Tomorrow, we begin the battle of Kurukshetra.
This might well be my last opportunity to speak my mind. Here I sit in the stillness of this oppressive night and watch the quill as it quivers in my hand. Maybe I’m afraid. Or maybe it’s just that I haven’t slept in ages. Yes, I confess. I’m an insomniac, although history might misinterpret my ailment as an achievement. Because Krishna has termed me Gudakesha, One who has conquered the darkness of sleep. And I’ve noticed that His words have a way of eclipsing underlying facts. I loathe Him with my intellect. I love Him with all my heart.
This night is as much about what He has done to me, as it is about what Life and I have done to each other. Tonight, I will reflect on the milestones and the jolts.
The first one dates back to the era of my gurukul. Ah! Such a sublime age. I remember the first time I outlined an arrowhead with my forefinger. The very first time I twanged the string of a bow and used its tension to make the arrow sing. Yes. That very first time, my arrow found its twin marks: the bird’s eye and my guru’s heart.
‘If I’m the best teacher in the world, then you will be the best archer of all times,’ he said, embraced me, smiled. I believed him. I wanted to believe him. Being the third son in a family where everybody was considered an offshoot of divinity had instilled in me the beginnings of an inferiority complex. Yudhishtira is our leader by birth. Bhima has always been the powerhouse protector of the household. Nakula could generate sexual heat in women from the time he was an infant. And Sahadeva, being the youngest, is everybody’s beloved. But me, I was neither here nor there. Krishna, of course, assures me that I’m more special than any of them. That I shall be remembered thus. Do you see why I simultaneously love and loathe Him? He knows exactly what to say to manipulate my feelings.
Anyway, as I was saying, I was seeking an identity when I entered the gurukul. And I found it in my guru’s favouritism and the bow and arrow. It no longer bothered me that my cousin Duryodhana did not hate me as much as he hated Bhima. I was the star archer. The topic of gossip with the 98 insignificant Kauravas. In fact, I felt so secure that Ekalavya’s brief visit to the gurukul did not cause a ripple of fear in my heart. He was a smelly lad. Darker than the New Moon. My inferior in every way. Guruji took as much pleasure in insulting him as the rest of us.
The next time I saw him was when we Pandavas went for a stroll in the jungle surrounding the gurukul. Along with us was our pet dog. My pet dog. A mongrel I had taken pity on when it was a puppy. In order to instigate Duryodhana, Bhima had named my sweet dog Shakuni. What a burden a name can be! Shakuni, by responding to this name, became the enemy of the Kauravas. Bhima took it upon himself to protect it, but come the night, my dog sought me and slept by my feet. This blameless miserable creature was with us that day in the forest, chasing squirrels and barking at the monkeys teasing it from the treetops. And then, without warning, Shakuni began barking in an abnormally agitated manner and started running towards a target. Concerned from its welfare, I followed its wake. We approached a clearing where Ekalavya was practising archery. The moment Shakuni was in his line of vision, Ekalavya aimed arrows at its mouth. Seven of them. One after another. So rapidly did Ekalavya’s hands move that I could not see them dipping into the quiver or retracting the bow. It was all over in the flash of an eye. Shakuni fell like a log, his mouth carrying the undigested meal of seven gleaming arrows.
You might have heard another version of this episode wherein we accidentally stumbled upon an orphaned dog with seven arrows inside its mouth and therefore discovered Ekalavya. That version is less damaging to my ego. But consider this: how could I have felt that spike of fear and jealousy had I not witnessed his prowess firsthand? I could have easily assumed that he killed Shakuni with one arrow and then took his time shooting the remaining six into the dead dog’s mouth. In that scenario, I’d have goaded Bhima to pound on the lower-caste lad with his bare fists and returned with satisfaction to the gurukul. But this situation demanded a different action. It wouldn’t do to just crush his body or spirit. I had to rob him of his skill.
Thinking thus, I took a quick look of the clearing that Ekalavya had made his home. In the centre of it stood a clay statue of my beloved guru. I knew what I had to do. Asking my brothers to stand guard over Ekalavya, I ran to the gurukul and fetched my guru to the spot. Thankfully, he didn’t need an explanation to comprehend what had happened.
‘Did you do this to an innocent creature?’ my guru thundered.
Ekalavya prostrated before him, then replied:
‘I was meditating on your form when it disturbed me. I reacted instinctively.’
Guruji pressed home the advantage the lad had given him.
‘You practise in front of my statue. You meditate on my form. I refused to make you my disciple, but you’ve still made me your guru.’
‘That is so, guruji.’
Pointing to the rest of us, guruji said:
‘I teach these boys with destiny rare skills. My thoughts, my teachings, are so powerful that they travel long distances. Even the beasts and birds surrounding my gurukul hunt better than in other places. You’ve tapped into that power of mine despite my express disapproval.’
For a fleeting moment, Ekalavya turned aggressive:
‘The best teacher in the world deserves to teach the best disciple in the world. I’m merely fulfilling that destiny, guruji.’
At this point in time, guruji’s eyes grew soft, as if he saw the lad’s point. My own eyes betrayed consternation, desperation, utter misery. Guruji’s eyes met mine. He remembered the promise he had made. I had to remain the best archer in the world. So he turned to Ekalavya and said:
‘The great Bhishma approached me with guru dakshina even before he requested me to accept these boys as disciplines. You, on the other hand, have learnt from me without offering any. For all I know, you might have been watching my lessons from the shrubbery like a rat. What else can I expect from a boy of your breeding? What can I expect from you as guru dakshina?’
‘The universe, guruji! Expect the universe. Ask me to defeat a thousand kings in your name. Ask me to defend your honour against the gods.’
‘These feats have been within my reach since I was your age,’ guruji said, waving his left hand. ‘Your guru dakshina should be something you have and I might value.’
‘Give me your right thumb then.’
Ekalavya looked from guruji to me and then back at him, as if to say:
‘Is he worth this?’
Guruji, in turn, looked from him to me and then back at him, as if to say:
‘I cannot let you be worth more.’
Ekalavya picked up his bow and quiver, and just so that nobody could be in any doubt as to what he was offering, shot a bevy of arrows at guruji’s feat. Those arrows formed the word Pranam faster than I could write it on a parchment. I watched, stupefied, as he then unsheathed a knife and cut his right thumb. He flung it right next to the dead dog and gave all of us a smile of victory.
On the way back to the gurukul, I thought I saw tears streaming down guruji’s cheeks. I cannot be certain of this because he had ordered us to keep our eyes on the ground and I could manage to steal but one glance. But I’m certain of one thing: we never shared the same warm rapport again. He kept his promise. I am the best archer in the world. And I will be expected to use my skills against him starting tomorrow. Surely Ekalavya wouldn’t have repaid his debts thus?
One small footnote remains in this story.
For the next few days following the death of Shakuni, I kept returning to Ekalavya’s clearing. I saw him practising archery with his left hand. I saw that he was still good. Good enough to defeat most men. But not me. I rejoiced. Then one day, I returned to find the clearing empty. I believe he quit his ambitions and became a boatman.
Given a second chance, I’d gladly be the second best archer in the world. Perhaps that small fact would have prevented this battle that will be fought. I, for one, might have grown up as a less ambitious man. My tempers would have remained in check during many occasions. I might not have, during exile, roamed the lands to make marital-martial alliances with powerful kings. We Pandavas might not have amassed this political clout. Our destinies might have been ordinary and happy.
All things considered, I think I founded my life on a shameful emotion. I would pay for this sin for the rest of life. Let me proceed to the second defining incident without further ado.