And yet, what comfort would it bring me to share it? It is a truth that will only distress anyone who hears it. No, Krishna, I do not wish to live like this, constantly divided, in conflict with myself. All I hope for now is the release that death will bring me. If you love me, if you can still find mercy in your heart for me, then I beg of you, Krishna, release me from this life! Grant me an honourable death!”
“So be it,” whispered Krishna, sighing. Resignation was writ large on his face. “Three days more Karna. On the fourth, your wish will be granted.”
Karna smiled, a smile of joy, “Thank you, O Lord of the Universe. Karna will be waiting.”
Krishna placed his hand on Karna’s shoulder and looked into his eyes. “If I had the power to change but one man’s destiny, I would choose to change yours, Karna.” The words were spoken as if wrung out of his soul, “I wish there was some other way.”
Karna smiled at the words. “O Vaasudeva, Karna is indeed blessed! If I had nothing in this life, Lord I would still count myself fortunate beyond belief in having won your love and regard!”
“And yet, you would oppose me,” said Krishna. “Let us part for now, cousin. But remember my words. Three days more! On the fourth day we meet and that meeting will be our final one in this world!”
Karna smiled. Three days and his torment, his shame, his conflict would all end. He would finally find peace. Only three more days. They would pass quickly. And then he would finally be free.