Krishna looked to the left, where Yama was pointing with a creaky old crooked finger, at the man he called Jarasandha.
But he looked nothing like Jarasandha.
The Jarasandha that Krishna knew was built like a tawny lion, all strings and sinew. Curly locks of dark hair sprouting around the crown that rested on his lean face. Eyes of a wolf, forever hungry. The formidable chin of a man who knew just when and where to drive home the pointed edge of a knife, and how far to twist it. Even in all of his heavy royal finery he would walk around a hall as if he were floating on a carpet of air. No man had ever fought him in a fair battle and won. He spoke in the hurried, slurred manner of one whose mind never stayed still.
But this one – this shape that Yama claimed was Jarsandha – he bore an eerie resemblance to Shishupala. He slouched on the throne like an overfed python, his belly protruding; his hands puffed up as if they were sacks of air. The smile he threw at Krishna did not bring to mind the Jarasandha of Magadha, at whose name all the middle kingdoms – and those of North Country, one must admit – trembled in fear.
‘This is not Jarasandha,’ said Krishna, as the hall of souls dissolved around him, one seat at a time. ‘This is Shishupala, he who would not heed my warnings.’
Yama’s brow curled up in a frown. ‘Is that who you see in the chair?’
‘Yes,’ said Krishna, and at once he remembered what Yama had told him on his first arrival; all he saw was the rumination of his mind. Even this sight of the hall of souls, the golden lustre of the domed ceiling overhead, the softness of the silken carpets underfoot, the shape of Yama’s nose, the words that he spoke, the questions that he asked – these were all the mind’s idle manifestations, frantic in the moment of death to find meaning, sense, solace.
He did not know how long this moment would last; a part of him wanted it all to be over, for the darkness that had been promised him in death to envelop him, so that he could descend into sleep. In that instant, facing Shishupala’s devious smile once again, Krishna did not care even for the pleasures of Meru that Yama had hinted at; the highest form of bliss, he thought, came with the stilling of the mind.
He waited, and counted up to five within himself, seeing if everything would winkle out of sight.
It did not. The empty thrones surrounding the seated man returned to solidity.
‘Shishupala,’ he said, mustering all the reserve he could, ‘I owe you no apology. I promised your mother that I shall forgive your hundred sins, and I did.’
The devilish smile on the bloated face disappeared. ‘Why do you call me Shishupala?’ he said. ‘I look nothing like that pitiful prince of Chedi. I am Jarasandha, the emperor of Magadha. I would have been the Vasudeva of North Country, Krishna, if it were not for your cunning ways.’
‘All your sins I forgave,’ said Krishna, resolute. ‘But when you came to the horse sacrifice and began to throw insults at me, one after the other –’
‘Even with Shishupala,’ said Jarasandha, and the voice suddenly became his – loud, booming, certain, too quick to catch if one did not listen with care. ‘Even with him you did not play fair. You did not fight him with a sword, as his choice of weapon was. You hurled a discus at him, from the safety of your throne.’
‘A discus is a weapon allowed by the art of war, Jarasandha,’ said Krishna.
‘Not if you are fighting a warrior bearing a weapon of close combat,’ said Jarasandha, slime trickling down the corner of his mouth. ‘But when have you ever followed the principles of war, O Madhava? Is that not what they call you now on Earth? How well you have covered up the lies of our lives, Krishna, now that you have killed all your enemies? The poets take their gold from the treasury of Dwaraka, do they not? Or they come from Hastinapur, that other city you plundered with your lying words – and they all sing your praises. And why not? Have you ever told anyone what has truly happened, O Keshava?’
With a clink of wrist plates, Yama leaned forward and rested his forearm on his thigh. ‘What is it that you speak of, Jarasandha?’
‘The first thing you should ask him, Lord Yama, is this,’ said Jarasandha, sniggering in his old way; the fat in his cheeks melted in front of Krishna’s eyes, and the cheeks took on the strong, sallow look that had haunted the dreams of the Mathuran people for years. ‘Why does he see the image of Shishupala in my face?’
Krishna said to Yama, ‘Is it necessary to dig for reasons, my lord Yama, why my mind seeks to see what it does? Is it not enough that I stand here, as if I were a criminal, answering your questions?’
Yama turned a cool, fiery gaze at Krishna. ‘You do not stand here as a matter of choice, human,’ he said, and swirled the cloak on his back from one side to the other. ‘You stand here because this is the path of every man who arrives at the threshold of death. You stand here answering not my questions, but those posed by your own mind. I am but a figment of who you are.’
He pointed at the apparition on the throne, who looked as real a man as Krishna had ever seen, a queer composite of Jarasandha and Shishupala, the mere appearance of who made his stomach churn, half out of fear (but what had he got to fear now?), half out of disgust.
‘Even he,’ said Yama, ‘takes birth in your thoughts, both unseen and seen, unheard and heard. Whatever you see here is a reflection of your deepest desires. I merely stand here as the custodian of your inner world.’
Krishna swallowed a bit of air; pristine, clear air. Quiet air. ‘You,’ he said, ‘you are my inner voice?’
Yama shrugged. ‘How can one describe the indescribable? I am matter, I am energy. I am form. I am not speaking now, not truly, not the way you know it, but you still hear my voice, do you not?’
‘I am not here, not truly, not the way you know it, but you still see me, do you not? You have heard my voice a million times in your head when you lived, Krishna, and now all we have is a moment – a moment longer after which we must do it all over again. Perhaps. Perhaps not.’
Krishna shook his head. None of this should surprise him; these were the very words he had used on Arjuna on the first day of battle. These were the words – in meaning if not in actuality – he had comforted Mother Gandhari with on the final day. These were the words High King Dhritarashtra had heard from him, too, when the matter of Suyodhana’s death arose on that day of the final visit.
Yama watched him, and his tired lips spread in a pale grin. ‘These are your words, Krishna. Then am I really who I say I am? Or am I just a shade that resides in your dying brain? Am I one of the many cells that are firing inside your mind right now with the all the energy of the universe, and merely feeding back your words to you?’
‘I do not know.’
Yama’s thin shoulders rose and fell. ‘Neither do I. But we do not live in a world anymore that requires us to know for certain.’
‘And you still want me to answer Jarasandha?’
‘You are not compelled to,’ said Yama. ‘You could pass through this moment of death however you wish. Many souls arrive at this hall and spend the eternity in silence. They just watch me sit here, and I watch them.’
‘They all come here?’ said Krishna, at once feeling awed, and one with the rest of humanity, the way he had never really felt in life. He looked around him; Jarasandha was still there, chuckling, cracking his knuckles, stretching his neck as if he were about to enter a wrestling match. ‘To this very room?’
‘Well,’ said Yama, ‘they all arrive at their version of the hall of souls. They all see their version of me. Arjuna, for instance, when he comes here, might just see me in your image.’
Arjuna, thought Krishna. Would he see Arjuna as well, at some point?
‘The Arjuna you see will just be the Arjuna of your mind, of course. Just like the Krishna he sees after his death would not be you, just his image of who you are, of who he thought you were.’
‘Then this is not truly Jarasandha,’ said Krishna, looking at the emperor, who kept at his neck-stretching and knuckle-cracking, and staring away into the distance like a painted wood puppet, hearing none of their words.
‘No,’ said Yama. ‘He is just who you think Jarasandha was.’
‘And Radha?’ said Krishna. ‘Did she really die thinking of me? Did she really have that horrible rasp in her voice toward the end? And – and did they not come here, Radha and my mother Yashoda? Did they not sit and hear my apology?’
‘They did not,’ said Yama. ‘They cannot. Any more than one man can dwell inside another’s mind.’
‘Then why did I speak to them? Why did I fall to my knees in front of them? Was it not all –’
‘A waste of time?’ asked Yama, and looked at the head-cocking emperor to the side. ‘We have time at our bidding, O Vasudeva. A lot of it. We might as well spend it talking.’
‘How long will this last?’ said Krishna. ‘If I just stood here and refused to speak, how long will we sit? How many years?’
‘Years?’ said Yama, as if perplexed by the notion. ‘Time does not pass the human way in the hall of souls, Krishna. As for how long we will sit here, who really knows? Did you know on Earth how long you would live for?’
‘Then why should you know how long you will remain dead for?’
‘It could be years, then?’
Yama nodded, and sighed. ‘This is the only existence I know. Whom shall I air my grievances with, Madhava?’
Krishna raised his hands in front of his eyes, turned them over. They looked the same as they always had; the colour and texture of blueberries, hairless. Pink fingernails and palms. It struck Krishna that he had not seen a mirror ever since he had arrived here; he looked around for one.
‘I can give you a mirror,’ said Yama, ‘but it will show you only that you wish to see.’
A great weariness came upon Krishna at that moment, and he dropped his arms. ‘Are you really here, Lord Yama, or am I just speaking to myself?’
‘Both,’ said Yama. ‘And neither.’
Krishna looked at the now oiled-with-sweat, topless Jarasandha, golden bracelets shining on each wrist, bending low to the ground and slapping his thighs. ‘Come, Krishna,’ he was saying, ‘all your life you ran away from me. Now let us settle this, man for man.’
‘So even the souls of Abhimanyu, Ghatotkacha and Iravan –’
‘Everything,’ said Yama patiently. ‘Everything you see here is within you. The great irony of the hall of souls is that there is only ever one soul here at any moment.’
‘But millions of people die every minute on Earth,’ said Krishna.
‘And who says that there is only one hall of souls? One springs into existence every time a man begins to take his final breath. And it burns into nothingness as soon as that breath leaves his body.’
‘Then I need not fear anyone here.’
Yama turned to look at the prowling Jarasandha and laughed. ‘No, Vasudeva. There is no one here but you. Besides, you who have not known fear in life –’
Jarasandha howled in mock derision, loud enough to stop the lord of justice mid-sentence. ‘Did you just say he did not know fear? He lived his whole life covered in it, the coward!’
‘Mathura defeated Magadha seventeen times in fair war, Jarasandha,’ said Krishna.
‘Oooh, that is what your books say, Krishna, is it not?’ said Jarasandha. ‘But here there are no books, just you and me. The good lord Yama says that I do not exist either, so it is just you and you, and you. Are you not going to be honest now? There is no one to cheat, no battle to fight. All the battles you did fight, you have won. The land cheers your name; Vrindavan worships your idol. Mathura sings paeans about your valour. And yet, and yet, have you ever held a true man’s weapon in your hands, cowherd?’
‘The most powerful weapons are those of the mind,’ said Krishna.
Yama straightened the mace at his side, brushed off an invisible speck of dust on its golden handle. ‘But you did not answer the question.’
‘The books will say –’
‘Forget what the books say,’ said Jarasandha. ‘Perhaps men of the future will be blinded by faith. Perhaps they will not ask the questions that ought to be asked; if Mathura indeed vanquished Magadha seventeen times – seventeen times – then why did they not convert her into a vassal state? Why did they not take my life? Why did they not subjugate my military, O Yama? And why did they not prosper and become the foremost of the middle kingdoms?’
He was standing to his full height now, calm and composed, rubbing his upper arms with hairy brass hands. When he spoke again the voice had a hollow ring to it, the detached tone of a sage. ‘Perhaps men of the future will accept your written word as they are, O Vasudeva. But do you tell yourself the same lies you tell the world?’
Krishna did not breathe, but he felt air rush in and out of his lungs, the same way it had all those years ago, when with a horde of mere horsemen Jarasandha’s Magadha had routed Balarama’s Mathura, and were held back from the walls only because of Kamsa’s navy. Jarasandha had been naive enough to fight Mathura on the banks of the Yamuna; when he saw that his horsemen were being targeted by archers and catapults mounted on the war barges in the water, a safe distance from his army, he called out to Krishna and asked if it was within the rules of war for water weapons to strike a land force.
The tales said that Krishna laughed in Jarasandha’s face and spared his life.
But in reality, Krishna had not laughed. He did not answer Jarasandha’s question either, until after the three hundred horsemen of Magadha were hacked to pieces, caught between the dying forces of Mathura’s footmen and the flying flame-tipped arrows that rained from the skies.
At the end, though, as Jarasandha retreated on his elephant, Krishna sent a nimble-footed messenger with a parchment that read: ‘I am cowherd first, prince second. I fight by the laws of the jungle. If my herd is threatened, I shall protect it by whatever means necessary, fair or not.’
The messenger did not return. His head did, after two days, along with another challenge for war bearing the seal of Jarasandha. It was to be fought in four weeks from then, on the morning after the night of the full moon, a thousand leagues off the Yamuna, far enough to take Mathura’s boats out of the reckoning.
Again Jarasandha was fighting like a king, and again Krishna fought like a cowherd. In a week after receiving the message, the people of Mathura boarded the war barges and sailed upstream on the river. When they reached the edge of Shurasena they abandoned the boats there, and walked the rest of the way to the shore of the Western Sea.
‘You ran away,’ said Jarasandha, and Krishna was back in the hall of souls, facing the oiled warrior. ‘You took your whole city with you.’
‘The biggest battles are those you do not fight,’ said Krishna, and Yama smiled at that. You are not on Earth, he seemed to be saying, you do not need to keep repeating your trite ideas. ‘And I did not take the city with me, Jarasandha. I took the people. I left Mathura for you to rule.’
‘Ah, what was Mathura without the knowledge of the naval fleet? I had the boats, but when they broke down, I had no one to fix them. And you – you built your city on the seashore! If Yamuna defended you from one side, the sea defended you from three!’
Krishna said, ‘That is good strategy, not a sin.’
‘And then you sit cooped up behind those high walls,’ said Jarasandha, twirling his moustache, ‘knowing full well that no kingdom would take Dwaraka with open attack.’
‘The same thing had been said for centuries, O King,’ said Krishna, ‘of so many kingdoms. Mathura was hailed as an impregnable city once. So was Hastinapur.’ He bent his head toward the emperor, as if paying his respects. ‘Did they not say it of Magadha, too?’
‘You only took Magadha because you deceived me – yet again.’ Jarasandha’s hands curled into fists by his side. ‘You brought Bhima to wrestle with me, and again you call upon that filthy mind of yours – what did you say it was – the law of the jungle – I call it the law of the brute! I would have killed Bhima at least twice during that fight, but I did not, because it was a match, not a fight to the death.’
‘We needed Magadha, Your Majesty,’ said Krishna, bowing again. ‘Yudhisthir could scarce call himself emperor of North Country with Magadha still holding the middle kingdoms.’
‘Oh, stop it with all your fake concern for the Pandavas,’ said Jarasandha, laughing. ‘You used them as pawns. Mere pawns, all of them. Do you even have a heart under that leathery skin of yours, Krishna? Or are you snake all over?’
Krishna took a step back, and his right hand rose to his chest on its own. He did hear a beating heart thud against the palm of his hand; but it did not convince him. How many times had men and women asked him this question, and how many times had he felt his heart, beating, at the same rate as any other man’s, and assured himself that yes, he did have a beating heart? But on many a night he would sit up in his bed bolt upright, shocked, sweating, knowing that they were not enquiring after a beating organ of flesh and muscle, but about something else entirely, and that something else – he was not certain.
‘You could have stayed inside your walled city until your death,’ said Jarasandha, advancing toward Krishna, fists rotating about wrists. ‘But you wanted more, did you not? You were not content with being god in your one little city; you wanted to be god of the world! And that is not wrong, Krishna. I respect a man with ambition. But along with ambition, I demand honour. If you were honourable you would have traded with the other kingdoms, you would have sent ambassadors to their lands, you would have fought those who did not bend to your will.
‘But no. You played the game of a wolf. Of a hyena who feasts on a lion’s kill. You sowed the seeds of discord in Hastinapur –’
‘I?’ said Krishna. ‘I did everything in my power to stop the war.’
‘Oh,’ said Jarasandha, holding his chest with both hands, bending toward him in mock feeling. ‘How kind is your heart that cannot see violence occur in the world?’ He straightened up, level once again. ‘You held all the peace talks after you knew it was beyond help. But right from the beginning, it was you who set up the sons of Dhritarashtra as bad people, and the sons of Pandu as the good.’
‘Well,’ said Krishna, ‘that was what my conscience believed.’
‘I am part of you,’ said Jarasandha, ‘so you cannot lie to me. You made what was a squabble for ancestral land into a Great War of Good and Evil, and you made certain that your brother, the High King of Dwaraka, I might add, would not take part in it. After the war, Krishna, Dwaraka was the sole kingdom in all of North Country that had not a bruise on her walls.’
‘That is not true,’ replied Krishna. ‘I gave my army to the Kauravas. Untold men lost their lives.’
‘But only soldiers,’ said Jarasandha, smiling crookedly. ‘What are the lives of soldiers worth when the king and prince still lives, O Madhava? And you played on both sides of this game, did you not, Krishna? For if the Kauravas had won, Dwaraka would still have won because it fought for Suyodhana. And he would have remained an ally till his death. What a masterstroke, that, fighting by yourself on one side and sending the Yadava army to the other – it meant that no matter who won, Dwaraka would emerge as the supreme kingdom.’
Krishna said, his voice rigid, ‘I would never have forsaken Arjuna’s friendship.’
Jarasandha threw his head back and laughed. He beat his fists down on his chest and laughed. He threw his arms out toward the ceiling and laughed.
Yama clicked a lazy finger, and the figure of Jarasandha froze in that position. He got up, tucked one arm behind his back, picked up the mace with another. He walked to the edge of the staircase, and stood with his pointed, bejewelled shoes half-protruding off the edge of the first step.
‘And all this,’ he said softly, ‘for what, Krishna? Just to become the Vasudeva?’
‘I never wished to become the Vasudeva, my lord,’ said Krishna, again feeling for his heart, finding the beat, allowing his hand to linger there for a moment. ‘It was an honour thrust upon me.’
Yama smiled. ‘That is what every emperor says.’
‘I was not emperor of any one kingdom.’
‘And that is by design, is it not?’ said Yama. ‘Balarama was your elder brother, and he was High King, but no one across the land thought of him when they thought of Dwaraka, of Vrindavan, of Mathura. The stories all laud you, my cowherd prince who was never king. The poets sing about you, not of your brother.’
‘You are not saying, I am certain, that it is my fault that they do so?’
‘All I am saying, Lord Krishna – do not flinch at the phrase, for that is what they call you down there – is that one man’s ambition to become the foremost personality of his age has cost a whole country dear.’
‘Hastinapur would have fallen with or without me, my lord,’ said Krishna, and felt the beat of his heart weaken just a touch. He pressed his hand hard against his chest, but the sound slowed down even further. ‘The seeds of war were sown in the time of Dhritarashtra and Pandu. I did nothing to stoke those flames.’
‘Ah,’ said Yama, ‘we shall have time to converse about that in depth, but let me say that you were perhaps not as innocent as you claim to be.’ With mace in hand, the old Yama attained the look of a young, prim soldier dressed up to march in royal assembly. He looked woefully unprepared, though, for a fight. ‘Perhaps you can feel the wavering in your heart as you lie to it.’
Krishna did. He rubbed himself on the chest, in the manner of the healers of old who said that doing so would awaken dead blood in the veins and revive a ruining lump of flesh. But it did not work, not here in the hall of souls, with Yama towering over him and Jarasandha frozen, deep inside a moment inside a moment.
‘Even a man who becomes the Vasudeva has to die,’ said Yama, his face at once tired and small. ‘He has to walk the path of all his fellow men. The black cloud of dust that claims all does not discriminate, Krishna.’
Krishna only half-heard what Yama said. He patted different spots on his chest, searching.
‘It will come back,’ said Yama. ‘Do not fret. Once you begin to speak the truth again, it will come back. If it does not, it does not matter. But tell me this; now that you can look back at what you have left behind you – do you feel regret at all?’
Krishna, with one hand still on his chest, held up his chin. ‘No.’
‘Would you not, perhaps, work to prevent the war rather than cause it?’
‘No. The history of the world is such that it does not remember men who have prevented wars. Only those who have won them.’
Yama thought about it, nodded. ‘So your need to be remembered was greater, you say, than the value of all the lives lost in the war?’
‘Everything comes at a cost,’ said Krishna, glancing once at the silently roaring figure of Jarasandha. ‘If I had not won the war, someone else would have, and men of the world would write poems and stories of them. Someone had to be the Vasudeva of Dwapara. I just wanted it to be me.’
Yama listened with a deep, sad attention. His shoulders slumped, and he returned to the throne and sat on it. He caressed the jewels set into the handle of his mace, and looked at them with love for the longest time.
Then he said, ‘Yes. You are perhaps right.’
‘I am, my lord,’ said Krishna. ‘On Earth, you are either the controller or the controlled. I chose to be the former.’
‘I see. So you feel no regret. What about sadness?’
That made Krishna pause. He thought. Of Jarasandha and his hundreds of horsemen. Of Abhimanyu, of Draupadi, of Radha and Yashoda and Sudama, of Gandhari and Dhritarashtra, of Suyodhana himself, who had been so utterly confident of winning the war, of Ghatotkacha, of Rukmini and Satyabhama, Subhadra…
Uttara, Ulupi, Chitrangada, Karna, Drona, Bhishma…
Satyaki, Barbarik, Dhrishtadyumna, Drupada, Shalya, Shakuni…
The names turned into a river and flowed into him. And he did feel a tiny twinge of sorrow as he imagined all these men and women healthy and young and laughing, filled with joy. He thought of how Abhimanyu would have looked as seventy year old patriarch, dandling a great grandson on his knee. How Drona would have taught Parikshit the art of wielding the bow. How Bhishma would have been serving even today as the regent of Hastinapur, the constant in an ever-changing world, the one mote of dust that refused to move no matter how powerful the gale.
And he felt sorrow. Deep within, a tingle and a jolt.
Yama held his gaze, and Krishna saw that he felt it too.
‘Well,’ said he, clicking his finger again and making Jarasandha vanish as if he were never there, ‘at least you feel that much.’
And once again the hall of souls was empty, and Krishna broke into a small smile when his fingertips sensed the faint stirring of a heart thought to be dead.