At last, the sixtheenth day of the Kurukshetra War came to an end.
The glowing orb reluctantly rolled down the Western sky, putting a much-needed halt to the day-long slaughter of mankind. Bruised and wearied men limped back to their camps, their restless minds contemplating the possibilities of witnessing another sunset.
Standing at the entrance of our tent, I watched them all, my mind being more restive than theirs. My tireless eyes scoured through the multitude of blood-drenched faces for one glimpse of the last man alive in our family – my father, Angraj Karna.
How thrilling were the recitals of battles in childhood! Sitting on the marble floor of our palatial balcony, my brothers and I used to listen with rapt attention to Grandsire’s fascinating narrations: Handsome men dressed in silver armours, riding out in golden chariots and vanquishing their enemies with unmatched valour. How idyllic and romantic, War had seemed from the distance in the sunny afternoons! Only, when I looked closer, death, pain and sufferings were all I could find. Blood, injury, and carcasses filled the sight. Sickening stench of mutilated bodies and deafening cries of half-dead soldiers pervaded the entire area. How cleverly the bards and poets had omitted out all these from their fanciful narratives!
My eyes fell tired. I turned my face away from the vile sight for some respite. Distraction was the only escape from such repugnant gore. Thus, trying to evade the reality, my mind wandered and took refuge in the memories of the past few days.
It was the fifth day of the war, when my mother and I arrived at the field of the Kurus. Call it cowardice or selfishness, but I was thoroughly relieved when news about my father’s verbal spat with the Kuru Grandsire reached the zenana. His subsequent vow to stay away from the war brought nothing but solace to the women of the inner quarters of Anga, and most of all to me.
As we arrived at the camp, special arrangements were made for our stay. We were no less than the family of King Suyodhan’s best friend. Thus, the privilege of staying close to our loved ones with utmost comfort was ours. Father was vehemently opposed to the idea of women being involved in the matters of men, but Mother was equally adamant. “I will stay with you until the very end,” was her final decision. A very unwise decision, which we realized soon enough.
One after the other, my brothers rode out to war, only to come back as nothing but mangled bodies. My mother stood watching, aghast as each day Father carried back a fresh corpse to the tent. In those frightening moments of relentless agony, I witnessed the most unlikely sight – my father crying. Years spent in battles might harden a warrior, but could it benumb a father?
Surprisingly, Mother remained exceptionally strong in those moments of despair. She cried much but spoke little, tucking away her pain and insecurities at some secret corner of her heart. I could see through her sombre silence, a part of her died each day with each of her sons. Nine months of her care and labour – all were ravaged in a matter of few days.
By the time Vrishasena’s turn arrived, our eyes had dried up like a parched well. Father carried my brother’s corpse back to our tent, but unlike the previous occasions, the remains were wrapped in a white piece of cloth. Was he butchered so badly? Who killed him? Was it that famous warrior – Arjun? Hundreds of questions formed in my head, as Father slowly lowered the corpse on the floor, and looked at us with red, teary eyes. My mother sat still, staring at the white bundle without a word.
“Padmavati,” Father’s voice was broken. “Say something. This is the last time you are seeing him. Say something, Padmavati. Don’t hold back your tears.”
“This is the consequence of that boy’s death isn’t it, Angraj? That young boy? What was his name again? The one at whose death, you all had danced so joyously?” Her words hit like a shard. Father looked down, visibly ashamed to pronounce the word. “Abhi…Abhimanyu. Isn’t it, Angraj?” She broke down at last. “You killed their children and so, they killed ours. How long will this go on?”
Angraj Karna, the man of much words, remained quiet.
I looked down at the bundle of white shroud that was once my living brother. Wasn’t it a few days ago when we were fighting over that wooden horse as two little kids? Or when we were running around in the orchard, picking up ripe mangoes on warm, summer afternoons? Or when my brother made his promise to conduct a grand wedding for me? How long had it been? My mind kept swapping between memories of different events from our past —
“Ma….I will dress up like a princess, and choose my prince when I grow up…”
“No dear…only Kshatranis have such marriages….”
“What is a Kshatrani, Ma?”
“You will know when you grow up.”
Mother’s words had left me disheartened. Seeing my crestfallen face, Vrishasena suddenly intervened. “Worry not, Rituvati, I will organize a Swayamvar for you when I become a King. You will have the greatest Swayamvar the world has ever seen. Happy?”
My brother’s promise echoed in my ears, as I stared at his tattered body. Kneeling down next to him, my hands caressed his corpse. “Vrishu…what happened to your promise?” Tears trickled down my cheeks at last. “You left us too, like the others?”
My brother remained on the floor, motionless.
That was the fourteenth day, the worst we had seen so far. Since then, my mother took a vow. She would neither eat nor drink anything till her husband came back alive each day after sunset. While my father led the battle in the field, my mother was leading her own inside the tent with the Almighty. Had she not worshipped Him all her life with utmost devotion? Had she not begged for forgiveness again and again on behalf of her husband for his misconduct towards the Empress at the dice-game? Yes, it was in lieu of all that dedication that now she wanted her husband to live. Her sons were gone; would God not spare her husband at least?
“All hail Angraj!” A cheer broke out, pulling me out of the painful memories into the gory present. I turned towards the noise. There he was, my father, standing amidst the bloodied crowd, looking resplendent even in the fading light of the sun. “Ma, he is back!” I cried out.
Father was severely injured, but absolutely indifferent about it. Things such as physical wounds were commonplace for seasoned warriors. I rushed towards him, and hugged him carefully so as not to touch his bruises, happiness gushing through every vein of mine.
“Where is your mother?”
“She’s inside…praying.” He broke our embrace softly and walked into the tent. I followed him.
“Angraj!” my mother stood inside, her face lit up with a broken smile.
“You look parched,” he replied.
“You look terrible.” She made him sit down, and began tending to his injuries. “Ritu, get some warm water for your father. And send for one of the Vyads.”
The physician left the tent after finishing his job. There were in total, thirty bruises on his bodies along with thirteen cuts. It was amazing to see how strong warriors were supposed to be. So much of physical pain and yet no qualms about it!
“Father?” I sat down next to him. He turned to look at me calmly. “Will you come back again tomorrow evening?”
“Ritu!” Mother yelled out instantly.
“Ma…” Why did such an inauspicious question escape through my lips at such a sensitive hour?
“No Padmavati.” Father intervened, holding his hand up, and looked at me. “Ritu, only cowards fear death. Are you a coward?”
“War has already been waged. Can we now run away from it? We cannot. I have retreated from battles enough in my life. But now, I will stand back and fight. Fight for one last time, with all my might. Dear, will you not support your father?”
I looked away, my soul seething in wrath. Vathu Pandavas! It was all their fault. They had declared this war. They killed my brothers, injured my father and were now unleashing terror on our army. Vathu! A curse was to escape when halfway through my imprecation, Mother’s voice rang in my ears. “What was that boy’s name again? …..Abhimanyu?”
Tremendous merry-making had taken place at our camp on the 13th day, when that young boy from the Pandava side was killed. King Suyodhana and his brothers had danced around in joy, with my father looking on jubilantly. Did the enemies celebrate Vrishu’s death in the same monstrous way we had done theirs? A chill ran down my spine.
“Huh?” I snapped out of my thoughts, and looked at my father.
He cupped my face in his bruised hands. “Be brave. If I die tomorrow, always remember with pride, that your father fought like a true warrior, and earned eternal glory.”
“What eternal glory?” I retorted. “Of what use is this glory, Father, if you are not alive to see it?”
“I may not see it, but you will. Your mothers will. Your children and grandchildren will.”
“Ritu,” he interrupted gently, “There is nothing greater for a warrior than reputation. We cannot be immortals physically, but when people remember us, for our good deeds, our virtues, and take our name with pride, long after we are gone, that is true immortality. That is the glory I seek for myself, and for you all. May we all be remembered gloriously in the future.
I looked into his eyes for a moment, and gave up. Were such flamboyant expositions of acclaim and fame worthy of insipid humans like myself? Alas, I was no battle-hardened warrior like my brothers. I was only a woman, a daughter, and most of all, a human striving for peace and happiness. For me, eternal glory had only one meaning – living together with friends and family. But how could I make my father see it?
“I have to meet Prince Suyodhan in his tent to discuss the battle strategies for tomorrow,” Father got up swiftly. “Before that, I’d like to finish dinner. Let’s eat together. Who knows, tomorrow…”
“Please,” my mother stopped him, her voice choaking. “Please don’t. We shall see what comes tomorrow, but today, please give us some respite from the darkness looming over our heads.” She gestured at the maids who scurried past to make arrangements swiftly.
The table was made, and the food was served. We gathered around to eat like a family after what seemed like eons. My brothers’ widows joined us too. Once, our dining hall echoed the clamour of a dozen happy members chatting and laughing away at unceremonious jokes, much to the chagrin of our cultured mother. Now, it was reduced to a silent meal of only five broken souls.
My father said, “Ritu, be brave like you have always been. When you grow older, you will understand the meaning of eternal glory.”
My eyes welled up at his words. All his life, Father had striven for only one thing – recognition of his talent. Somewhere between his internal conflicts and fixation with glory – did he forget the meaning of love and family? My eyes remained fixed on him, as Mother hugged him from the back, and caressed his forehead, eyes drenched.
“I wish,” Mother spoke, in between sobs. “I wish… you had not been the King of Anga…the friend of Suyodhana…the great warrior. I wish you hadn’t been any of those but my Radheya…”
“Padmavati,” my father said in a loving tone, “Time is slipping away. Would you spend it crying or making new memories to be cherished for the future? Come let’s eat, and enjoy our meal.”
The women in the family looked at each other. We wiped off our tears, and arranged our seats close to him. Mother served us all with her own hands: meat, sweets, curries, all of which were my father’s favourites.
Far away in the distance, a jackal howled, as we sat down for dinner together. For one last time.
This is a fictional take on the last day of the life of Karna, the great warrior from the Indian Epic, Mahabharat. The story is depicted through the eyes of Karna’s daughter named Rituvati. Vyasa’s Mahabharat, to be honest, does not mention any daughter of Karna as such. Thus the content and the character of Rituvati, though based on the epic are entirely fictional. I’d like to admit, that for the sake of showing the perspective in a more lucid manner, I have deviated much from the Classical Mahabharat. For example, Vrishasena, Karna’s eldest son was killed on the 17th day of the war, but I have changed that to 14th, and so on.
I had posted this story 2 years ago on India Forums here. With some editing, it has been moved to my personal blog. Copyrights are reserved to my name. Image is copyrighted. To contact artist, visit: http://www.champa-art.com/