"Come on Arjun, how long am I going to stand here like this? Wake up man!"
Arjun, who was dog tired after a long day's work of training the soldiers for the forthcoming war, was sleeping like a log. Subconsciously he felt someone shaking him, gently at first, then vigorously. He felt irritated at being disturbed so. He had strictly instructed the guards not to allow anyone inside his tent, not even Panchali, who always came to complain about something or the other. Tonight he was not in a mood to listen to her grievances.
Groggily he half opened his eyes and saw the shadow of a man standing in front of his bed. Instantly he leaped out of his bed and snatched a sword from the wall. He held it menacingly at the stranger's throat and growled.
"Who are you? How did you get inside? Speak up or die."
The stranger seized the sword from Arjun's hand with ease and let it fell on the ground with a clang.
"Relax son," said he with an amused smile on his face. "I am Surya, and not some secret assassin that you mistake me for."
Arjun was visibly surprised. He had never seen Surya from such close quarters. He wondered what made the old man sneak inside his tent at such an unearthly hour. He offered a chair to Surya and yawned.
"My regards to you Sir," said he. "But I fail to understand what business brings you here at this late hour."
"I am sorry that I disturbed your sleep," said Surya. "But the fault entirely lies with your father Indra."
"Dad?" Arjun was perplexed. "Where is he? And what has he got to do with your visit?"
"Oh, your Dad is now in Indraloka," said Surya. "But he will visit soon with the wicked intention of harming my poor son."
"Harm your son?" Arjun sounded confused. "Why the hell should he want to do that?"
"Jealousy Arjun, jealousy," sighed Surya. "Indra's envy and selfishness have no bounds."
Arjun scratched his head and yawned again. What Surya said made no sense to him at all.
"Look here Sir, this is a problem between you and father and you should solve it among yourselves. Why involve me into it?"
"You're wrong!" snapped Surya. "Your brother's life is in danger and it's your duty to protect him."
"My brother?" Arjun was now fully awake. "Now this is so confusing! You said that my father wants to harm your son. Now you are saying that my brothers' life is in danger. I cannot understand a thing."
"That's quite natural," said Surya. "Your mother hid the truth from all of you."
"Mom?" Arjun was totally bewildered. "How does Mom come into this?"
"Huh! Your Mom is the main culprit," sighed Surya. "Her stupid curiosity led to all these problems."
Arjun was tired of this meaningless talk. He suspected Surya might be drunk. It was time to stop him.
"Excuse me Sir, but I have a long day tomorrow and need some sleep."
Surya paid no attention to him and continued to talk.
"Listen Arjun, I need your help. Only you can save Karna from that devil Indra."
"Karna?" cried Arjun. "Why the hell should I save that haughty son of a charioteer and my worst enemy?"
"No Arjun," Surya replied quietly. "He's my son and your brother."
Arjun was not sure he heard him right. He picked up the water jug from the bedside table and splashed some water on his face to ward off his sleepiness.
"I think I failed to hear you correctly. What did you say just now?"
Surya looked at Arjun and felt sorry for him. The poor man was under tremendous pressure because of the impending war. But he was helpless. Karna must be saved from the evil designs of Indra.
"It's true Arjun. Karna is your eldest brother."
Arjun had enough!
"Bullshit!" he exploded. "How dare you sneak into my tent in the middle of the night and feed me with such lies? Leave this place before I lose my patience!"
Surya was unperturbed by Arjun's violent outburst.
"If you don't believe my words, then go ask your mother Kunti. She bore Karna before her marriage and abandoned him."
"Utter lies!" cried Arjun.
"Oh yeah?" sneered Surya. "Why don't you ask your dear friend Vasudeva? He and your darling Mom recently met Karna and tried to persuade him to change sides. But the stubborn fool preferred to stick to that dumbhead Duryodhan."
"I don't believe a word you say," cried Arjun. "Go away!"
Kunti, who suffered from insomnia, was trying to get some sleep when she heard loud screams coming from Arjun's tent. Hurriedly she left her bed and rushed towards his tent. To her utter relief, she found her son tossing and turning in his sleep. She quietly sat down on the bed and lovingly touched his brow.
"Hush son, it's only a nightmare."
Her soft touch and soothing voice woke him up. He sat up on the bed and blinked at his mother. Then he recalled his nightmarish dream and shuddered.
"What made my brave son so terrified?" Kunti asked affectionately.
"Gee Mom," replied Arjun stifling a yawn. "I'm not terrified. Just pissed off."
"Okay, so what made you so pissed off?" smiled Kunti.
"Not what Mom, who," replied Arjun. "It was that old bum Surya."
Did Kunti's face loose color and become pale? Arjun could not be sure in the dim light of the tent.
"What did he say?" asked Kunti. Arjun deciphered a sudden fear in his mother's voice. For some unknown reason he felt uneasy.
"Leave it Mom; it was just a stupid, meaningless dream," he tried to sound casual.
"Tell me Arjun, I feel curious."
"Okay Mom, if you insist. He said...he said that my Dad Indra wants to harm his son. Ridiculous, isn't it?" Arjun tried to laugh.
"Did he say how?"
Arjun wondered why his Mom sounded so anxious.
"No Mom. Before I could ask you woke me up," replied he.
"That's because you were screaming in your dreams. What made you scream, son?"
"I...I don't remember Mom." Arjun avoided looking into his mother's eyes.
Kunti knew that Arjun was hiding something from her. But she felt afraid to hear those unspoken words and did not probe further.
"Go back to sleep, son," said she. "You have a hectic day tomorrow."
Tiredly she rose from the bed and walked out of the tent. Arjun stared at her disappearing form in the dark and wondered if there was any truth hidden in the dream he just saw.
"Hello Arjun! What brings you here?"
"Your Pa came to see me last night."
"How come? My father is now at Hastinapur."
"Come on bro, lets skip the pretentious. You know very well who I'm speaking about."
"Aah, you mean my biological father! What did the old man want?"
"He's worried about you."
"Really? What for?"
"He's afraid that my Dad Indra might harm you."
"Indeed? And how does he plan to do so?"
"No idea bro."
"That's too bad. Anyway, thanks for the warning."
"You're most welcome."
"So, now you too know the truth about us, huh?"
"Well, yes. Do you mind?"
"Why should I mind dude, since both of us are in the same leaky boat."
"It is very simple. You and I are destined to achieve for others. Our accomplishments either benefit Yudhi or Duri. At times its so frustrating man!"
"You're right bro. I'm disgusted with Yudhi's selfishness. He even stole my wife!"
"The lech! Poor Panchali. It must be bad enough for her to endure five husbands, including a selfish nerd like Yudhi. Imagine what her plight might be, had I accepted Vasudeva's offer."
"Vasudeva? What offer did he make?"
"Your friend is a clever man. First he revealed my true identity and then persuaded me to change sides. In return he offered me Indraprastha and Panchali."
"Unbelievable! How could he make such an offer without consulting us?"
"Don't make me laugh dear. Who needs your permission anyway? Did Yudhi consult any of you before staking Indraprastha, yourselves, and Panchali in the dice game?"
"You're right. Thank God Vasudeva saved Panchali from public humiliation. He's the only good friend I have. Like you have Duryodhan."
"Make no mistake Arjun, friendships also have their selfish motives. Duri made me the king of Anga because he found your nemesis in me. In return he got my friendship and military support. Likewise, Vasudeva wants Yudhi to become the king of Hastinapur so that he can strengthen the power of the Yadavas with his support. Hence he sought your friendship and got his sister Subhadra married to you."
"Hmm...Maybe you are right. But one thing baffles me. What made you refuse Vasudeva's offer? Wasn't it lucrative enough?"
"Actually not. Nothing much will be left to rule after this war is over. Believe me, there's no fun in building up a war-devastated kingdom. As for Panchali, I have heard that after enduring thirteen years of hardships she has become a very bitter and complaining woman. I agreed that she has suffered a lot, but it was entirely Yudhi's fault and not mine. So let him endure her temper."
"Okay, I understand. But in spite of knowing who you are, why do you prefer to keep it a secret from the world?"
"I think it's better that way Arjun. Yudhi has struggled a lot to get the throne. In fact he's still struggling. Let him have it. As I said, I don't have the patience to build up a nation from scratches.
"Okay bro, do as you think best. But it's getting late and I have to go now. Take care."
"You too dear bro."
Karna felt relaxed and a bit amused when he did his daily morning walk beside the river. Surya had appeared in his dreams on the previous night. They had a brief conversation and now he knew about Indra's intentions. The bloke was after his natural armor and earrings. It was funny because he no longer nurtured any ill feelings towards Arjun and vise versa. Indra's tension was baseless. Anyway, if he asked for the armor, Karna would happily donate it to him. There was no fun in walking, sleeping, and living in a heavy armor that forever covered his dashing muscular body. The same could be said about the huge, dangling earrings too. Karna had always preferred a pair of diamond studs instead. Now, it seemed, he could wear them and show off his macho body to the dames.
Three hours later Karna returned home. His wife Vrishali was the first one to notice his bare chest.
"What happened to your armor?" she asked anxiously.
"I donated the armor and earrings to Indra."
"Indra? Do you mean Arjun's father? How could you? Oh, Lord! This is a disaster!" she wailed.
"Relax honey," smiled Karna. "Take it easy. There's nothing to worry about."
"Darling, what made you donate your life-saving armor? Couldn't you give something else?" sobbed Vrishali.
"Come on sweetheart, don't you fret," said Karna. "I was tired of carrying the heavy armor. The earrings were anyhow boring and useless. See my new diamond ear studs. Aren't they cute?"
Vrishali was not convinced. She sulked for days and moved about with a sullen face. She cursed Indra a thousand times for his greed and selfishness. But Karna was happy with his new look and the new weapon he had received from Indra as a return gift. He could use it only once, but that didn't matter. The shaft, Indra said, was lethal. What if he used it to kill uncle Shakuni? A mischievous smile played on his lips as the welcome yet impossible thought crossed his mind.
"Hello Rajmata. My regards to you."
"Skip the drama, son. You are well aware of who I am. Can't you address me as Mom?"
"Huh, who's being dramatic now? Anyway, what brings you here?"
"I am sorry about Indra's selfish deed. It was shameful."
"You have no need to be sorry because I am not. And if you are worried about the shaft, then let me assure you that it will not be used to kill any of your sons."
"You mean your brothers."
"Whatever. Happy now? Or is there anything else I can do for you?"
"Yes, you can son. Join your brothers and lead them in the war."
"Let's not waste time on something we have already discussed before. Let me repeat, I'm neither interested in Hastinapur nor Panchali."
"I thought you had a soft corner for Panchali."
"Maybe I had, once. But not now."
"May I ask why?"
"She has changed over the years. Yudhi's fault of course. But bickering women held no appeal for me. I like them docile and submissive; like Vrishali."
"I suspect Panchali nurtures a soft corner for you."
"Really? I thought Arjun is the one she truly cares about."
"Can't say. It's hard to judge a woman's feelings about men."
"But what about your brothers? Don't you have any feelings for them?"
"Didn't I promise to spare their lives?"
"Yes, you did. But that's not enough. Think how happy they would be if you lead the army as their eldest brother."
"No they won't be. They're happy the way they are, and I'm happy the way I am. Let's not complicate matters any further than they already are. To tell you the truth, I should rather die on the battlefield than lead a life full of struggles, as the winners would do after this massive destruction is over. I shudder to think about the post-war consequences and don't have the nerve to face them."
"You give me the shivers, Karna. Can't the war be stopped?"
"I don't think so. We can't change the past, can we? Nor can we change the mindset of people. It's too late now."
"I wonder what went wrong."
"Everything. Pitamaha's thoughtless oaths, the blind king's blind support to Duri, Uncle Shakuni's evil ploys, the dice game and it's following events... everything was wrong."
"I think Shakuni is mainly responsible for this war."
"You're wrong. Uncle Shakuni acted as a mere catalyst to the inevitable, that's all. The war was pre-destined."
"Won't you change your decision, son? Won't you come with me?"
"No, I won't. I can't desert Duri at this eleventh hour. He is fighting this war mainly depending upon my strength and power. Moreover, Yudhi has been struggling and suffering for years to become the king. At least he should be given a chance to prove his merit. It's better that I die a soldier's death and escape from the post-war trauma."
"Don't talk of death, son. It breaks a mother's heart."
"You should learn to accept the truth, Rajmata. It will prepare your mind for the forthcoming disaster."
"Won't you ever call me Mom?"
"Okay Ma, if it makes you happy. Take care."
In keeping with Karna's predictions, the war was devastating. The number of casualties crossed millions. Not a single family remained unscathed. The Kauravas were completely wiped out. The Pandavas survived, but all their sons and relatives were massacred. Yudhisthir won a kingdom with only widows and children as his subjects. Even the queenship of Hastinapur could not heal Panchali's pain, who lost five brave sons in the war. The only living Kuru descendants after the war were Arjun's grandson Parikshit (who was also Vasudeva's grand-nephew) and Karna's youngest son Vrishaketu. With Yudhisthir's unconditional support to Vasudeva, the Yadavas of Dwarika became immensely powerful.
Nobody knew about the secret meeting that occurred between Karna and Arjun on the night of the 16th day of the war. Both of them were suffering from acute depression as both had lost their sons in the war.
"I have a request for you Arjun," said Karna.
"What can this broken man do for you bro?" Arjun wiped his eyes.
"I feel ashamed about Abhimanyu's death," said Karna in a small voice. "And Ghatotkacha's too."
"You should be a bro. They were your own blood. How could you?"
For the next few minutes both of them did not talk and remained engrossed in their own thoughts. At last Arjun broke the silence.
"You said you have a request for me. What is it bro?"
"I will tell you, but you have to promise that you won't refuse to keep it," said Karna.
"I won't; provided your request is fair and justified," replied Arjun.
"According to me, it is."
"Then tell me. I'd be more than happy to help you."
Karna carefully chose his words.
"To tell you the truth Arjun, I have lost the desire to live any longer. Many of my sons have been killed and the rest will also die in the war. Without them life is meaningless for me. I don't think Vrishali will also survive long. Without them what's the use of living?"
"I can understand your plight bro," said Arjun. "I have also lost Abhimanyu. Tell me what can I do to help you."
"Only you can relieve me from this unbearable pain Arjun," Karna's voice trembled. "Kill me tomorrow."
Arjun's eyes glistened with tears.
"How can I promise bro? I can only try. Let's have a combat tomorrow."
"That won't do," said Karna. "You can never defeat me in fair combat. You can kill me only when I am unarmed and helpless."
Arjun was shocked.
"How can you ask me to do such a shameful deed?"
"Come on bro," replied Karna. "You felled Pitamaha when he was unarmed and helpless, didn't you? Then why not do it with me too?"
Arjun looked away, shame written on his handsome face.
"Listen Arjun," went on Karna. "I want you to give me a memorable death on the battlefield tomorrow. You can also consider this as the last order from your elder brother."
Arjun looked sad and helpless. Right from his childhood, he had been taught to obey his elders. He knew that he had to bow down before Karna's wish.
"First I had to obey Pitamaha's orders, and now you want me to do a repeat performance. Why do you want people to remember me as a coward who felled his opponents when they were defenseless and vulnerable? Why am I repeatedly made to appear like a villain? Why?" asked Arjun.
"Because, just like Pitamaha, that's the only way to kill me bro," replied Karna. "I know I'm being selfish, but I can't help it. I had a talk with Vasudeva too and he has agreed to help you with this task."
"I don't understand why people always choose me as their scapegoat?" wailed Arjun.
"Because you are the best my dear," replied Karna. "Everybody wants to die in the hands of the best warrior. How can I settle for anyone lesser?"
Arjun knew that he had lost the argument.
"All right bro, as your wish. Let the world remember me as a coward and an opportunist. A great image for the best warrior, huh?"
"Don't feel bad Arjun," said Karna. "Every warrior takes advantage of his opponent's weak points. You're doing nothing that's out of a war's etiquette. The world will remember you as one of the greatest warriors of all times."
"I'm not convinced bro," replied Arjun. "There's no sportsman spirit in such cowardly acts."
"War is not a sport dear bro," said Karna. "It's a struggle for existence and only the fittest can survive. Don't forget that I'm your enemy as well. Take my suggestion and get rid of me."
"What about Duri? Your death will mean disaster for him."
"Am I not sacrificing my life for him? What more can I do? If Yudhi is destined to become the king then no one can stop him from being so. Moreover, Duri lacks the patience to rebuild. He is also mentally devastated after losing his brothers and son Lakshman. I don't think he's going to last long."
"Okay bro, tomorrow I shall carry out your order. I wonder if anyone will ever respect me again," sighed Arjun.
"Of course they will Arjun," said Karna. "And even if they don't, just ignore it. People derive perverse pleasure by criticizing others. The same will happen to me also. Many historians will describe me as Duri's sidekick and a partner to his crimes. My vices will be magnified and virtues ignored. But I never cared about people's opinions and did whatever I thought to be my duty. So don't be affected by criticism. It will only make you unhappy."
"I doubt if we can ever feel happy again."
"Happiness is just a state of mind Arjun," replied Karna. "Just do your duty and leave the rest to destiny."
"You are right," agreed Arjun. "No use thinking about the future."
"How could you Mom? How could you keep such a secret from us?"
"I know it was my fault."
"Your silence led to this devastating war. Do you realize that?"
"Sorry? Huh! Can your 'sorry' bring back those millions of lives we lost in the war? Can it bring back our eldest brother Karna?"
"Forgive me son."
"And to think that it was Arjun who killed him so unfairly! Shame on him!"
"Don't blame him Yudhi. Arjun acted according to Karna's wish."
"He should have come to me first and disclosed Karna's identity. He is no less responsible for this disaster."
"No, he's not. Arjun never wanted to fight this war. It was Vasudeva who convinced him to do so. And it was Duri who wanted the war, not us."
"But he could have at least revealed the truth to me."
"How could he? He was promise bound to Karna to remain silent on this topic. So don't blame him."
"Okay, he might have been promised bound, but you were not. Oh Mom, had you told me before, I could have talked to Duri and avoided this war. I'm sure Duri would have gladly accepted Karna as the king."
"You are right Yudhi. I am responsible for my son's death and I can never forgive myself for it."
"Neither can I. Your damn secret destroyed an entire nation. O God, may the womenfolk lose their ability to keep a secret."
"Don't curse son. It doesn't become a king who just won an important war."
"I did not win the war, Mom. Someone else did."
"What nonsense? You are the king."
"Yes, an old king without a son to continue my lineage. My successors are Parikshit and Vrishaketu. They will inherit the thrones of Hastinapur and Indraprastha respectively. Hence in reality Arjun and Karna are the actual winners."
"If you say that Yudhi, then I am the actual winner because both are my sons."
"You're right Mom. You are a lucky woman. Your five sons managed to survive the war. Karna died, but his son Vrishaketu is there to comfort you. Your clan, the Yadavas are left unscathed. You indeed are the happy winner."
"Happy indeed Yudhi! My days as a queen were spent in the forest. My fatherless sons were under constant threat from their jealous cousins. Shakuni nearly burnt us to death. For years we had to travel incognito, as beggars! My sons lost their kingdom. My daughter-in-law faced public humiliation. The war took away my eldest son and nearly all my grandsons. Do you still think I am happy?"
"I am sorry Mom. You are right. Winning doesn't always bring happiness."
"Exactly. One can never experience absolute happiness. Look at the Kauravas. In spite of being the king, Dhritarashtra always felt threatened by us. Duri had everything a prince could wish for. Yet he suffered because of his jealousy. Shakuni's extreme vengefulness never gave him peace of mind. Karna suffered because of his identity crisis. Bheeshma was eternally torn between his oath and sense of justice. So you see, nobody was happy."
"Mom, you forget Vasudeva. He helped us win the war, but he did not participate, nor did any of his relatives. He lost no one in the war and has no reason to feel unhappy."
"But he did lose his nephew Abhimanyu."
"Abhimanyu did not belong to the Yadava clan. Being Arjun's son, he was a Pandava. And don't forget, Abhimanyu's son and Vasudeva's grand nephew Parikshit is the future king of Hastinapur."
"You're right son. In this war Vasudeva lost nothing but gained a lot for the Yadavas. He's the one who won."