The air burned with a cool, golden light. Krishna was not aware of opening his eyes, but he must have, because until a moment ago he did not see, and now he did. A large hall with rows of empty thrones lining the walls on both sides. At the head of the procession, on a pedestal raised by eight ornate steps, a seat large enough for twelve kings. On it a thin, black-clad man. Crackling his bony fingers, gazing fondly into the distance.
The light passed through Krishna as he floated along the length of the room. He looked down at his legs to check if he was walking; he wasn’t. The right foot, which had been mangled by an arrow the last time he’d seen it, was now whole again.
When he came to rest at the foot of the staircase, the man on the throne turned to him. The nose, which had a beak-like shape in profile, now resembled two straight lines joined by a child’s squiggle at the bottom. He sat in the manner of a general studying the map of a warring region, or a regent holding court in a room full of ministers. His dark tunic was held in place with a sparkling white diamond at each shoulder, and Krishna could see those hands – withering and frail at first glance – held a quiet sort of power.
A mace stood to his left, leaning against the armrest. Wrapped around it like a snake, a fraying noose.
‘Did you ever truly believe in me, Krishna?’ he asked. ‘You look a bit surprised that it has come to this.’
Krishna looked up at the man’s eyes for the first time; the eyes of a predator, set facing forward, a green smoulder lighting them from within. And yet there was sadness in them; sadness that came from seeing and knowing much; sadness that Krishna understood only too well.
‘I did not believe there were Gods beyond the ones we built for ourselves on Earth,’ said Krishna, lowering his gaze by instinct, he who had not bowed before the strongest kings of North Country. ‘It is as we have written it in the books, then? There is a Yama?’
‘You can call me Yama,’ said the man. ‘The name hardly matters. There is much to be amused by in the books of Earth, but not all of it is in error.’
‘We seem to have got your weapons correct, Your Highness,’ said Krishna.
Yama looked at the mace and whip. ‘These?’ he said, and laughed. ‘You know better than most that men make the world around them by what they hold in their minds. Is it not the principle on which you lived your life, Krishna? Well, it is truer here than it could ever be on Earth. You see what your mind’s eye compels you to see.’
Krishna straightened himself, and looked around the court. The chairs were still empty. Their voices boomed in the long golden hall. There was no discernible smell to the air he breathed – but then he caught himself. Was he indeed breathing?
‘I suggest that you do not ask too many questions of yourself,’ said Yama. ‘For here it is I who shall ask and you who shall answer.’
‘Is that how you decree it, sir?’
‘I?’ said Yama. ‘The decree has been made for me. I am but a slave to it.’
‘Who are your masters, then?’
Yama smiled down at Krishna and shook his head. ‘No more questions, as I said. We do not have eternity at our bidding, regardless of what your books say. Do you remember how you came into this hall?’
Krishna turn back at the green and gold entrance that towered behind him, through which he must have walked not too long ago to come here. But he had no memory of it. It was as if he had closed his eyes – his mortal eyes – at the glade, as pangs of pain shot through his foot and up his body, and opened them here, in front of this man who called himself Yama.
‘No,’ said the man now, as if ascertaining to himself a fact. ‘You do not. You will have noticed that the air in this place does not touch you, it drowns you. If you try to blink, you will find that you cannot.’
Krishna tried. Yama was right. It was not so much he couldn’t as he had forgotten how to.
‘The body that you see about you right now,’ said Yama, ‘is also a figment of your mind. The shape you see me in, the empty grandeur of the place, the voice you hear – all your mind still believing that it is alive. It has to create sensual reality out of chaos; it is, after all, its function.’
Krishna bowed and said, ‘You need not tell me I am dead, Lord Yama. I have understood it. I have never feared death; I do not see a reason to begin now, after it has claimed me.’
‘Ah!’ said Yama, clapping his thigh. ‘You are yet to enter the long tunnel, my friend. Here we sit in the great hall of souls, suspended between life and death, in the moment that it takes for your physical body to draw its last breath.’
‘The great hall of souls is empty, my lord?’ said Krishna.
‘If you see it as empty, then empty it is,’ replied Yama. ‘But we must get to work. There are two ways this can go. If you manage to convince me that you have lived a good life, that you deserve to be one of the Celestials, you will be sent to the Cave of Ice, where a barge will row you up the Great River to the foothills of Meru. But if you fail, I must send you back to Earth, whence you came, and your mind – hollowed and shelled – will find another human body to inhabit. One is heaven and the other is hell. I shall leave you to tell which is which.’
Krishna sensed the heaving hall stir, and the glittering thrones around them dissolve out of sight. The walls of the room were now bare; one by one the beams were coming apart, and the high ceiling vanished in a moment to reveal splendid blue skies.
‘How am I to make my case, my lord?’ asked Krishna, amidst the movement. He barely heard his voice.
Yama did not respond. He held up his dying right hand, and snapped his fingers once.
A thunderclap exploded in Krishna’s ears. Everything went black.
* * *
Why did you never return, Krishna?
He heard her a moment before he saw her, browned by the Yamuna’s mud, wrinkled by age, battered by years of milking cows and carrying pots, shrunken by the crushing weight of hope, greyed by the silence of dusk, flattened by endless longing, eaten by the monster that she had once thought was love.
Why did you never send for me, Krishna?
Now he saw her wheezing in the dank windowless backroom of her hut, wrapped in a coarse blanket in spite of the sweat. The shadow the lamp cast on the wall was that of a young spring maiden with a glint of the full moon in her eyes. Now they were just caves, dark, fungus-filled caves devoid of all sounds.
Did you not say you loved me, Krishna?
‘I did not merely say it,’ he said to the shadow, for he could not bring himself to watch the old hag blanch in her fly-infested straw bed. ‘I really did love you.’ The words rang hollow to his own ears, and he only had to turn just a little to the front door of the hut to spot the standing figure of Yama, silhouetted against the orange sky, arms folded mightily, chin held up.
When did you stop loving me, Krishna?
Was it the moment he left Vrindavan? Was it the moment he won the great victory against Kamsa at the wrestling tournament? Perhaps it was when Devaki and Vasudev told him and Balarama that they were princes after all, and princes knew better than to gallivant with milkmaids and cowherds. They had to set themselves right, then; they had to have their heads shaven and sent off to the ashram of Sandipan. Maybe it was when he met Rukmini for the first time; maybe it was the day on which he fought Jambavan for the Syamantaka and held Jambavati’s hand; or on the day Satyabhama fought off Narakasura and saved his life…
Did one lose love all at once, in a fell swoop? Or did it erode, grain by grain, second by second, year by year?
‘I wish I had an answer,’ he said to the crouching shadow on the wall. ‘But I know this for certain. I did love you. With all my heart.’
And you promised you shall never leave me.
But that was a promise of a mere cowherd, he thought; a promise that did not need to be kept. Words and curses mattered more when uttered by kings, and that was why, was it not, that he had taken up arms against Arjuna, his beloved Arjuna, for the head of that man Gaya, who had dared to spit into his hands?
‘I did,’ he told the retching old woman. ‘I never intended to leave you.’
I waited, Krishna. All my life.
‘I did not know.’
That was a lie. He had known all along. But he had pushed that knowledge deep into the far corners of his mind, and he had busied himself with weightier matters. Winning of wars. Annexing of kingdoms. Building of Dwaraka. Forging an alliance with the Kuru people, and pulling the strings so that it would be Subhadra’s grandson, a Yadava, who would ascend the throne of Hastinapur in due course, after the Great War left Kurukshetra in shreds.
He had known all along of the maiden on Yamuna’s bank, but he had chosen to forget.
I died in despair, Krishna. They said I drank too much of Yamuna’s waters, that they were blackened by the venom of the Nagas. But what choice had I, O Madhava? The water reminded me of you.
‘Take me away from here,’ said Krishna, looking over his shoulder at the unmoving shadow of Yama. ‘She is not real, I know. This is your magic!’
The scene in front of Krishna’s eyes receded into the distance, until it became one silvery star in a purple night sky. They stood now on the shore of the river, and Krishna strained to hear the gurgle of the water but it flowed on, soundlessly.
‘They say the river grew silent at your departure from Vrindavan, Krishna,’ said Yama.
‘More important things had to be attended to, my lord,’ said Krishna, his sight still set on the star in the sky that had run away from him. At this distance it looked calming, serene, beautiful even; a part of him wanted to beckon to it once more, and enclose it within his embrace, but he knew it would grow fangs the moment it drew closer, and poisoned darts would fly at him, asking the same thing over and over: why, why, why…
‘You could have returned to Vrindavan, you know,’ said Yama, standing to Krishna’s side and following his gaze. ‘After you defeated Kamsa.’
‘How?’ said Krishna. ‘I was a prince. I had to be a prince.’
‘You had to be one, Krishna? Or you wanted to be one?’
Krishna began to answer, but held himself back. Was there a difference between the two? Desire was a physical force. It bended you to its will. Once he had wanted Radha with the same intensity, on those nights they had danced together in the moonlight, on those evenings he had played tunes for her on the flute, on that sun-drenched afternoon in her kitchen when she had first given herself to him – and he to her.
‘Her husband left her and the village on the day of the harvest the same year you left,’ said Yama. ‘They turned her out of the orchards and the temple compound. They pelted her with stones, called her a wretch. She could have left too, Krishna, but she did not. She made herself a small dwelling by the river, and lived off alms in the neighbouring villages, her face covered by her sari’s edge.’
Krishna saw now where the sparkle of Radha’s eyes had gone.
‘If you had returned to Vrindavan,’ said Yama, relentlessly kind, ‘you would have lived out your days as a cowherd. You would have succeeded Nanda as the chieftain of the settlement, or as minister to your brother Balarama. You would have brought about the golden age of Vrindavan, Krishna. With Radha at your side, you would have turned your energies to life’s smaller pleasures. Would that have been so bad?’
For a moment Krishna looked longingly at the star. But the iron in his heart returned. He shook his head. ‘Vrindavan was meant to be my foster home, Lord Yama. My destiny lay to the West, first in Mathura, then in Dwaraka.’
‘Destiny, you say,’ said Yama, breathing in a healthy lungful of the still night air. It was a mere imitation of the action, though, because neither did his chest move nor did his nostrils inflate. ‘Was it given to you, Krishna, or did you bestow it upon yourself?’
Before Krishna could answer, Yama clicked his fingers again, and the stars dropped off the sky into the water, one by one, with soft pops.
Then a streak of red broke open the black curtain, and the river fell away out of sight. At once Krishna saw that he was standing on the bleeding chest of a king whose armour had been shattered. Under the mass of tangled hair and the bloodstains on the cheeks and the pockmarks that littered his forehead, the man’s eyes glowed with a familiar brightness. Krishna took a closer look at them.
‘He looks quite like you, does he not?’ said Yama.
He had been too young when he had wrested Mathura’s throne from Kamsa, and by the time he had grown to the fullness of youth, the face of the old king had long ebbed from memory.
‘Of course he looks a lot like me,’ Krishna said, frowning. ‘He is my mother’s brother.’
The man under his foot began to laugh.
You are just like me, Krishna.
The creases on his face cleared for the moment it took him to say those words, and the wounds seemed to give him pain no longer. In his eyes danced real joy, and real pride. It was not a taunt of a vanquished king, just a child-like revelling of an old man who saw in his nephew his own image.
‘I am nothing like you, King Kamsa,’ said Krishna, resisting the urge to spit in his face, knowing that it would disappear before it reached the king’s face. (For what was this all but Yama’s illusion?) ‘I have fought for the good of the world my whole life. Unlike you, who could never think beyond your own selfish ends.’
The good of the world, my dear Krishna? You have wrought destruction upon the world, the kind of which it has never seen.
‘That destruction was necessary,’ said Krishna doggedly. ‘Things can now start over. Afresh!’
Tell that to the thousands of women you have widowed. The thousands of men who had to die because you decreed it so.
The wounds were gone now, and so was the facial hair. As more and more of Kamsa’s skin revealed itself, the resemblance grew starker. He had the same thin, feminine nose, the same curved forehead, the same high cheekbones – and the same eyes. The same bloodthirsty eyes!
I wanted to be lord of Mathura. Perhaps I would have destroyed it in my lust for power. But you, Krishna, you wanted to be lord of North Country, did you not? Look what you did to it.
‘No,’ said Krishna, ‘I was never lord of North Country. Yudhisthir was. I was never even king of Dwaraka.’
The king is often not the most powerful person in the kingdom. You know it as well as I.
A low, steady thudding began in Krishna’s left temple, and made its way to the middle of his scalp. He held his head in both hands, and tried to trick Yama’s illusion by repeating to himself that neither he nor his head was truly there; it was just a trick of his mind. He who had conquered the mind so ruthlessly when he was alive – could he not do it now?
He found that he could not.
With an outpouring of anger he raised his foot and brought it down on Kamsa’s battered armour, aiming for the gash in the chest. But at the moment he expected to make contact, his foot disappeared into Kamsa’s body and became one with it. He bent down and clutched his thigh in both hands to drag himself out, but his other leg began to sink too. Kamsa became a grinning quagmire, swallowing him whole.
‘Help!’ said Krishna.
He heard footsteps behind him, hard, assured pounding of metal on stone. Krishna squirmed to see if it was Yama, but only managed to descend a foot lower. The brown blood-stained puddle was contracting around him now, squeezing the air out of his lungs.
‘Help,’ he said.
Again the pounding of metal on stone. A quiet inhalation and exhalation of breath. Just the pretence of it, as before.
Krishna closed his eyes (he found that he now could) and willed his mind to obey. He was already dead. None of this was true. Kamsa could not drown him; pain did not mean anything in this endless moment between life and death. What he felt constricting his lungs and throat and legs and waist – it was all an illusion. It was all maya; was that not what he had told Arjuna on the first day of battle?
Now he just had to accept it himself.
Mud flowed into his mouth. He swallowed it. Grains of sand got stuck between his teeth. His throat stung, as if an arrow had pierced it. Amidst coughs and gags, he said weakly, ‘Help.’
* * *
The sand in his mouth turned to butter.
The bog that had been Kamsa sucked him in, and one short breathless moment later, he began to fall. Into a black ravine where branches of long-dead trees reached out at him from all sides, but just evaded his desperate grasp. He kicked the air, clawed at it, tried to see where he was falling, but the grey shadows that surrounded him just dripped with slime.
He shouted at the top of his voice. He heard nothing.
The pain in his throat had been replaced by a cool soothing touch. Some more butter slid past his lips onto his tongue. He swallowed, quite by instinct.
Would you like some more, Krishna?
The voice kindled some calloused corner in his heart that he had long forsaken for dead. It awoke with a thud and a snap, and he found himself replying, ‘Yes, Mother.’
And then Yashoda’s forefinger applying a bit of butter to his lower lip. Her fingers opening his mouth and placing another dollop on the tip of his tongue. His breathing became quicker as the scene around him changed. He was no longer falling. He was being pulled by an unknown force at the speed of the wind through the lanes of Vrindavan, and he came to rest outside the house of Nanda, where the old cowshed’s beams had fallen down and the sooty walls puffed out black fumes, like the hood of Kalindi.
Krishna will come back for me, said Yashoda. He said he will.
And Nanda, holding her hand and nodding indulgently.
Both of them had greying hair, chieftain and his queen, attended upon by two waiting women dressed in the garments Krishna knew so well. At the doorway to the kitchen stood a dark, shadowy figure, hunching, brooding, until a breeze blew him away and filled the air again with the smell of fresh butter.
He is a king now, said Nanda. He was never ours, Yashoda, you knew that.
He was always mine, said Yashoda firmly. I asked him on the day he was to leave, and he said that he was my child. Just mine!
Again the tolerant nod from Nanda. A pat on the back of the hand.
Nanda had always smiled a lot, Krishna remembered. The calf has broken his hind leg, Father. Smile. There are no rains this year, Father. Smile. It does not look as though our granaries will last us to summer, Father. Smile. The beams of the cowshed have fallen once again, Father. Smile.
Where was the smile now?
Amid all the lines that had invaded Nanda’s face, Krishna tried to recall if the lips had always been this glassy, if the eyes had always been this tired, if the hair on the scalp this thin, if the hands had always shivered, and if the tongue had always had a habit of darting out every two seconds.
And Yashoda. Krishna forced himself to look away. In his mind flashed the old round face, the face that held anger and love at the same time, the face that he had woken up to on a thousand nightmare-filled nights, the face that filled this cottage with light for years, the face that Krishna thought would never wither, never shrivel, never flinch.
‘No,’ he said to the invisible shadow at the kitchen door. ‘No.’
‘She died with hope in her heart,’ said Yama’s voice from behind him. Krishna swivelled round on the balls of his feet. ‘Even with her dying breath she assured Nanda that you would return.’
‘Did she suffer?’ Krishna whispered, lowering his gaze.
‘As much as any being suffers at the end,’ said Yama. ‘No more, no less. She sent for you, umpteen times.’
‘I know,’ said Krishna.
‘They made the journey to Dwaraka once too, in the hope of meeting you.’
‘You were otherwise occupied in the forest of Khandava.’
The couple in the room stopped breathing, and the dust particles roused up by the draught before now stood transfixed in mid-air. With a deft movement of the fingers, Yama made it all swirl in front of Krishna’s eyes. Radha, Kamsa, the old cowshed, the silence of the Yamuna, the taste of Vrindavan’s butter, the smell of Yashoda’s reedy fingers as they touched his lips.
And just like that, in a blink that was not quite a blink, they were back in the silence of the hall of souls.
* * *
Yama extended his arm toward the side. ‘They all sit here,’ he said. ‘You may not see them, but they await your answers.’
‘What answers must I give?’ said Krishna, facing the thrones.
‘Do you think you have done right by Vrindavan?’ said Yama.
‘I did what I had to do.’
‘Do you think you have done right by the people of the settlement that protected you, that reared you, that loved you?’
‘Right and wrong are but human constructs,’ said Krishna.
Yama snapped his fingers in irritation. ‘Save the talk. I’m no Arjuna, to nod and smile at your word puzzles. Does your heart now fill with guilt or not?’
Krishna idly felt his chest, though his consciousness reminded him that there was no heart there, and it was incapable of feeling emotions like guilt. But what was that bolt of pain that seared his flesh?
‘You must answer me,’ said Yama.
For the first time since his arrival at the hall, Yama smiled. It was not a triumphant smile, or a sneering smile, or a smile of joy; it was one of deep knowing, and sorrow.
‘You were afraid to go back to Vrindavan,’ he said.
‘You wanted to go back, did you not?’ Yama’s voice was soft. ‘But you thought that if you did, the love the place had for you would pull you back. You could not be both a cowherd and a prince at the same time. You had to forego one for the other.’
Krishna nodded again.
‘And you chose to forego love for the sake of power, Krishna,’ said Yama. ‘You became what you set out to become. You are the most pivotal man in the history of North Country, bar none! They chant your name to this day, and they shall do so for centuries hence. They might even make you a God.’
‘I never wanted –’
Yama said, ‘I disagree. I think you did. I sense in you a feeling of pride right now, as you hear my words. You fill with joy, in spite of all the hearts you broke, all the blood that was spilled in your name.’
Krishna looked up and said defiantly, ‘Okay, I did. Show me a man that does not yearn for power.’
‘I cannot,’ admitted Yama. ‘But very few have lusted for it as thirstily as you have, and for that I must deem it that on the charge of forsaking the people of Vrindavan, who trusted you with their hearts, I find you guilty.’
‘Vrindavan has forgiven me,’ said Krishna.
‘You make that assumption!’ Yama got to his feet on his throne, and threw back his tunic in a swish. ‘Forgiveness only frees the wronged, not the wrongdoer. Even if your crime has been forgiven – and I do not believe it has! – it does not in any way lessen the heinousness of it. And here, in the hall of souls, it is I who presides. It is my decree that prevails. It is my judgement that matters.’
Krishna swallowed a mouthful of air, and looked at the towering figure at the head of the stairs. He did not feel fear, for it meant nothing to the dead. But he felt a strange sense of awe at this man, awe that he had last felt while conversing with Bhishma on the bed of arrows in Kurukshetra.
He bowed and said, ‘If that is your verdict, Lord Yama, I accept it.’
‘I leave you with no other choice,’ said Yama. ‘Now you shall ask for pardon from all the people of Vrindavan, especially from Radha and Yashoda.’
Krishna turned to face the empty seats, and with joined hands, bent his head. He said nothing out loud, but he filled his mind with images of the two women, both mother and lover, one seductive and the other tender, one satiating the pleasures of the flesh and the other filling him with divine affection, one quickening the heart and the other calming it.
One. The other. One. The other.
A gust of wind laced with Yamuna’s scent hit him in the face, and he opened his eyes once again, to empty seats.
Yama said, ‘They have left the hall, Krishna. And they agree with me. They have pronounced you guilty as well.’
Krishna looked around him. The air was once again still. Radha and Yashoda refusing to forgive him? Was that possible?
Yama nodded. ‘It is possible. Perhaps it was your brazen expectation of forgiveness that made them withdraw it.’ He paused for a moment, looking in the vague direction of the thrones. ‘Well, we must proceed.’
Yama looked at Krishna, and the smile of knowing returned. With a grand wave of the arm, he said, ‘Onward, of course. Where else?’