Story 34: Sons of War

Krishna did not know how long he waited for Yama to speak. Here in the great hall, like it had been on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, time did not seem to carry value. Sometimes hours would pass without anything of import occurring; at others, a stray moment would change the course of history of an entire Great Kingdom.

Now, in this new form of existence, this standing still – the queer sensation of being suspended away from the clutches of time’s fabric – did not chafe. For all of Yama’s insistence that his mind still thought it was alive, it seemed to have accepted the terms of eternity easily enough, with no need for prodding.

Yashoda and Radha had stormed out of the hall of souls, in a huff.

Krishna wondered whose turn it was to enter now.

Yama, meanwhile, had shed his black tunic and replaced it with a shimmering golden cape. His wrists and upper arms were covered in armour plates; his forehead bore the mark of a black half-sun, which reminded Krishna of Yudhisthira. The Kuru prince’s large face bore no resemblance at first glance whatsoever to Yama’s gaunt one, but when one took a closer look, small likenesses emerged here and there.

The curls in the locks.

The way in which Yama sat, with elbow resting on thigh.

The sheer exhaustion and apathy in the eyes.

The shape and colour of the two front teeth, yellowish, larger and more prominent than the others. Did they front a smile of endearment? Or a smirk of ridicule? It was impossible to tell. It had long been Krishna’s belief that if Yudhisthira had possessed a more winning set of teeth – or a less sly one – the battle of Kurukshetra might never have come to pass.

‘Why did the Pandavas have to win the war, Krishna?’ said Yama.

‘My lord,’ said Krishna, with practiced deference, ‘they were on the side of dharma. You are the lord of dharma himself; you know better than perhaps any man in the universe the tenets that uphold it. I do not deem myself fit to discourse you on the matter.’

‘Even so,’ said Yama, ‘humour me. What are these tenets of dharma that you know that I know?’

‘You jest with me, Lord Yama.’

‘I do not.’ Yama held up his hand and examined the rings on his fingers. ‘All the great atrocities in the world throughout history have been inflicted upon humanity by men who believed they were on the side of dharma. It has always been so – and knowing the nature of man – it always shall be so. But we need not concern ourselves with such grand things. What matters, right here and now, is what you think.’

He lowered his hand onto his thigh. The clank of the wrist plate echoed in the empty hall.

‘Duty,’ said Krishna. ‘A man’s fundamental dharma is to perform his duty.’

‘And who ascertains a man’s duty?’

‘Why, the Vedas have divided men into four varnas –’

‘I know about the four varnas,’ said Yama wearily. ‘But who has written the Vedas, pray?’

‘They say they have come from the Gods themselves.’

A smile appeared on Yama’s face. ‘Since I am the God of justice, you would think that I had something to do with their creation, would you not?’

‘Well? Is it not true?’

‘That is immaterial,’ replied Yama. ‘But I shall tell you this, Krishna, for I have seen men for longer than you have, and for all the wisdom that you think you possess, it is only the wisdom of your age, of your time, of your generation. Perhaps if you were to pass on to the mountain Meru at the end of this, and if you were to partake of the water of the Crystal Lake, you shall have a glimpse of the river of humanity like I see it, from head to toe, from genesis to annihilation.

‘The great leaders have forever shared one trait: confidence. A state of utter knowledge and calm permeates them, and hypnotizes their followers. Not only do these men know what is right for them, they appear to know what is right for everyone. For these men there is one dharma, one good, one cause to fight for, to die for, and by definition, those who do not agree with them are on the side of adharma, the bad, and they deserve to be destroyed.’

Krishna looked behind his shoulder; something seemed to move behind him. The green and gold door remained steadfast and shut. Silent.

‘Often,’ said Yama, ‘one leader on one side clashes with another on the other. A war is never just battle of weapons, Krishna. It is a clash of minds, and the ideas that fill them. The victor of a war is apt to think that it was the moral strength of his mind that helped him win, that the vanquished side received what they deserved.’

‘Well,’ said Krishna, standing straighter, squaring his shoulders. ‘I still maintain that the Pandavas were on the side of dharma. Yudhisthira was the king of Hastinapur by right.’

‘Was he, though?’ said Yama.

‘He was the foremost son of the previous king, Pandu.’

‘And was Pandu the king of Hastinapur by right?’

Dhritarashtra was born blind,’ said Krishna. ‘It would not have done to have a blind king atop the throne of a Great Kingdom.’

‘And yet, that is how it transpired, did it not?’ said Yama. ‘Pandu ruled but for a fraction of Hastinapur’s history. The rise of the Kuru kingdom happened under the auspices of the blind king. And there have been blind kings before – Dirghatamas comes to mind – that were righteous, kind and good.’

‘A blind king cannot fight.’ Krishna’s tone was petulant, and he felt like the boy he had once been, who was being denied a larger helping of butter.

‘Fighting is not the only way to rule,’ said Yama gently. ‘Indeed, it is perhaps by far the most destructive. There are other methods by which a king can extend his kingdom. Dhritarashtra did this.’

‘With Bhishma’s help.’

‘Agreed. Do you agree, then, that Dhritarashtra, being the foremost son of Vichitraveerya, was the rightful heir to the throne? And if so, Suyodhana, as the eldest son himself, deserved the privilege more than Yudhisthira?’

‘No,’ said Krishna, shaking his head. ‘Greed. That is what Suyodhana possessed. He wanted it all for himself.’

Yama fixed Krishna with a pointed look, and his two front teeth made an appearance. He raised his hand and clicked his fingers twice.

In a blast of golden-white light, the both of them disappeared from the hall of souls.

* * *

Here comes Iravan, dressed in the brown garments of the Naga people, his wrists bearing marks of serpents breathing fire.

Here he comes at the head of seven hundred footmen, who brandish spears and speak in a forked tongue.

Here he comes bearing the thirty two marks of Kali, that distinguishes him as Arjuna’s son, but one look at the youth and any fair-minded man would see that he carried the same royal poise, the same haughtiness, the same steadiness of limb. In his fighting hand – they said he was ambidextrous too, like his father – he carries a sword forged in the foreboding depths of the Yamuna, with a serrated edge on one side and a hacking one on the other, both lined with dark red vermillion.

Around his forehead is tied a golden silk thread, torn off the garment of his mother. He would fight with her hand on his head, he says. He would fight not as a Pandava but as the prince of the Nagas, as the son of Ulupi. The seven hundred footmen at his heed had never lost a battle, they say; they fought well on land, yes, but in water they sprouted gills and fins, and each man became a warship that could shoot a thousand arrows at a time into the sky.

Here comes Iravan, resplendent as the sun.

Here lies Iravan, bleeding to death.

Alone at the feet of Mother Kali, each of the thirty two marks he bore on his body now a mortal wound. His head rests on the thighs of a maiden unseen before today at the camp. They say that Shri Krishna sent for her in the depths of the night, when it was decreed that Prince Iravan needed a woman to wed. And bed.

The maiden makes no sound, just holds her lover’s head in both her hands, her fingers drenched in his blood. They used his own sword on him, the Brahmins, and the seven hundred leviathans stood by and watched.

Arjuna was tasked with the wounding of the prince, but he was said to have lost the nerve. Which father in his right mind would raise a weapon against his own son, no matter what the prize? So it was Krishna, at the behest of the chanting sages, who stepped up to the altar, where Iravan clasped his hands in front of his body and stood with a bent head, naked. The serpents on his wrists came to life, then, they say, and coiled together and hissed at the advancing Yadava.

Krishna does not flinch. No.

He raises the weapon and strikes. Not once, but thirty two times. His aim never fails. Each rasp is accompanied by groans, not of Iravan who merely sighs and looks up at the reddening sky, but of the Naga warriors in attendance. Some of them half-raise their spears in anger, but they had been commanded into silence the night before by their leader. They are to watch, that is all, and after the deed is done, they are to carry his body, still drenched in the mixed red of blessings and blood, back to Ulupi.

And then they are to return to Kurukshetra, to fight under the leadership of the man who killed their prince.

Sacrificed, they say. Not killed.

Mother Kali claims a warrior’s life on the eve of battle, and in return she bestows on Yudhisthira the promise of victory. Only three men are anointed with the holy marks of the Goddess on the Pandava side – Krishna, Arjuna and Iravan. Did Krishna volunteer to end his own life before he stepped up to the fire to take Iravan’s? Did Arjuna?

They say they did, both of them, but Yudhisthira would have none of it. What use is victory, he said, if it comes at the cost of his brother’s life, or at the cost of Lord Krishna’s?

But Iravan – the son of his dear brother, who came in search of valour, of a true Kshatriya’s death, of acceptance in the hands of his father – he was fair game. Indeed.

What death is more desirable than one that guarantees your father’s eventual triumph, Iravan? You have come to battle to lay down your life, to embrace death when it places its cold hand on your shoulder, but here we give you a hero’s death, a straight path to heaven, my boy. You die by your own sword, wielded by the regent of Dwaraka, who himself is anointed by the Goddess. You must die, Iravan, for we must win.

Krishna stands over the prince, and exhorts the sages that there must be no shirking of rituals, that all of the Kali’s chants must reach her, along with her sacrifice. Prince Iravan will stay alive until the end; you must die, Iravan, but not before the Brahmins have finished calling to the Goddess.

The woman they call Mohini now sits with the dead body of the warrior she spent the night with; she would not get with his child, she knew, for the good lord Krishna had seen to it that she drank a vessel full of green fluid extracted from a herb plucked out of the bushes that lined the southern edge of Kamyaka. It would still the first beating of a heart inside a mother’s womb, he had told her.

After you mourn for the boy for a day, collect your four gold coins and go back to your settlement. Speak to no one.

She does not cry, does Mohini. She buries her fingers in Iravan’s hair, presses her lips to his forehead, where the silken charm of Ulupi hangs, half-torn, almost falling away. Her white sari is stained with his fingerprints, and her hair, loose and lustrous like the river, builds a shroud around his face.

She rocks him, as if to sleep.

The podium on which they built the altar is drenched in a pool of red. The body of Iravan is now pale, emaciated, colourless, like a sheet of parchment. Overhead, the tongue of Kali comes to life and lashes hungrily at the air.

The top half of the sun appears on the horizon, and blows onto the plains of Kurukshetra an icy breeze that shrivels the leaves of trees and blues the lips of the dead prince. Mohini looks up, her hair flying, and knows that it has come from the depths of Yamuna’s bosom, from the heart of a grieving mother.

The seven hundred converge upon the couple and stand, forming a clear circle around them. The snakes on Iravan’s wrists have gone to sleep, they said; perhaps one day they will awaken and claim their vengeance.

Near the Northern entrance of the camp, from inside Yudhisthira’s tent, Krishna blows on the victory conch.

* * *

Ghatotkacha’s shaved head glistens in the firelight as he bows to the seated figure.

‘You have brought all your minions with you, Ghatotkacha.’

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘Will you have some wine?’

‘No, my lord.’

‘You have heard of Abhimanyu’s passing, I am certain.’

‘I have, my lord. My deepest sympathies are with Arjuna and lady Subhadra.’

‘No sympathies, please, Ghatotkacha. Warriors come to battle expecting to be slain. We must all wish for a death as glorious as the one that Abhimanyu achieved.’

There is silence. Ghatotkacha holds his position.

‘Tomorrow is a pivotal day in the war, Ghatotkacha,’ said the seated figure. ‘You have heard of Arjuna’s promise to avenge Abhimanyu’s death by sundown.’

‘I have, sir, yes. What if he fails?’

‘If he fails, I shall see to it that he does not end his life in shame. The Kauravas are in no moral position to argue over an unkept word.’

‘My lord.’

‘Regardless of whether he succeeds or fails, though, the fighting tomorrow might extend past sunset, well into the night.’

Ghatotkacha raises his head. There is a smile on his full black lips. A sparkle on his diamond earrings. A frown of mild perplexity on his heavy eyebrows.

‘A battle of kings into the night, my lord?’ he said.

‘Yes. We have broken all rules of fair fight, Ghatotkacha. This is no longer a battle of kings.’

‘I am glad to hear you say so, sir.’

‘You and your minions will join us tomorrow, at sunrise. But you shall stay deep within our inner ranks during the day. You shall be tasked with protecting King Yudhisthira.’

‘As you wish, sir.’

‘But once the sun sets, you shall emerge and become our leading force. You shall not be the commander, you will still take orders from Dhrishtadyumna, but he will defer to you for those few hours. You have my assurance.’

The smile on Ghatotkacha’s lips widens. His teeth – the square incisors, the fang-like canines – show for just a moment, catch the light and shine.

‘And what would you have me do once I lead the forces, my lord?’

‘Destroy as many Kaurava soldiers as you can. Stay away from the rathis and the maharathis. Leave them to us. You take care of the footmen and the cavalry. Scare the elephants away.’

‘Yes, my lord. Am I to use my magic?’

‘By all means.’

Ghatotkacha chuckles. He stretches his fingers. They make a cracking sound.

‘The one maharathi you are allowed to fight tomorrow,’ said the figure, ‘is Karna. He has promised Suyodhana that he will kill Arjuna in battle.’

‘I have heard, sir.’

‘You will have earned untold glory for yourself, Ghatotkacha, if you return from battle tomorrow bearing Karna’s armour on your chest.’

‘I shall try my best, my lord.’

‘I expect nothing else from the son of Bhima,’ said the shadow. ‘But remember. Mighty warriors have waylaid Karna in the past. Many of them are now dead.’

The smile on Ghatotkacha’s face disappears. It is replaced by a look of cruel longing. His eyes burn.

‘It is as you said, my lord, Krishna,’ he says. ‘I shall be fortunate indeed to meet my death on the battlefield, with your blessings.’

‘You always have my blessings, Ghatotkacha. Now have some wine.’

* * *

Bhima lets out a yell of fury and smashes the mud statue of a Kinnara to pieces. Then he turns and hoists his mace on his shoulder. He extends his free arm, and points a hefty finger at Krishna.

‘You said we will win this war!’ he says. ‘But all we get is defeat heaped upon defeat. First Abhimanyu gets picked apart by those vultures, and you just stand and watch, and today – today – Ghatotkacha –’

‘Ghatotkacha has attained a hero’s death, Bhima,’ says Krishna, his arms folded. He looks around at the rest of the Pandavas, each hanging his head, only Arjuna holding his gaze. ‘Today Arjuna has secured two victories – one over Jayadratha, who was the warrior most instrumental in warding you off, Bhima, and isolating Abhimanyu yesterday.’

‘Ghatotkacha,’ says Bhima, looking up at the ceiling of the tent, his eyes brimming. ‘That rascal, Karna – I swear –’

‘No more oaths, please,’ says Krishna. ‘The other victory that Arjuna secured today, Bhima, is that in killing Ghatotkacha, Karna was forced to use his Shakti, which he had been saving for killing Partha. Now he is a fangless serpent, and no match for your brother.’

‘He is no match for this mace either,’ says Bhima, and threw a blazing look at the head of his weapon.

Krishna walks up to the second Pandava, places a calming hand on his shoulder. ‘He will never wield the mace, Brother, and you shall never challenge him, I hope, with bow in hand. Steer clear of him on the battlefield, for while you are no doubt stronger than he is, an archer relies not on strength but quickness of hand and mind, both of which he excels at.’

‘Leave him to me, Brother,’ says Arjuna, staring at the torch, drawing warmth from it. ‘The war will not end until my arrow has claimed Karna’s life. It shall be me who will avenge Ghatotkacha’s death. After all, he was my son too.’

Krishna turns to Yudhisthira. ‘Your Majesty,’ he says, ‘I said yesterday that the thirteenth day of battle belongs to the Pandavas, even though they lost their most enterprising warrior. The fourteenth day seals victory in your favour, believe this, because two of your most powerful brothers are now geared up for battle. There is venom in their hearts, and the weapons they wield shall not know mercy.’

Yudhisthira swallows a mouthful of air, closes his eyes, and mutters a prayer.

‘This is not the time to fear the future, High King!’ says Krishna. ‘Rally your soldiers. Send Bhima to them, he will rouse them with his words. Let them hear the twang of the Gandiva for the second night in a row, and amid the cheers of your men, the Panchajanya will pierce the Kaurava hearts with despair

‘Let there be music. Let there be dancing. Today is not the day for tears, Bhima! Let us celebrate the deaths of Abhimanyu and Ghatotkacha, and let us take an oath, all of us, on their sacred bodies, that we shall fight as long as breath fills our lungs and blood flows in our veins, that we shall stare into the eyes of Karna, Suyodhana, Shalya, Bhishma, Drona and all the others – we shall stare into those eyes until life flees from them.’

He takes Arjuna by one arm, Bhima by the other, and walks out of the tent. Under the soulless midnight sky, he uproots a torch from its holder. He raises the Panchajanya to his lips, even as Arjuna unclasps the Gandiva, and Bhima lets out a lion-like roar into the air.

And so, on the night of the fourteenth day of the Kurukshetra war, the Pandavas celebrated the death of two of their favourite sons.

* * *

They have killed our son, O Arjuna.

They have killed your nephew, Brother Krishna, Commander of Dwaraka’s impregnable army, Knower of Truths, Light of High King Balarama’s life.

I am a mere woman, I know. This is a warrior’s tent; there is no seat here for me. Your various minstrels will descend upon you and convey in poems and songs how heroic Abhimanyu’s final moments were. The tumbura player will pluck at strings and croon; the tabla player will match his rhythm. Why, my own brother here might reach for his long-forgotten flute.

But before they have had a chance, Partha, to mollify your heart with their sweet, sly words, I wanted to have my say.

They did not kill him in fair fight, my lord. They swarmed upon him like a bunch of wasps on a lone flower. Karna, the Charitable One, cut off his bow from behind. Kripacharya, the gentle elder, beheaded his chariot-drivers. Kritavarma – of our own Yadava blood, Krishna, dear brother – swooped down on Abhimanyu’s horses with a mace and shattered their brains. When our son took up a sword and shield to fight on foot, Drona, the Venerable, disarmed him with arrows shot from the safety of a distant chariot. The boy defended himself with a wheel, they tell me, but arrows rained on him from all sides, and now he rests on the caked earth of Kurukshetra, to be picked at by ravens.

No, Arjuna! Let him lie! I care not for such silliness as last rites when all of you – with the combined power of the Pandava army and the infinite wisdom and wile of my dear brother – could not save him when he could still draw breath.

Do not let them tell you that Abhimanyu has attained heaven with this act of his, my lord, husband. None of us know if this mythical place exists, let alone how to reach it. Yes, I say this with full knowledge of what my brother tells you every day – how goes his speech? That a Kshatriya’s destiny lies on the battlefield, and of all the deaths that he could wish for, one that he finds at the poisoned tip of an arrow or the edge of a sword is the most honourable.

But death is death, Brother, is it not? My son breathes no more. What do I care if he was felled by disease or weapon? There is no honour in death, no matter what the sages would have you believe.

But there is honour in revenge, my dear husband. Your poets and balladeers will seek to soothe your heart with their honey-tipped words, but let me tell you in the plain words of a stricken woman; your son is gone forever. You shall never see him again. Never again will he spar with you in the training arena; never again will you discuss statecraft with him; never again will you hear his voice, his laughter, his song – no, Arjuna. Not in this plane, not in any other.

Spare a thought, if you can, for Uttara. She carries Abhimanyu’s child in her womb, and now she must reconcile to raising it alone. God forbid that she should birth a girl, for then all that awaits her in the future is the hope of some distant king to come riding on his white horse and lay claim to both mother and daughter.

Do not tell me that she will give birth to a son, Krishna. You have no way of knowing that, nor do I. It is the great travesty of our age that time bestows valour upon men who live in false hope, whereas women are awake to all possibilities.

What words will you have, O Sabyasachi, for that disconsolate girl – no more than fourteen – who is ridden with fear and fury? What words will your dear charioteer use to balm her sorrow, to stifle her sobs, to calm her nerves?

Words, my lord? This is not the time for words.

In a few hours will dawn the fourteenth day of the war, the day after they killed your beloved son using all the trickery and deception they could muster. The time for fair fight is over, Arjuna. From now on, weapon combats weapon on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Blood bays for blood. Throw the conduct of war into the sacrificial fire. Fight into the night if you must. On Abhimanyu’s name, take an oath, all of you, that you shall give whatever is asked of you to avenge his memory.

They tell me they crowed in delight at your son’s last breath, Partha. All of them. Even Bhishma, the grandsire, is said to have cracked a smile from his bed of arrows.

Does that not make your blood boil?

It does mine. Pity that I wield not the weapons of men, for if I did, I would have ridden out to their camp right now, across the field, and unfurled my rage on them as they sleep.

You recoil in shock, Brother. Is it unfair to raise a weapon on a sleeping man? How fair is it that half a dozen veteran warriors converge upon a defenceless boy and tear him apart to shreds?

I have brought with me a silver plate of turmeric and vermillion, Arjuna. Raise your weapon. Let me anoint it with symbols of my despair. Raise your conch and whip, my dear brother. Speak out your oath so that the five elements may hear you, and if you fail to fulfil it, may the fire burn you, may the water drown you, may the air rush out of your lungs and suffocate you to death, may the Earth bury you live, may the sky descend upon your heads with all its weight.

Step into the light, Dhananjaya. Place your drawing hand on the flame. Feel its heat sear the calloused flesh of your palm. Look into my eyes – you have often said Abhimanyu has my eyes, have you not? Do not flinch, do not look away. Your enemy does not reside here, in this tent; he is lost in a wine-induced stupor half a mile across the field.

What have you to fear? The gods’ arrows fill your quiver. The prince of Dwaraka mans your chariot. The lord Anjaneya dwells atop your mast.

Come, Arjuna, my husband, my lord, father to my dead son.

Speak your oath.

* * *

‘Of all the things that I have seen in your life,’ said Yama, back on his throne in the half of souls, ‘your complete disregard for human life surprises me. What made you think that you could play with other people like this?’

‘You refer to the sons of the Pandavas,’ said Krishna.

Yama nodded. ‘They are mere examples, though very good ones. Does your dharma allow you to treat them as mites of dust, just small cogs in this great chariot-wheel that you wished to turn?’

‘Once the war became inevitable, Lord Yama,’ said Krishna, ‘I did everything in my power to finish on the winning side. Everything I did was to ensure a Pandava victory.’

‘But Krishna,’ said Yama, sitting forward, ‘I thought you said they were on the side of dharma, and that their victory was preordained. Why did you have to pull the reins if that were so?’

‘Even a preordained result needs a bit of guiding, my lord.’

‘Even if the guiding involves ruthless killing of your friends’ sons?’

A small ripple of doubt entered Krishna’s heart. He waved it away. ‘War is ruthless, Lord Yama. So is life. As someone who has lived on Earth as a human being, certainly you do not need me to tell you that. Iravan, Abhimanyu and Ghatotkacha were mere pawns – all men are pawns on the battlefield – that I had to use in the way I saw fit.’

Yama paused to glance in the direction of the seats to the right, and at once Krishna became aware of the presence of the princes. He did not see them, no, but he felt the gentle weight of their combined gaze settle on him.

‘Did you know,’ asked Yama, ‘that you were sending Ghatotkacha to his death?’

‘How does one know anything for certain?’ replied Krishna. ‘But I was sending him to battle with Karna. I hoped that he would be enough of a nuisance to the Kauravas so that Karna could be encouraged to use the Shakti. Arjuna would then be free from danger. And Arjuna had to live if the Pandavas had to win.’

‘And Abhimanyu? Why did you not teach him to exit the chakravyuya?’

‘He was too young to learn.’ Krishna turned to the three seats and focused his eyes on the one with the pink cushion in the middle. ‘Entering a battle formation often requires nothing more than bravado and brute force. Exiting it is a matter of skill, patience, awareness – only the aged have those.’ A cloud of sadness overcame him as he thought of Subhadra. ‘Abhimanyu was my nephew too. I would have saved him if I could.’

‘You did not plan the events of the thirteenth day deliberately, then?’ The beak-like nose on Yama’s face twisted into a crooked line, and the gloomy grey eyes sprang to life.

‘No,’ said Krishna earnestly. You have to believe me, Abhimayu, he thought, eyes fixed on the middle chair. ‘I had a feeling that Arjuna was being lured away, but I thought the rest of the Pandavas would be able to support Abhimanyu. I did not account for Jayadratha.’

‘And Iravan,’ said Yama, in a voice that was almost a whisper. ‘Someone must die, you told Yudhisthira. Why did you not volunteer yourself, Krishna?’

‘I did,’ replied Krishna at once. ‘But I knew from the start that it has to be Iravan.’

‘And why is that?’

‘Because Arjuna was too important for the Pandava cause, and King Yudhisthira thought that I was, too.’

‘Perhaps Iravan would have been too, if you had given him a chance to live,’ said Yama. ‘If it was only Pandava victory that you wanted, and if a sacrifice assured it, then choosing yourself would have been the selfless choice. Do you agree?’

Krishna steadfastly refused to look at Iravan’s chair. He craned his neck upward and looked at the taut, bony figure of his questioner. For the first time Krishna noticed that Yama had no crown on his head; and his white hair had a velvety shine to it.

‘Even the preordained needs some guiding,’ he said slowly. ‘I thought I had the nous to know what to do and when.’

‘But you agree that Iravan would have had it, too?’

‘I doubt it,’ said Krishna. ‘But mine is only a guess, as yours is.’

‘Do you regret the deaths of these three men?’ Yama’s eyes changed shape and became two slit-like daggers. ‘Remember that you must be honest in this hall.’

‘I do not,’ said Krishna, pausing to glance at the three chairs, confident that they would all understand. They had understood in life, why would they not in death? ‘Iravan secured Mother Kali’s blessings.’

‘How do you even know that Mother Kali blessed you?’ said Yama.

‘The death of Abhimanyu,’ went on Krishna, resolutely, ‘curdled the heart of Arjuna, and from that day on he would unleash a ruthless side of himself on the battlefield. The day he killed Jayadratha was the best I have seen him fight all his life.

‘And the death of Ghatotkacha awakened the sleeping bull that was Bhima. On the eve of the battle I told Yudhisthira that Bhima and Arjuna held the reins to Pandava victory. If they would fight with real anger in their hearts, I said, there was no one on the Kaurava side who could match them.’

‘And the deaths of their sons were necessary to rouse that anger?’ said Yama.

‘Perhaps,’ said Krishna. ‘It certainly turned out that way, so I do not regret it. I do not regret any of the hundred thousand deaths that occurred over those eighteen days.’

‘But the Pandavas do.’

‘Only in passing,’ said Krishna. ‘They all understand that the Goddess of war thirsts for blood. Sometimes it is yours. Sometimes it is someone else’s.’

‘That is your dharma?’

Krishna smiled up at Yama. ‘That is the dharma of all living things, good sir. Human and otherwise.’

‘So you have no word of apology for the three men whose deaths you deliberately caused?’

Krishna tightened his lips and shook his head.

Yama waited for a moment, and then nodded. ‘Very well, then,’ he said. ‘I must tell you that all three of these warriors have forgiven you for the charge I laid at your feet. Are you not surprised that you received forgiveness when you were not asking for it and got spurned when you did?’

Krishna said, ‘No, Lord Yama. It does not surprise me. I have long discovered that life gives you exactly what you think you do not want. Now I discover that death is not all that different.’

Yama got to his feet, and with his thin, stick-like arms, made some gestures. The handle of the mace that stood leaning against his throne to the side, Krishna noticed, was a good inch thicker than the man’s arm. How did he manage to wield it? Or was it true that the Celestials had different physical forms they could change between at will?

When Yama’s eyes came to rest on Krishna again, they were the tired old man’s once again.

‘Their forgiveness is not relevant to my opinion, as before,’ he said. ‘That is my dharma, to take everyone’s views and disregard them all.’

‘And you must follow it, alas,’ said Krishna.

‘Indeed. I must.’ Yama straightened himself and looked in the direction of the main entrance. ‘And now we must welcome the next set of people eager to meet you.’

Krishna saw over his shoulder that the bolts on the green-and-gold door remained fastened. For a minute he waited to see if anyone he knew would walk in. But only silence reigned in the great hall. He did not even hear footsteps.

When he turned back to Yama he found that the latter was already eyeing the empty thrones on the side. The old man stood at the edge of his podium, his hands clasped in front of him, and he wore a deferential smile on his haggard face, as if he was welcoming a guest.

Then he looked at Krishna. ‘Pay your respects,’ he said, ‘to Jarasandha.’