When Krishna stirred awake, he found that he was on the balls of his feet in the hall of souls. The velvety touch of the carpet had been replaced by something smooth and cold; marble-like. On top of the stairs, the throne of Yama stood in all its imposing grandeur, and in front of it stood the familiar figure – not of the beak-nosed lord of justice who had just abandoned Krishna in Kurukshetra to the wiles of Suyodhana, but the elephant-shouldered king of Dwaraka, Balarama.
‘Brother!’ said Krishna, and hurried forward.
A red blindfold covered Balarama’s eyes. The veins in his large hands twitched when he heard Krishna’s voice, and he uttered a low, guttural sound of surprise. ‘I was not told that you would be here,’ he said.
Krishna did not ask Balarama who it was that brought him here; he reminded himself that this was not truly Balarama, just his image of the king of Dwaraka. In this great hall, the longest conversations happened between men and their shadows, Yama had said. Who brought this shade of Balarama here and seated him on the throne meant for a god was not pertinent; all that bothered Krishna was why Balarama wore the blindfold around his eyes.
‘Well,’ said the king, ‘that is my punishment in the afterlife for having been a blind bat all my life.’
‘A blind bat?’ said Krishna. ‘Your Majesty, you had the world at your disposal during your life on Earth. What could anyone else have wished for having lived with such wealth, such fame –’
‘Oh, stop it, Krishna.’ Balarama waved his strong hand – the left – in a gesture of impatience. ‘We no longer live in that realm; I am no longer the puppet that you stringed along for years.’
‘My lord, king!’ cried Krishna. ‘At every moment in my life, I stepped aside and allowed you to claim the rewards on offer. First the kingdom of Mathura. After we killed Kamsa, it is you who ascended the throne, and rightly so. And then when we moved to the Western shore, it is you who ruled as the king of Dwaraka, the city of the impregnable walls. I have forever been your underling, your deputy.’
Balarama laughed, and the sounds reverberated in the empty hall. Looking around him, Krishna suddenly saw that this room bore stark resemblance to the court of Dwaraka. The same old pillars of teak in the corners. The same old beams of iron running along the roof. The paintings of Vrindavan that Balarama had insisted should adorn the walls. The blue and gold colours on the cushions of the thrones set aside for courtiers and poets – now all of them empty.
And underfoot, now the familiar give of an inch-thick linen carpet pinned to the floor by a row diamond studs along each edge.
‘All that you say is true, Krishna,’ said Balarama, and his mace appeared out of nowhere, perched on his shoulder. ‘But listen to the stories that they tell in North Country now. Go to Mathura and speak to the poets. Go to Dwaraka and speak to the fishermen. The farmers of Hastinapur. The weapon-makers of Panchala. The grain traders of Mithila. The water carriers of Anga and Vanga. Even to the extreme west, in the rocky country of Gandhar, deep within the dead gold mines, it is your name that echoes, my brother. You, the selfless one, who has forever shied away from fame and position.’
‘Permit me to approach, Your Highness,’ said Krishna, yearning to hold his brother by the arms and look into his eyes, those eyes now shrouded by a red cloth.
‘Denied!’ said Balarama. He cocked his head to one side, as though straining to hear that he could not see. ‘This court of Dwaraka has always been mine by right, Krishna, but do you not see how difficult my life has been, knowing that it was all your alms? Your charity? Look around you – even the paintings that depict our lives as children – do you see even one that does not glorify you and relegate me to a corner? You seat me on the throne here, Gopala, but it is out of pity that you do so; everyone in North Country knows who held the reins of power. And it was not me, so please do not insult the sharpness of my mind by insisting so.’
He bounded down the stairs now, two at a time, as if he could see them in plain sight, his mace raised. Krishna shrank back, wondering for a moment if his brother intended to attack him, becoming aware as if nudged in the dark that he carried no weapon, that his hands were bereft even of the flute.
‘I shall not strike you,’ said Balarama, slowing down at the foot of the stairs, and coming to a stop a mere arm’s length from his brother. ‘But you shall take back all your protestations of love for me, for no man treats an object of affection much the same way as you did me, Brother.’
‘My lord,’ said Krishna, bowing, tears clouding his vision, ‘I swear on everything that I hold sacred that I have never in any of my waking moments thought ill of you. Never have I made a decision in my life that I thought would not be to the best interests of Dwaraka, and to the high king of Dwaraka, my brother Balarama.’
‘The best interests of Dwaraka?’ said Balarama, turning his head and giving Krishna his left ear once again. ‘Do you still maintain that your ministrations were good for the kingdom?’ He raised his mace, took three calculated steps to the right – one short, the other two long – and shattered the armrest of the nearest throne. It dissolved into dust in front of Krishna’s eyes, and the specks disappeared in small, star-like twinkles of light.
Another blow, this one quieter than the other, and the throne was gone in another puff of sparkles.
‘That was the chair you sat on all your life at Dwaraka’s court, was it not?’ said Balarama.
‘Yes, my brother.’
‘Then it is gone!’ With one hand he raised the mace over his head, and brought it down with a resounding clank on the floor of the hall. A web of cracks spread under the carpet and made it wave. Krishna felt the floor shift under his feet. A sprinkling of dust fell from the eaves of the opposite wall. He had heard tales of Balarama destroying entire palaces with just his mace, and had always thought of them to be exaggerations, but here, with one blow he sent a tremor into the hall of souls.
‘Dwaraka became a Great Kingdom under your rule, Balarama, my brother,’ he said, but the grim-set mouth of the king did not budge. ‘Even after the great war, it is Dwaraka that survived when all of the other kingdoms were reduced to rubble.’
‘We survived only because I did not fight,’ said Balarama. ‘But perhaps it would have been better to have lost my life on the battlefield than to have lived and seen what did transpire.’
‘You do not mean that, Brother, surely!’ said Krishna, taking a step toward Balarama, but the elder man’s wave of the mace deterred him. ‘We reigned over a kingdom that was never taken by force. You reigned over a city that was famed for its walls, that earned the name of the city that would never fall. And it never did.’
Balarama smiled in Krishna’s general direction. The white hair in his beard bristled, and his forearms became taut with anger. ‘It never did? It never did? Then you must not remember the carnage on the banks of the ocean, Brother, where you and I hacked at the bodies of our men until they breathed no more. You must not remember that Dwaraka now is a shell of a city, and her walls have begun to crumble at the touch of the ever onrushing sea.’
‘I meant that we were never conquered from without,’ said Krishna.
Balarama roared in laughter, and he leaped among the clutch of thrones, winkling them out of existence with each savage wave of his weapon. Then he came to one of the teak beams in the corner that held up the roof, and without warning, he smashed it at the joint.
It creaked in reply. Then another creak in another corner. A louder crack above the throne of Yama. A piece of marble, which had been held together by iron pillars, now fell to the head of the staircase and broke into two. It seemed to Krishna that one of the two pieces bore Balarama’s shape, and the other his own; but before he could look closely and ascertain the fact, they vanished, leaving behind just a faint whiff of decay.
‘We were not conquered from without, you say,’ said Balarama, lowering his mace and planting it, head down, between his legs. ‘But we were vanquished nevertheless, my dear brother. We killed the same people we once sought to protect; we destroyed the same city we once built with such pride. You announce it as if it were something honourable, Krishna, that we were never conquered by an invading army, but to my eyes the history of Dwaraka shall always be a shameful one, for it fell at the hands of its builders.’
His voice became softer, sadder. He raised his hand in front of his face, as if he could see it. ‘These hands,’ he said. ‘These hands. Your hands, Krishna, and mine. What if Jarasandha could never take Dwaraka by force? We survived for less than a tenth of the time the Kurus lorded over Hastinapur, my brother. The Yadavas’ reign over Dwaraka lasted no more than one generation. I was its first ruler. And I am its last.’
Krishna said, solemnly, ‘That is to be Dwaraka’s destiny, Brother. A city lost to the sands of time and to the sea. A city that lasted in history perhaps just for a moment, but for an eternal moment. They shall speak of it in centuries hence, believe you me, and they shall sing high praises of its just and valorous king.’
Balarama smiled at Krishna’s words, and shook his head. ‘You speak the same way in death as you did in life, Keshava. Immortality is a gift only for the living. You and I both no longer inhabit that sphere, so why speak of times neither you nor I know nothing of?’
A thought struck Balarama just then. ‘And indeed, even if all that you say is true, they will not sing songs of me, Krishna, but of you. They will speak of me only in hushed tones, and they shall give me no part to play in their many tales. But you, O Krishna, godhood awaits. The younger brother who never held a position of power, the wise one who fought not in the great war with weapons but with his mind, the man with all the answers to life’s timeless questions – yes, I see it now. It was never about me, was it, Krishna? It had always been you.’
‘That is not so, my brother,’ said Krishna. ‘I do not know how I can convince you. If I had even a notion that you held such thoughts in your head –’
‘What would you have done?’ said Balarama, raising his mace once again and moving like a cat, behind Krishna over to the other corner of the hall. He aimed the head of his weapon at the beam, a couple of feet off the ground. ‘Would you have made certain that I got my due? Would you have instructed the painters to pain me in prominent positions in those pictures?’ The mace traced a half-circle over Balarama’s head and came swirling down, devastatingly, on its target.
This time the hall stayed mute on impact, but in the seconds following, rumbled and retched.
It had been said that Balarama could injure an opponent in a mace fight without causing him to bleed, that when you were ousted by the king of Dwaraka in battle, your body bled on the inside and turned blue. Krishna had seen various examples of this in the wars against Jarasandha; he had witnessed men – hefty, huge men – fall to the ground whimpering in Balarama’s wake, with not a single open wound on their bodies.
He was now doing the same to this place. Slaying it from within.
‘Even in Vrindavan!’ said Balarama, swinging his mace and sending the thrones on this side of the hall careening into oblivion. ‘Even in Vrindavan it was all you. I was the older brother, was I not? But did the village folk care for me?’ He approached the pillar in the third corner and examined it, the way a healer would an injured knee. He tapped at a spot. ‘Kanha this,’ he muttered. ‘Kanha that.’ He tested the strength of the floor now, with the tip of his big toe. ‘Even with Kamsa it had to be you who killed him. You could not leave him to me, I suppose.’ He raised his mace, just chest high, and dropped it on the crack with a thud.
Almost twenty feet away, on top of the jewelled staircase, Yama’s throne broke open like an egg.
‘Did it not ever strike you, Krishna, that I might wish to live my own life?’ Balarama came to the foot of the stairs, and planted his mace there. ‘That I would resent living in the shadow of my charming younger brother?’
‘If you did, my lord, king,’ said Krishna, his eyes still burning, ‘then you should have told me. I would have given you my life. I would have left Dwaraka never to return. I would have done anything if you had only said it would make you happy.’
‘Ah,’ said Balarama in anger. The throne he was wearing leaned to one side at the shake of the head. He did not bother to adjust it. ‘None of that would have helped. If you had gone away, your lore would have been even stronger today, though I admit that perhaps North Country would be breathing still.’ He turned his head once again, as if listening to some distant voice. ‘But you would never have done that, Krishna, would you? Even if I had asked you explicitly, you would have given me some of your sage-words, and you would have had your way.’
‘I would have obeyed your command whatever it was, Brother,’ said Krishna, earnestly. ‘If you had said we should give up Dwaraka and return to Vrindavan, to a life of cowherds and song, I would have done so, gladly.’
‘That life was already gone, Krishna,’ replied Balarama, and there was again that immense sadness about him that seemed to weigh on his shoulders enough to make them droop. ‘Even if we had returned, what do you think we would have found? Would we have spent the rest of our lives playing and leaping from tree to tree? Would we have gone back to stealing butter from milkmaids?’
A smile spread on Balarama’s lips, and for a moment Krishna saw the old, dear brother he had grown up with. ‘You know as well as I that is not true, Krishna,’ he said, and tapped idly at the handle of his mace. ‘We knew we were princes. We had to go onward and outward from Vrindavan. We had to find our destiny. I just wish that yours and mine were not so entwined together.’
Krishna thought of the dry, rasping voice of Radha that still called out to him from every glade in Vrindavan; there, a person he had forsaken wished she could have a life with him. Here, a person he had stood by every moment of his life wished that they had forged different paths.
Balarama had had a destiny to follow; he was the crowned king of Mathura, and then of Dwaraka. What did he, Krishna, have? Why did he not return to Vrindavan, the village that yearned for one more look of him, for one more song, for one more dance in the moonlight, for one more melody of his flute?
Where was his flute? How many years had it been since he had allowed his fingers to rest on the curves of his bansuri? Had he played it even once after he had become a prince?
Maybe. Maybe not. He did not remember.
‘I wish,’ Balarama was saying, ‘that we did what the Kuru kingdom did with Yudhisthira and Suyodhana. They gave the Pandavas Indraprastha and asked the Kauravas to keep Hastinapur. Perhaps we should have done that too; you could have kept Mathura, and I could have reigned over Dwaraka. Alone.’
Krishna did not speak. Balarama had brought the mace to rest, and he did not seem intent on lifting it again, but the fissures in the walls exploded on their own, and pushed out the remaining strong pillar in the fourth corner. It crept out, whole and untouched, and fell to the ground. Before it made a sound, however, it disappeared, and left behind another tangle of fault lines.
Balarama did not notice the sound. He was speaking in the faraway manner of a man who had all the time in the world, for once. ‘Alone. I would have shaped the history of Dwaraka as I saw fit. Or you could have taken Dwaraka and I Mathura. Then I would have been king of my dominion, you know? My own city. My own people.’ He waved a savage arm at the walls, where the paintings, too, were beginning to break. ‘The artists would have drawn pictures of me, then. The poets would have sung songs about my valour.’
Krishna looked at the falling pieces of the hall, and realized he felt nothing. He had advised Arjuna that fighting kinsmen was not to be feared if it meant upholding one’s duty. But if it had come to that, would he have raised a weapon on Balarama, his brother? If Mathura and Dwaraka had gone to war in this new world that Balarama wanted to inhabit, would they have fought too, like the Pandavas and the Kauravas?
It should not have, but the thought made Krishna shudder.
In this world Mathura and Dwaraka would have fought one another for certain, for the land of the middle kingdoms was not fertile enough to support three powerful cities, and in that battle Jarasandha would have been the lynchpin. Krishna pictured himself and Balarama desperately trying to woo the tyrant, but the wily old fox would play him against his brother, and he would see to it that Magadha’s forces would remain untouched in the war. At the end of it all, he would stride in, imprison them, and lay claim to both Mathura and Dwaraka.
And with all of the middle kingdoms under his control, Jarasandha would look northward, and he would find the internally warring Kuru cousins in Hastinapur. The same tale would repeat again, and again Jarasandha would emerge victorious by merely sitting on the sidelines and watching.
The Pandavas, executed. The Kauravas, prisoners of war. Kunti and Gandhari and Draupadi, mere slaves. Krishna and Balarama, forgotten!
Jarasandha would then set out on a campaign of all-out conquest, and none of the other kingdoms would have the necessary power to withstand his might. In less than five years after the fall of the Kuru house, all of North Country and all of the middle kingdoms would serve one ruler.
The Vasudeva. The supreme commander and soldier of Dwapara. The emperor. God.
‘No,’ said Krishna, to his blindfolded brother. ‘That would have ended with both of us defeated.’
‘Well,’ said Balarama, looking up at the majestic roof overhead, which was shifting and turning as if caught in the throes of an earthquake. ‘That would still have been better than the life of a eunuch I lived now. I would have been a hero in my own right. I would have a story to tell of my own. Not just the brother of Krishna.’
The life of a eunuch.
Those words seemed to hasten the destruction of the hall of souls. The roof disappeared, and bright, brilliant sunlight warmed Krishna’s head. The walls broke and fell inward, the paintings were torn up and eaten and desecrated, a fire took birth in one of the corners and spread all around them, sending strings of smoke deep into his nose. He stood there, breathing, watching.
His brother stood in front of him too, the one frozen figure amid the melee.
A voice of reason began in Krishna’s mind. This is not really Balarama, it told him. The real Balarama never felt envious of you. He was a proud brother. He loved you. Your success was his success. The real Balarama commanded the painters to paint you in the centre of all pictures. The real Balarama ordered poets to sing your praises. The real Balarama never wished to part ways with you, much less fight you. This Balarama is just a construct of your mind. He does not really exist.
In place of the blindfolded Balarama with the mace, now stood the strident, bony shape of the black-cloaked Yama.
Krishna could not see where they stood any more. All around them was air and sky and sun. The floated on the starry debris left behind by the hall of souls. And yet Krishna could feel the softness of the now destroyed carpet, and he could still see the line of jewels encrusted into the handle of Yama’s mace.
‘So?’ said the lord of justice.
‘I see no hall here,’ said Krishna. ‘All I see is –’
‘It is not important what you see,’ said Yama, ‘not to me. Just to you. And you already know what you see.’
‘Then you do not need to tell me.’
‘Is the moment of death upon me, my lord?’
‘It will come to you without warning, Krishna,’ said Yama. His whip turned into a ring of fire and burned away. ‘But if you thought to ask that question, perhaps it is.’
‘What happens now?’
‘There are two paths,’ said Yama. ‘One leads you to the foothills of the Meru, where you shall be invited to become one with the Celestials. The other leads back down to Earth, and you shall live, once more, in the flesh of a man.’
‘And you decide what I must do,’ said Krishna.
Yama smiled. ‘You forget that I do not exist outside of you, O Madhava. The moment death claims you, I cease to exist.’
‘Then who decides where I must go?’
‘It is here as it is on Earth.’ Yama let go of his mace into the air. It hovered next to him for a moment before disappearing, without fuss. ‘Men must choose which path they wish to walk.’
‘What awaits me on Earth, lord Yama?’
‘Your life as you know it,’ replied Yama. ‘You shall take birth in Devaki’s womb again, and you shall be taken to Vrindavan by your father.’
A great weariness came upon Krishna at those words. ‘I live my life again? The same way as it has always been?’
‘It does not have to be the same way,’ said Yama. ‘Perhaps you will make different decisions. Perhaps you will create a different history this time.’
‘You mean I have the freedom to choose,’ said Krishna, uncertain.
‘You always have the freedom to choose, Krishna.’ Yama looked at his hands, now mere wisps of light. ‘Even when it seems like you do not.’
Krishna thought of the pain in Radha’s dying voice, the hope in Yashoda’s eyes as she fervently awaited his return, Balarama’s wish that their paths would diverge, Suyodhana’s chiding that he had destroyed all of North Country, Jarasandha’s ambition to become the Vasudeva – and amid all of that, his fingers yearned for another touch of the flute, of the placid murmur of the Yamuna, and its serene sparkle under the full moon. The sleepy mooing of cows. The smell of frothy milk rushing out of udders. Laughter. Music. Love.
Those days were over, Balarama had said.
Krishna swallowed, and made a decision. ‘I choose to go back to Earth, lord Yama.’
Yama was now just his eyes, tired old eyes. Krishna thought that they smiled at him. A voice spoke straight into his mind. It said, What will you do differently this time, Krishna?
And Krishna said, as the stars in his vision began to pop out of sight and darkness closed in, ‘I shall return to Vrindavan.’