They hovered in mid-air, two feet off the dusty earth of Kurukshetra.
Yama wrapped in his black cloak, his arms hidden under it; Krishna in his riding clothes, whip in hand. Bruises and cuts littered his bare forearms, pink lines on the supple, shiny purple skin. He found that the armour had grown in weight; he had worn them with ease all those years ago on this very ground, but now it threatened to wrest him to the ground. He wished he could unclasp the breastplate and cast it away, slide off the wrist bands, the bracelets, the crown that was now slipping down to his forehead.
The smell of putrid blood hung heavy in the air, though the field itself, as far as he could see, was bare, the earth still brown. Was this before the battle had begun?
‘No,’ said Yama. ‘This is the day after.’
The sound of laughter rang in their ears, echoing as if they were enclosed in the hall of souls. It began as an infant’s gurgle, accompanied by the baying of a distant hound, voices of warning from an unseen Brahmin, that the boy will bring about the destruction of the clan, that he should be abandoned.
Then it grew, the laugh, in size and breadth and age, rustling the leaves of the aged oak trees that stood on the edge of the battleground. It assumed various hues; now it was filled with joy, now it spewed contempt, now it lashed with venom, now it reeked of despair.
Krishna recognized the source of the laugh, so it did not surprise him when Yama led him, floating in the air, to a black fluttering spot in the middle of the field, where Arjuna’s chariot would stand at the beginning of each battle day, at the head of the Pandava army, to the right side of Dhrishtradyumna, the supreme commander.
As they neared the figure, more details came into view.
The heavy, curled moustache. The tough-as-leather brown skin, hardened by years of pounding, wrestling and hand to hand combat. The thick large hands, the square fingernails, the hands of a brawn, a brute, the hands of a man who could move mountains but was bemused by the task of threading a needle.
The mace, at his side, resting on a thigh bleeding from seven different wounds.
The laughter still rained all over them.
Suyodhana did not look Krishna in the eye, nor did he exhibit any sign of physical pain. His face – his handsome face – was set in an expression of great serenity, and his eyes were closed. His great naked chest was heaving up and down, so Krishna could tell that he was not dead, not yet, but this meant that Suyodhana had attained peace before he died.
‘He did,’ said Yama. ‘He was one of the quieter ones in the hall of souls. The righteous speak a lot.’
‘Can you make the laughter stop?’ said Krishna, looking around him.
‘Do you hear laughter? Whose is it?’
Krishna did not answer. Instead, he pointed at the prone figure. ‘Suyodhana did not die here in Kurukshetra. This is all wrong.’
‘Well, not all of it. Some of it might be, yes.’ Yama’s long face was set in a look of stone, his white lips pressed together. Krishna noticed that he could not tell by looking at the sky what time of the day it was. There was not a trace of cloud overhead, but neither the sun nor the moon could be seen. Nothing he saw – their figures, Suyodhana’s body, the trees in the distance – cast a shadow. It was as if they were uprooted from another reality and planted here.
‘Suyodhana is laughing,’ said Krishna, at last.
The admission made the sound harsher, and he heard the dying man’s pronouncement to Yudhisthira.
You think you have won, Brother, he says, his thighs soaked in red one moment, but whole and healthy the next. Bask in the glory of your victory for this one night, for tomorrow will bring in the wisdom of a new day. Tomorrow you shall walk around Kurukshetra and hear, not the cheers of victory but the groans of pain, of man and beast alike. You shall sit next to the grandsire, still lying stubbornly on his bed of arrows, clinging to his life – I know not why – and he shall tell you, with impeccable hindsight, what a grave error you have committed.
Tomorrow you shall hear the screams of grief and anguish from all the women you have loved. They will curse you, yes, even your own mother and aunt and wife, for they shall look upon the funeral pyres that darken the sky in broad daylight, and ask themselves if it was really what they had wanted.
For they knew not what war meant, Yudhisthira, just like we menfolk know nothing of rearing a baby from birth to youth. They yearned for war thinking that it shall just be another of our sporting ceremonies, where brother would fight brother with wooden weapons, where arrows would not pierce, just slide off the body.
Only when they see the starkness of real war, my brother, only when they see all their sons and uncles and brothers and husbands lying lifeless on the riverbank on piles of firewood, and when they spot ravens and vultures chase each other in circles atop broken trees in the distance, waiting, only then will they turn to you and say, ‘But Yudhisthira, why did you not tell us that it will be this bad?’
Krishna looked around the sleeping figure of Suyodhana, and though the field was deserted he saw the defiant Bhima, clutching at the handle of his mace with one hand, ready to strike. Arjuna was there too, the Gandiva hanging limply by his shoulder, string broken, shorn of all the enchantments that once made it great. In the distance, somewhere close to the line of trees, sat a large pile of black ash, the remnant of Arjuna’s chariot, buried deep within which was still fluttering, Krishna thought, the flag of Anjaneya.
‘Calling his words a curse would be a mistake, would it not, Krishna?’ said Yama. ‘A curse is uttered in a state of high emotion, most often anger, a sense of helplessness, perhaps, because you cannot hurt the person in the here and now, so you call upon the elements to give you justice in the future.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Krishna.
‘But this one.’ Yama inclined his head at Suyodhana. ‘This is not a curse. The words were not uttered by a raving madman. No, this – this was a prophecy.’
A prophecy that had come true, thought Krishna, and Suyodhana’s laughter grew louder. His dying voice reverberated in his head, and he felt it would be nice if they could go back to the silence of the hall of souls. Yama had said that Suyodhana had been quiet in his own hall; why did he not stop talking and laughing here?
Yama turned to Krishna, as if he had said something, and smiled in understanding.
Only a tenth of the men who walked the earth eighteen days before today still live, Yudhisthira, my lord, king. We did not kill just soldiers; no, we killed farmers, masons, carpenters, traders, water carriers, miners, moneylenders, potters, blacksmiths, fishermen – they all picked up weapons in this war, and they all lost their lives, and we lost all the knowledge that they held in their brains.
It is not the king who builds a kingdom, Yudhisthira. I have ruled for longer than you, and though you may baulk at that and say I did it by deception, Hastinapur prospered under my rule. I know more of what makes a kingdom great than you ever will, and let me tell you right now, it is not the ruler. Not his benevolence or cruelty, his wisdom or foolishness, his blindness or sight.
No, it is these people – the little people, who earn their bread by day, make love to their women by night, rear children, and pass on the insights of their profession and craft. It is this alchemy of nature, of men and women uniting to create more men and women – it is this that keeps the wheel of God’s chariot turning.
And now what have we done, Brother? We have killed four of every five men in all of North Country. Look around Hastinapur, my king; you will see empty roads, unmanned walls, rusting hulls on fishing boats, termites on every potter’s wheel, cracks in the earth, here in Hastinapur, the most fertile of all the Great Kingdoms.
In the past when famine struck, we would send envoys to Mathura, to Mithila, to Anga even, to bring back grains and feed our people. But this time, famine has struck all of North Country, Yudhisthira. But for Dwaraka, on whose sandy plains no crops grow, and whose people have grown accustomed to eat fish with their every meal, there is no kingdom left that is not ravaged by war. And even Dwaraka has seen half its men plundered by the tip of your spear.
You think you have won the war, dear brother?
Your war begins now. And this one will not be over in a mere eighteen days. It will go on for eighteen years, or perhaps a hundred and eighteen. It will kill eighteen times more people over the period of your reign than did the war of Kurukshetra.
This war that you will fight – once again, it will be the Pandavas against all of North Country, but it will not be fought with weapons you are accustomed to; it will not be written about. When the tale is told, they will say that the years after the Great War were peaceful ones, and the Pandavas ruled over their people wisely and well, with all the goodness of gods. They will condense the rest of your lives into an epilogue to a poem, but time does not spare any of us, Yudhisthira. The remaining of your years – and those of your brothers – will be long and hard. If you think you have withstood hardships in your life up to now, brace yourself for what is coming, for a war that you are certain to lose.
The eyes of the figure in front of them opened, and they blinked in recognition when they came to rest on Krishna. Suyodhana eased himself into a cross-legged seating position, and placed his hands, palms facing outward, on his knees. The mace still leaned against his shoulder, weightless. Krishna saw on his face all the peace that Yudhisthira yearned for and failed to acquire in his life.
‘You are here, Keshava,’ said Suyodhana, in the precise manner of a sage to a disciple. ‘Now it rather feels like all of our past squabbles were worthless, does it not?’
Krishna looked to his side and found that Yama was gone. In the vast expanse of Kurukshetra, only he and Suyodhana flickered together as one. At once he saw that he was sitting too, facing the Kuru prince, in the same yogic pose, their knees almost touching.
‘Tell me, prince of Dwaraka,’ he said, his emerald green eyes drawing level with Krishna’s. ‘If Arjuna had chosen the army of Dwaraka and I had chosen you, would any of this – any of this – have been different?’
Krishna said, ‘Perhaps. Perhaps not. Good has to win over evil, no matter who fights on which side.’
‘Death has not dulled your ability to speak in riddles, my prince,’ said Suyodhana, with none of the animosity of old. If anything, a smile of knowing lit up his face. For a moment Krishna wondered if this was Yama himself, disguised in the form of Suyodhana in order to test him. But then he remembered; this was all in his mind. Nothing – none of this – was real.
‘It is not I that call you evil, Suyodhana,’ he said. ‘History will remember the Kauravas as the embodiment of adharma, and the Pandavas as the sons of gods.’
‘History,’ said Suyodhana, inhaling a long, deep breath of the blood-infested air. ‘I concern myself not with history but with the truth. I have won enough battles to know how stories are spun. It does not surprise me that the victors in the greatest war of all paint themselves as righteous beings who could do no wrong. But look around you, Madhava. There is no one here but you and me.’ Then he smiled, and his eyes closed and opened once. ‘In fact, there is no one here but you alone. What the poets and storytellers of the future say about us is immaterial. You are dead. So am I. We both inhabit the same plane.’
‘You and I?’ said Krishna, breaking into a laugh. ‘You and I will never belong to the same plane, Suyodhana. I came to you for peacekeeping. I said give the Pandavas five villages. Five villages, and the battle would have been avoided.’
‘Five villages that did not belong to them, Krishna.’ Suyodhana picked up a handful of dust and watched it trickle back down to the earth from between his fingers. ‘If you had asked for the five villages in charity, I would have given them. Why, I might even have given them fifty of my best. But no, you said they had a right to five of my villages. That I refuse, to this day.’
Krishna watched Suyodhana, and tried to decipher an emotion from that wooden face. ‘Why, Suyodhana?’ he said. ‘Why this hatred for your cousins?’
‘Hatred, Krishna? It was never a matter of hatred. It was a matter of fairness. The eldest son of the king becomes king after him. No other kinsman has a claim to the throne. This was how the scriptures were written. This was the practice that was followed across North Country. What did I do wrong, asserting that the throne of Hastinapur was mine by right?
‘Here is a question. Who was responsible, Krishna, for sowing the seeds of ambition in Yudhisthira’s mind? Why did the Pandavas grow up seeing dreams of kingship? Many kings in North Country have brothers – you yourself are one to a ruler, and you yourself have sons – did you feed them with thoughts of greed when they were growing up?’
Krishna said, ‘No.’
‘Indeed,’ said Suyodhana. ‘If anything, you would have done the opposite. You would have told your sons that the throne is not to be theirs, that they should serve Balarama’s eldest son as their lord. You would have reared them to be faithful to the current and future king. Would you not?’
‘But the Pandavas grew up forever striking the hand that feeds them. Here they were, sons of the dead prince Pandu, back from years in the woods, and they were welcomed by my mother Gandhari and my father Dhritarashtra. It was their benevolence that gave the Pandavas shelter. They should have grown up with a debt of gratitude toward my father, and they should have sworn their allegiance to me as the future king. But no. Their minds turned to the throne itself; I wonder how. I wonder who fed their small minds with that poisonous desire.’
Krishna thought of Kunti; plain, forgotten Kunti; fiery, blazing Kunti; crafty, astute Kunti, the wise priestess Kunti, Kunti the Kali-incarnate, Kunti the Earth Mother, with reserves of infinite patience held within a murderous heart.
‘That is where the seeds of war were sown, were they not?’ said Suyodhana. ‘What followed were just details. Giving Indraprastha to the Pandavas, setting up another city within Hastinapur. Why? Why undermine the current king by erecting a new city inside the old city’s boundaries? What principles of statecraft did Bhishma and Vidur follow in doing this? Whose advice did they seek?’
‘Indraprastha was a forest before the Pandavas came,’ said Krishna. ‘They turned the barren land into a kingdom of plenty.’
Suyodhana looked at Krishna for a moment, then leaned back slightly, as if swaying to a gust of wind, and laughed at the blue, sunless sky.
‘You do believe your own lies,’ he said. ‘So the five Pandavas, and their queen Draupadi, razed the Khandava and built Indraprastha on their own?’
‘With a little help from me.’
‘You?’ said Suyodhana. ‘You and Dwaraka’s army may have killed all the animals and Nagas in Khandava, but who felled the trees, Krishna? Who cleared the weeds, the thorns, the wildflowers, the charred bird nests? Who laid the roads? Who erected the houses? Who brought soil that fed Indraprastha’s many rice fields? Who built the bridge across the Ganga that allowed Indraprastha to trade with Shurasena? We did! The people of Hastinapur, on the command of Bhishma, the regent, and Dhritarashtra, the High King.
‘Do you not see, Krishna? Even Indraprastha was charity that they got from us, from me! And they invite me over and insult me in my own house? They slander me in front of their people, they spread lies about me?’
Krishna felt a little prickling at the back of his neck. A tiny tremor worked its way up his arms, and he shivered. ‘That did not give you the right to disrobe Draupadi.’
Suyodhana sighed. ‘Draupadi’s disrobing happened after Yudhisthira had lost everything to us. They were our slaves. Draupadi was my slave. I concede that my eyes were blinded by thoughts of revenge – and why not? – but what I did was not wrong. Not on principle, because I own my slaves. The Pandavas have done worse with their slaves in the confines of their own bedchambers.’
‘That might be true,’ said Krishna, ‘but Draupadi was not just your slave. She was also the daughter-in-law of the Kuru house.’
Suyodhana leaned forward. ‘Bhanumati, Krishna. Bhanumati was the daughter-in-law of the Kuru house, not Draupadi. Draupadi became the daughter-in-law by usurping the property of her benefactors. Do you disagree with that?’
Krishna looked away, to the distance, where the leaves of the oak trees still rustled in their calm way. He did not have to either agree or disagree, for this voice of Suyodhana came from within. One did not agree or disagree with oneself; one merely listened and thought.
Suyodhana sat with patience, looking at him, through him, eyes open but body lost in a trance. A speaking toy, that was all. Not the Suyodhana of old. Invisible strings rose from him and disappeared into the blue curtain overhead, and somewhere lost in the heights sat Yama on his throne, tugging at this string, pushing at that one, watching.
‘You might think that I am angry at you, Krishna.’ Suyodhana’s eyes opened, and a ray of warmth emanated from them, touched Krishna on the arm. ‘For turning us on each other, for deceiving us, for the final twist of the knife which allowed Bhima to defeat me in single combat – but no. All I feel is pity, for you and the Pandavas, for inheriting a dead world.’ His eyes narrowed, and his slender eyebrows gathered together in a frown. ‘Tell me, O Madhava, was it a pleasure ruling Dwaraka for all these years, after the war?’
Krishna began to say yes in defiance, as he had to everyone on Earth who had asked a variation of this question. But he remembered what Suyodhana had said but a few moments ago; there was no one here but he. No one to influence, no need for false masks.
So he shook his head sadly. ‘Brother Balarama and I tried to restore peace, but the fires would never stop burning. It was like the men had turned into monsters overnight.’ He turned his head up at the sky, stared at the blue expanse to see if he could spot the edges of Dwaraka’s outer walls immersed within it. ‘Rapes, murders, theft –’
‘The treasury was empty. There were not enough men to tax. No trade was possible except with Hastinapur, and they had a shortage of gold too. They had just begun to melt all the weapons and extract as much as they could, and later they would use it to forge coins with Yudhisthira’s face on them.
‘The canals ran dry. People ran out of water, even though we were perched on the shore of a sea. There were many fishing boats, but none of the survivors knew how to fish. People starved; people – women and children, most of them – killed one another for a single loaf of wheat bread.’
‘This is the prophecy of Gandhari, my mother,’ said Suyodhana, himself looking up at the sky, and his eyes sparkled as if he could make her out in the blue. ‘Only when you heard it, you thought she was cursing you consumed by grief. She was a queen first, Krishna; she knew how kingdoms were built. More pertinently, she knew how they decayed and fell. What she gave you was a warning; not a curse.’
And then Suyodhana’s laughter filled the air once again, though his physical body in front of Krishna did not stir from its yogic stance. His lips did not move, but his laughter rushed up the dusty plain from all directions, and hit Krishna full and hot in the face. His ears burned. The corners of his mouth cracked. His hair felt like it had caught fire.
‘Now do you see,’ said Suyodhana, quiet amid the cacophony of screeches, ‘why I was not angry? Even as all of you towered over my body and celebrated victory, Krishna, I knew that time would snatch your pleasures from you, and you would endure more – much more – than we, the defeated, had to. This is the Goddess’s way; in the nub of defeat you find the seed of victory, and on the threshold of glory you find the ocean of despair, prowling in wait.
‘Which is which, you ask? It matters not. In the Goddess’s mind there is no defeat and victory, no bad and good, no dharma and adharma, no right and wrong; everything just is. And after all, here we sit, Krishna, you and I, unarmed and unafraid, in the battlefield where our weapons clashed a few years ago. You say you have won the Great War. I say I have. Who is right?’
The shrieks grew louder in Krishna’s ears. Plugging them with his fingers did not help. He wished to clamber to his feet and flee this strange place, this open plain which looked like Kurukshetra, even smelled like it, but resides under a bright sunless sky that casts no shadows. He wished to run, but found that his feet were weighed down to the earth. His arms had become so numb that he could not move them, and when he parted his lips to speak, he found that his tongue had swollen into a cotton ball inside his mouth.
‘Yudhisthira, too,’ Suyodhana was saying, without taking notice of Krishna. ‘He thought he had won, but did you not see how much they have aged, all six of them, in these final years? And now that even Dwaraka has fallen to ruin, what will become of Hastinapur, O Cousin? Everything they fought for, lived for, everything that fed their fire for years – all of it will fall, and do you know what makes it even sweeter for me, Krishna? It will fall under their reign. They will grasp and clutch at the throne with their soiled hands, as they always have, and this time there is no one to stop them. But in spite of all their frantic efforts, the throne will turn to dust. Nothing will survive of Hastinapur; those men of the future who wish to dig up remains of our great city shall find nothing but dust.’
Krishna wanted to speak but could not. He found himself chained by Suyodhana’s laughter, and a gaggle of crows left the branches of the old oaks and flapped their wings. They came toward them, a black, cawing cloud of smoke.
As it neared them and grew bigger, this cloud, and as each crow dissolved into the other in form, Krishna knew without knowing how that it would stifle him, suffocate him, consume him, and leave him as a heap of bones, all flesh and muscle and life sucked out.
And yet Suyodhana would remain here, untouched. He would roam the battlefield till the end of time, lording over it with raucous laughter on one side and cold logic on the other. The cloud of crows will not harm him. The hot dusty air will not reach his lungs.
The crows drew nearer. The screaming in Krishna’s ears louder.
It became a shooting pain now, so he removed his fingers and tried to imitate Suyodhana’s pose of yoganidra, but when he closed his eyes the needles in the ears plunged deeper and drew a whine out of his tired, tired mouth.
With one last gasp of effort, he prayed to Yama to take him, to transport him with that mysterious click of a finger back to the quiet solitude of the hall of souls. He yearned for that still, golden air, the softness of the carpet that cushioned one’s feet, and most of all the silence. Yes, the silence. Where one could even hear oneself breathing.
‘Leave, Krishna,’ said Suyodhana, not opening his eyes or his mouth. ‘We have spoken for long enough. Too long.’
‘I want to go,’ replied Krishna, but the cotton-like tongue in his mouth just flapped and waved, spitting forth incoherent babbles. The gurgler in his ears laughed at that, and plunged a hundred more needles deep into his eardrum.
The cloud drew nearer still; now it covered almost half of the blue sky overhead. The smell of rotting carcasses became more intense, and Krishna’s stomach began to churn. The air he breathed singed the hair inside his nostrils. His armpits and thighs broke into a sweat, and deep within his chest, where he had found a beating heart not long ago, there now resided a thumping fireball.
Take me back to the hall of souls, he pleaded with Yama.
But only screams rained down from the black cloud.
His muscles gave way at that moment, and he fell to the ground, at last surrendering to the great weight. His cheek hit the dust, and his arms splayed out. His fingers dug into the earth, the hot, dirty earth, soaked with the blood of North Country. His breath slowed, became more laboured; his eyelids grew heavy with sleep.
This must be what death feels like, he thought, and smiled at the swelling darkness.