“I give you ten minutes more. Make your choice soon. Fight, or flight?” my to-be-killer smirked.
I sighed, trying to heave the wheel up, while my charioteer, Salya, looked upon me with contempt. I bit back a curse, squeezing the wheel to get it up. As I squeezed and squeezed to no avail, I thought of another day, where too, I was squeezing and squeezing…
Being the best friend of the crown-prince of Hastinapur meant that I had to know something of the royal matters. Mincing no words, my new-found friend, Prince Duryodhana, explained the political situation and his royal line very clearly.
King Dhritarashtra, Duryodhana’s father, was the son of the Kashi princess, Ambika and the sage Vyasa.
Ambika and Ambalika were the two wives of King Vichitravirya, who died childless. In order to continue the royal line, his mother, Queen Satyavati, summoned her illegitimate son Vyasa to father children on Ambika and Ambalika. The sage agreed, and requested the princesses to meet him in his chamber.
When Ambika went to meet him, she shut her eyes tight to avoid seeing his gristly form. So, she gave birth to a blind son, Dhritarashtra.
When Ambalika went to him, she turned pale with fright, so a pale and sickly son named Pandu was born to her. Pandu was the father of the Pandavas.
Satyavati was unhappy with her elder grandson being blind, so she sent Ambika again to him. Not wishing to undergo the trauma once more, she sent her maid servant instead. This woman served Vyasa faithfully, who blessed with her a wise son, named Vidura.
Vidura, everybody’s loving uncle and the royal minister, was always mistreated by the Kauravas due to his low origins. In a way, I struck a chord with him, as even I had to face the same pain and humiliation I had to face due to a low birth. However, he had no sympathy for me.
As Dhritarashtra was blind, his brother, Pandu took over the reins of the kingdom. However, he declared himself to be incapable of ruling after being cursed by a sage, and retired to the forest with his two wives. Dhritarashtra was crowned the king.
Dhritarashtra married Gandhari, the beautiful princess of Gandhar. She was unwittingly connived by Grandfather Bhishma to marry the blind prince.
Once she realized her husband was blind, she tied her eyes with a silken cloth, so that she couldn’t enjoy the pleasures that her husband was deprived of.
However, her husband didn’t share her noble ideals. Gandhari suffered from an unusual pregnancy of two years. Meanwhile, he fathered an illegitimate child, Yuyutsu, on a maid servant. Gandhari was heart-broken.
Soon, she became the mother of the hundred-and-one Kauravas, the eldest being Duryodhana. Her last child was a daughter, named Dusshala, married to the Sindhu king, Jayadratha.
However, her greatest grief was not that her husband was blind. Nor was she angry at the fact that he didn’t respect her sacrifice for him.
It was rage at the fact that Pandu’s wife, Kunti, had given birth before her. Kunti’s son, Yudhishtira, ever gentle, was the eldest Pandava. And because of him Duryodhana could never become the king.
What madness was this? Pandu had died long back due to a curse along with his second wife, Madri. It was a widowed Kunti who brought up her three sons, Yudhishtira, Bhima, and Arjuna, along with Madri’s twins, Nakula and Sahadeva.
Now that Pandu was dead, it was Dhritarashtra’s sons who were rightly entitled for the throne. However, the Queen Mother, Kunti, deferred. She argued that as her son was the eldest son of the first king, it was he who was to become the king. This was the cause of all the clashes and riots of the kingdom.
The public favoured Yudhishtira, as he was a kind and considerate king, ever gentle, and always noble. On the other hand, my friend Duryodhana earned few supporters, as reports of his shady dealings to finish the Pandavas spread like wildfire across the kingdom.
It was his maternal uncle, Shakuni, the Gandhar king, who poisoned his mind against the Pandavas.
As far as I could see, he was crazed at his sister’s plight and wanted to bring about the downfall of the Kurus to avenge her, but was hiding his real motive under the pretext of ‘helping’ my friend.
But Duryodhana believed otherwise, and despite all my pleadings, he remained a staunch supporter of the evil Shakuni.
Their latest plan was to burn the Pandavas and Kunti in a house made of lac, which they pulled off successfully.
While the city of Hastinapur was plunged in grief at the news of the accidental demise of the Pandavas, there was revelry in the royal court at their deaths.
“To the Pandavas!” screamed Duryodhana, sarcasm in every line of his face as he raised a toast. I grimaced. I didn’t approve of tricking people to their deaths, and he knew that.
However, I was secretly pleased at the fact that my arch-rival Arjuna was dead in that fire, and that nobody would question my supremacy as an archer.
“All hail Duryodhana!” I said, as I drank my toast that night.
Being the Anga king only changed my name, not my fame. I was no longer Vasusena, the son of Radha. Now, I was Angaraj Karna, the greatest giver.
Affluence had not changed me in any way. Being endowed with sudden wealth and prosperity, I took a great oath in front of the Sun God that as long as the sun was in the sky, I’d give whatever was in my possession to deserving people seeking alms.
This made the people of Anga name me ‘Mahadaani,’ the greatest giver.
My generous nature did not change their mind, though. They were unhappy with the fact that a charioteer’s son should lord over them. Even when I was on the rounds of my kingdom, I’d hear repressed remarks and sniggers on my lineage. I received no respect from my own citizens.
Once, when I was out in my kingdom, a small girl stopped me. She must have been about five or six years old. Shards of broken pottery lay around her, and tears were flowing down her cheeks like rivers. She asked me, “Aren’t you the king?”
“Yes, I am,” I said, lifting her up smilingly.
She broke down once more. “Take me to your palace, please. I can’t go home. My stepmother won’t let me in.”
I was surprised at this. What sort of woman will refuse entry to such a sweet little thing? I asked her the reason.
“You see, she had sent me out to get a pot of ghee. When I was coming back, I tripped on that stone, and…and…”
She started crying, wildly gesticulating at the broken shards of her pot.
“Why one pot, dear? I’ll give you ten such pots full of ghee. Go and give them to your mother,” I said, laughing.
“No, no, I want only this ghee. Otherwise, she won’t let me in!” she wailed.
Little ones. Nobody could convince them. I shrugged, and bent down. The ghee was splattered and mixed with the earth. I wasn’t new to the mud.
I bent down, picked up some soil, and squeezed it. The clarified butter fell inside a shard of the broken pot. I squeezed and squeezed, until all the ghee was taken out.
“Oh, thank you!” the girl squealed. She ran up to me and hugged me.
“You know, I thought you’d never help. My mother said,” she leaned forward conspiratorially, “Don’t tell this to anyone, please. Promise? Okay, so listen. My mother said you were very, very bad, and would kidnap small children! I didn’t believe her, of course! Now that I’ve seen you, I’ll tell everyone how good you are! Bye bye!”
With that she left me, and ran away.
“Brainwashed the young one, didn’t you, son of Radha?” spoke a low voice menacingly.
I turned back. Right behind me stood a young woman, charming to look at, but her face contorted with pain and rage. She was dressed in brown, earthy shades, and her clothes swirled around her, making her look very hazy. She was bejeweled and resplendent, and even the unmistakable agony on her face could not mar her beauty
“Know that, oh Radheya, that I’m Bhoomi Devi, the Earth Goddess, whom you have squeezed so hard that had she not been immortal, she would’ve been dead!”
“I curse you Karna, that as you have held me in this way for the sake of a small girl, so will I hold the wheel of your chariot, without releasing it, when you need it the most!”
Before I could reply, she disintegrated into the Earth.
Great job. Curse number two. How may more curses I was to receive, I didn’t know.
What an accursed life I led! I was a king against my wish; my saviour, my only friend, would not listen to me; my own citizens did not respect me; and at the age of eighteen, I had already received two curses, omens signifying my death.
With a sigh, I rode back to my kingdom.
(to be continued…)