Barbareek’s head perches on the hilltop, watching the battle for the throne of Hastinapur unfold before him. His hands—several miles away—itch to pick up his bow and join the fray.
Elephants trumpet, horses snort, swords clash against shields, and arrows whiz through the air. The biggest battle of all their lives, and he—the strongest warrior in Bharat—is a bodiless spectator.
There are many things he feels in that moment: rage, shame, humiliation, relief. Mostly, he misses his torso. And his mother.
At night, when funeral pyres speckle the field and the groans of the wounded rend the air, the five Pandavas come to visit.
“Grandson.” Bhimasen lays a heavy, battle-scarred hand upon Barbareek’s luxurious curls. “How are you?”
Still decapitated, thanks for asking, Barbareek nearly says.
But his current state is not his grandfather’s fault. Bhimasen may have been the one who lovingly placed Barbareek’s head on this tree stump, but he wasn’t the one who removed it from Barbareek’s body.
No, that was Barbareek himself. And that is so messed up, Barbareek refuses to think about it.
“I am fine, Grandfather,” he says mendaciously. “I have a nice view of the battlefield from here.”
“Are you thirsty?” asks Yudhishthira, the eldest. “We brought water.”
Where do you think the water would go? His head would look like it was peeing. “No, thank you, Great-Uncle,” says Barbareek with heroic self-restraint.
They make small talk for a bit, discussing the day’s fighting. All five Pandavas are exhausted; they have suffered bitter losses on the first day of the war with their evil cousins, the Kauravas. Yet, they have made the effort to visit Barbareek. He knows he should feel grateful; the fact that he doesn’t is just one more thorn in the heart he can remember having.
“Your name will go down in history, my boy,” Arjun tells him before they leave.
Barbareek has no doubt about that. How many fools have been manipulated into chopping off their own heads? He is the first, and he will surely be the last. He is a lesson to be learned, an object of pity, a tale of caution. As for history, he’s witnessing it right now. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
The second day of fighting is as grisly as the first. Tens of thousands die, hearts pierced by arrows, limbs chopped off by swords, heads crushed by maces. Barbareek chafes at the losses suffered by the Pandavas. He should have been with them, fighting by their side. With his divine bow and arrows, he could have ended this war in one minute—theoretically speaking.
In practice, it would have been much more messy. He didn’t realize how messy until Krishna explained it to him.
But thinking of Krishna, as always, gives him a throbbing headache. And when a head is all you have, you take care of it. Barbareek turns his attention back to the battlefield and is heartened to see his grandfather tearing through Kaurava forces like a scythe through blades of grass. Only the arrival of Bhishma Pitamah, the formidable old commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army, saves it from annihilation.
Bhishma has the boon of self-willed death; he is invincible, undefeatable, a white-clad mountain of fury that drives back the Pandava armies like ants before a storm—until one of the Pandava commanders shoots and kills his charioteer.
Bhishma’s horses bolt, dragging his chariot away from the battlefield. In vain, Bhishma tries to control them. His forces scatter, and Barbareek grins in relief. The sun sets, ending the day’s fighting.
That night, it is the venerable Bhishma Pitamah who climbs Barbareek’s hill—the oldest warrior of the Kuru clan, visiting the youngest.
“Barbareek, dear child,” says Bhishma in his gravelly voice, “how are you?”
Why does everyone ask him this?
“I am ashamed, Pitamah, that I cannot bow to you,” says Barbareek, half-sincere, half-sarcastic.
“My child, you bow to no one,” says Bhishma. “The world bows to you.”
To Barbareek’s discomfiture, Bhishma proceeds to press his palms together and bow to him. It’s like watching a tree bend in half.
“Do you regret your vow?” Barbareek blurts out.
Bhishma’s aged eyes glint. “Do you?”
It is an unfair comparison. Both their vows are equally stupid, but Barbareek had little choice in the matter. His guru Vijay asked him to make the vow as his gurudakshina—the sacred payment due to a guru for all the learning he has bestowed on his pupil. You must only fight for the weaker side, he had thundered. Promise me, Barbareek! How could Barbareek have refused?
Bhishma sees his expression and relents. “I live in a poisonous sea of regret. Every moment of every day, I drown in that sea, and yet I do not die. Do you have your answer?”
He turns and walks away, his back ramrod straight, as inflexible as his vow.
There is a good side and a bad side. But as the days pass, it becomes more difficult for Barbareek to distinguish between the two. All he sees are bodies, hacked by blades, a ground drenched with blood, and the air, choked with dust. The screams of animals mingle with the screams of men until they become one horrible sound of death and desolation.
On the third day, Barbareek’s father Ghatotkach joins the battle, tilting it in the Pandavas’ favor. Half-human, half-rakshasa, he flies over the Kaurava army, dropping fireballs on the luckless soldiers. Barbareek swells with pride and worry. Stay safe, Papa, he prays.
A fool’s prayer. There is no safety in a battlefield.
On the sixth night, Barbareek’s mother Maurvi toils up the hill, bearing a large basket. Barbareek regards her with dismay. She oughtn’t to be here. He’s hardly a suitable sight for maternal eyes.
Predictably, Maurvi starts wailing as soon as she arrives.
“Hai hai!” She sets down the basket and beats her chest. “I’ve been robbed!”
“Stop it, Ma,” Barbareek mutters, embarrassed. “Someone will hear.”
“Let them hear!” she screams. “A mother has been robbed of her son!”
If Barbareek had hands, he would close his ears. “Please, Ma,” he begs. “I’m fine.”
“Fine? FINE?” she hollers. “You call this fine? Where’s the other ninety percent of you?”
Barbareek sighs. He really doesn’t know. “Why are you here?” he asks.
Maurvi picks up her basket and flicks away the cover “To take you home, of course.”
What? The basket is meant to be his transport? He’d been thinking she’d brought snacks for him. “I’m going to stay here until the war ends,” he says firmly.
Tears make sooty kajal tracks down her cheeks. “Why should you stay here all alone, with no one to look after you?”
“I am a witness to the Kurukshetra War,” he says. “It is a great honor.”
“Honor? Honor? Is it an honor to have one’s head chopped off?” Maurvi’s face swells until he thinks it will burst. “Who did this to you? Tell me, so I can tear their limbs off and bash their heads in.”
She’s certainly capable of it. She’s the daughter of a daitya, after all, and a fearsome warrior in her own right. No wonder the Pandavas haven’t told her what happened. That unpleasant task falls to him.
He takes a deep breath. “Ma, I cut off my own head.”
“What?” Disbelief and horror war in her face. “Why, my darling? Who made you do this terrible thing?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he says, feeling put upon.
Fresh tears spill from her eyes. “I should never have let you leave home—a little child like you.”
“I’m nearly fifteen,” he says indignantly. “And I’m the greatest warrior in Bharat.”
She gives him an up-down look, which does not go very far. “Says who?”
“Including those who made you cut off your head?” she inquires.
“Yes! Even them.” His eyes sting. He cannot cry in front of her, or all is lost. “Leave me alone,” he says in as cold a voice as he can summon. “I must meditate.”
“Let me take you home,” she pleads, reaching for his head. “I will make your favorite dishes—”
“You think I can eat without a stomach?” he snaps. “No, don’t touch me, Ma, or I swear I’ll, I’ll…”
His voice trails away. What can he do if she picks him up without his permission, except moan and rail against her?
But something in his tone finally gets through to her. She drops her hands and stares at him. He stares back, determined not to betray himself with a single tear.
At last, she turns away. She picks up her basket and trudges down the hill, her shoulders bowed, leaving him feeling like an absolute shit.
The great Bhishma Pitamah falls on the tenth day of battle. Arjun uses the warrior Shikhandi as a shield in front of him to attack his beloved great-uncle. In his previous life, Shikhandi was the Princess Amba. Bhishma sees Amba in Shikhandi, and lays down his arms, refusing to fight a woman. Arjun weeps as he riddles Bhishma’s body with arrows. Bhishma falls to the earth, blood pouring out of a hundred wounds. Yet, he refuses to die until the war is over and Hastinapur is safe.
Barbareek swallows the lump in his throat. You and your stupid vow, he thinks fiercely, but he doesn’t know if he’s talking to Bhishma or himself.
That night, Duryodhan visits him. This is a surprise. The even greater surprise is the distress on Duryodhan’s face. Did the wicked crown prince of Hastinapur actually care for Pitamah? Or did he only lust after Bhishma’s power?
“How are you, Barbareek?” says Duryodhan. Unlike everyone else, Duryodhan does not wait for a response. “This is a dark and terrible night. The cowardly Arjun has felled our beloved Pitamah through deceit and treachery!”
“If I had been there, I could have killed him with my divine arrows,” says Barbareek resentfully. “In my absence, Great-Uncle Arjun had no choice but to resort to trickery.”
“Hah!” sneers Duryodhan. “An idle child’s boast.”
“Is that why you tried to murder me while I was meditating, Great-Uncle?” inquires Barbareek, and is pleased to see him flush. Duryodhan tried to get rid of him before the war started, and was only stopped in the nick of time by his bosom friend Karna, who persuaded him that such a cowardly act was beneath him.
“A moment of weakness I have apologized for,” snaps Duryodhan. “Must you throw it in my face?”
“I’m sorry for reminding you that you tried to kill me while I was defenceless,” says Barbareek. Duryodhan’s flush deepens. “Why are you here, Great-Uncle? Surely your presence is required in the Kaurava camp.”
“I wanted to see you one last time,” says Duryodhan. “Who knows if we will meet again? Anything can happen in the battlefield.” His eyes smolder. “I have hated the Pandavas all my life. I will hate them until my last breath. I want them dead; I want them to burn. I want to crush their skulls in my hands until the bone cracks and the brains spill out.” His expression softens. “But I have never wished you any harm, child. Nor anyone else.”
He turns and strides away.
“You could have fooled me,” says Barbareek when he finds his voice.
But Duryodhan is gone.
After the fall of Bhishma Pitamah, the war’s descent into lawlessness is swift and terrible. All the nice ethical rules laid out at the beginning are forgotten, trampled in the dust and blood of the battlefield.
On the thirteenth day, six warriors gang up on a weaponless Abhimanyu and slaughter him while a seventh—Jayadratha—holds the entire Pandava army at bay, thanks to a boon from Lord Shiva.
Arjun is inconsolable. Abhimanyu was his favorite son and Krishna’s nephew. He vows to kill Jayadratha before sunset the next day or jump into the fire himself.
That night, Krishna visits Barbareek. There is a beatific smile on his blue face, as if he has spent the day meditating under a kadam tree, and not as Arjun’s charioteer in a blood-soaked battlefield. As if Abhimanyu, his sister’s son, was not just killed in the most brutal way imaginable. Inhuman, thinks Barbareek. It does not help that this is quite literally true.
“How are you, Barbareek?” says Krishna.
Barbareek does not say fuck you because one does not speak thusly to a god. But he thinks it.
Krishna’s smile deepens. “Are you enjoying the battle?”
“I wouldn’t say enjoying, exactly,” says Barbareek. “But I have a good view, yes.”
“It is what you wished, is it not?” says Krishna. “To be able to see the Kurukshetra war.”
Krishna raises a delicate eyebrow. “Then why so glum?”
Barbareek holds his tongue.
“You wish perhaps that you were a more active participant?”
“It would have been more efficient,” mutters Barbareek.
“It would have been terribly efficient,” says Krishna. “Need I remind you of the thoughtless vow you made to your guru to fight only for the weaker side? If on the first day you fought for the Pandavas, the Kaurava army would have become much weaker. You would have been forced to fight for the Kauravas on the second day, decimating the Pandava forces. On the third day, you would once again have to switch sides. And so on and so forth until you were the only one left alive.”
Barbareek swallows. Put that way, it sounds both evil and ludicrous.
“Always think before making a promise,” says Krishna. His smile fades as he contemplates Barbareek. “But what can I say? Your lineage seems to have a tradition of making absurd vows, starting with your great-great-uncle Bhishma.”
Barbareek silently agrees. Many decades ago, Bhishma Pitamah had vowed celibacy and declared that he would support whoever was on the throne of Hastinapur. He had not stopped to ask himself what would happen if an evil or greedy king came to power, like the current one, Duryodhan’s father. The result was the Kurukshetra war in which he was on the wrong side, fighting his beloved Pandavas.
“And then there’s your great-uncle Arjun,” says Krishna, sounding aggrieved. “Why did he have to announce that he will jump into the fire if he cannot kill Jayadratha by sunset tomorrow?”
“He must avenge the killing of Abhimanyu,” protests Barbareek.
“I know. But why make such a vow? All the Kauravas have to do is hide Jayadratha for one day, and it’s the end of Arjun, greatest archer of Bharat!”
“You’ll help him, won’t you?” asks Barbareek anxiously.
Krishna smiles once more, his mask slipping back into place. “What can I do, child? I am but a charioteer. I have vowed not to use any weapons in this war.”
As if you need any, Barbareek does not say.
“Tomorrow will be a hard day,” says Krishna. “Remember that I am with you.” He pats Barbareek’s head before walking away, leaving him confused.
Barbareek would like to hate Krishna. Sometimes, he almost succeeds. Then Krishna says or does something to make him question everything.
The whole chop-your-head-off-and-gift-it-to-me thing, for instance, is beginning to look less like a punishment and more like an evil necessity.
Krishna had tested him first, given him a choice. When he told Krishna of his vow to his guru and demonstrated his infallible arrows, Krishna had said, “Don’t fight in this war, child. Go back home.”
Barbareek had staunchly refused. What Krishna asked was impossible. He was born to fight. No way he was missing out on this, the biggest war of the ages.
Then, and only then, had Krishna said, “I, too, have guided you from time to time. Where is my payment? What of my gurudakshina?”
“Whatever is mine is yours, Lord,” Barbareek had said, his head somewhere in the clouds, dreaming of victory and glory. “Pray tell me what you want.”
“Your head,” Krishna had said, bringing him crashing down to earth.
The rest, as Arjun would say, was history.
The tears Barbareek swallowed in front of his mother fall on the fourteenth day of battle.
All that day, Arjun searches for Jayadratha in vain. At last, in the evening, the wily Krishna uses his godly powers to simulate sunset, bringing Jayadratha out of hiding, like a rat out of his hole. The Kauravas crow, thinking they have won.
Krishna deftly removes his illusion, and the sun peeks out. Arjun revives like a dying man who has been given nectar. He lets fly a divine arrow to deliver Jayadratha’s head to his father’s lap, which Barbareek thinks is a bit much, considering his own circumstances.
But there’s no help for it. Jayadratha’s father had given him the boon that anyone responsible for his head falling to the ground would automatically explode. When his son’s head lands on his lap, he jumps to his feet in shock, dropping the head to the ground, and duly explodes.
Good riddance, thinks Barbareek, trying to unsee the explosion of body parts. Why do the worst people get the best boons?
The sun finally sets for real, but the fighting does not end. When the moon rises, Ghatotkach flies over the Kaurava army, slaughtering thousands of warriors with his fireballs.
“Do something!” Duryodhan screams to Karna. “Save us from this demon!”
Go back, Papa, thinks Barbareek, anxiety seizing his throat, making it difficult to breathe. Karna is a great archer, every bit as skilled as Arjun.
Karna nocks a divine arrow into his bow and takes aim.
No no no no…
A silver-blue thunderbolt zigzags through the air and pierces his father’s chest. Ghatotkach roars in pain as blue fire engulfs him.
“Fall on the enemy, my son!” shouts Bhimasen. “Fall on the enemy!”
Ghatotkach increases in size until he is bigger than the biggest building in Bharat. Then he topples over the Kaurava forces, crushing an entire division of soldiers.
Even in death, Barbareek’s father does his duty.
There is no end to the pain of that interminable night. Bhishma Pitamah lies on a bed of arrows, waiting for the fate of Hastinapur to be decided. The Pandavas weep for Abhimanyu and Ghatotkach. Gandhari, the mother of the Kauravas, weeps at the fate of her sons, ninety-eight of whom are already dead at Bhimasen’s relentless hands. Only Duryodhan and his younger brother Dushasana are left, and for how much longer? Bhimasen has sworn to kill them all.
Another vow, Krishna would say. How your family loves them!
Barbareek’s eyes are swollen, and his throat aches with suppressed sobs. His toes itch. He misses his body. He misses his father. In the world there is a Ghatotkach-shaped hole which will never be filled.
No one comes to Barbareek that night. They are all too wrapped up in their own tragedies to consider his.
In the morning, a vulture lands on a rock near him and refuses to budge even though he shouts himself hoarse trying to scare it away.
On the sixteenth day, Bhimasen smashes his mace into Dushasana’s chariot, rips off his right arm, tears open his chest, and drinks his blood. Then he proceeds to do a victory dance around the corpse of his very dead, very mutilated cousin.
Barbareek watches his grandfather, numb. The vulture hops closer, until it is barely a few feet away from him.
“Do you fancy my eyeballs?” asks Barbareek. If the vulture gouges his eyes out, he will no longer have to watch the horror-show this war has become.
The vulture does not respond, but it gazes at him in a contemplative way.
That night, Queen Gandhari visits, guided by a maid. She is blindfolded, a vow—another fucking stupid vow—she made when she married the blind old king of Hastinapur. To share in his darkness, she decided never to see again. What a devoted wife, some would say. Barbareek is not among them. If it was his mother, he’d rather she be able to see him.
“Poor child,” she quavers as she nears Barbareek. “My poor, poor child.”
She could be talking about any one of her ninety-nine dead sons.
“Excuse me,” says Barbareek to the maid. “Can you shoo that vulture away?”
The maid gives him a puzzled look. “What vulture?”
Great. She can’t see it. “Never mind,” says Barbareek. “Great-Aunt, how are you?”
He feels clever, flipping the question around. But not for long.
“How do you think I am?” sobs Gandhari. “Do you know how many of my sons are left alive?” Without waiting for a response, she says, “One. Only my darling Duryodhan is left.”
“I’m sorry,” says Barbareek awkwardly, keenly aware that all the rest have been killed by his own grandfather.
“It’s all his fault,” says Gandhari, sniffling. “You know who I’m talking about, child.”
The wind blows across the battlefield, carrying with it the stench of burning flesh and the moans of dying men. Barbareek tries to summon self-confidence and sincerity. He must prevent her from cursing Bhimasen. The power of her curses is legendary. “Please forgive my grandfather, Great-Aunt. He…he made a vow.”
Gandhari’s mouth falls open. “Bhimasen? I’m not talking of him. He is but an instrument.”
Barbareek licks his lips, longing, for the first time, for water. “Who were you talking about?” he is compelled to ask.
“Krishna,” says Gandhari, venom in her voice. “He could have stopped the war, if he wanted. He could have forced both sides to an agreement. But he didn’t. You know why?”
“Um, no?” This conversation has taken a dangerous turn, and Barbareek wishes it was over.
“He wanted my sons dead.” Gandhari draws a deep, shuddering breath. “So I cursed him. His entire clan will go mad and kill each other, just as my clan has done. His city will sink into the sea, his brothers will drown, and he himself will be killed in the most inglorious, ordinary way possible, by a hunter.”
Barbareek shrivels at her words. “But he’s…”
“God?” sneers Gandhari. “Really? With gods like these, do we need demons?” She reaches forward, her hand patting the air until it finds his face. She caresses his head, tangling her fingers in his curls. “We will have our revenge, you and I.”
She turns to leave, the maid guiding her back down the path she came.
“I don’t want revenge,” says Barbareek, but his words are lost in the wind.
This is just as well, because he doesn’t know how true they are.
On the seventeenth day, egged on by Krishna, Arjun kills Karna while he is fixing his chariot wheel, which has sunk into the mud of the battlefield. Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, reveals that Karna was actually her eldest son whom she abandoned as a baby. Arjun has killed his eldest brother, and that too while he was unarmed.
Because that’s the sort of war this is. That’s the sort of family this is. Not the kind you want to be born into. Not the kind you want to marry into.
And they’re not done yet, not by a long shot.
The vulture sits right next to Barbareek, sharing the tree stump. “What are you waiting for?” asks Barbareek in the hoarse whisper which is all he can manage. “Eyeballs are a delicacy among your lot, aren’t they?”
The vulture clicks its beak, but makes no move to sample him. Perhaps, like Bhishma, it is waiting for the end of the war.
On the eighteenth day, Bhima defeats Duryodhan in mace combat. He cheats, hitting Duryodhan below the waist, which is not allowed. But the rules have been broken enough times by both sides that this is not particularly shocking to anyone.
Krishna blows his conch, signalling the end of the war. Duryodhan lies in agony, a few breaths away from death. Only three warriors are left in the Kaurava camp out of the millions that fought. The Pandavas have won.
Now, thinks Barbareek with a weary sort of peace. Now the vulture will attack him.
But it doesn’t. It rubs its beak against his cheek in an overfamiliar way.
“Get lost,” says Barbareek, but he doesn’t mean it, not really.
That night, the three remaining Kaurava warriors sneak into the Pandava camp and slaughter everyone while they’re sleeping. The Pandavas themselves have gone to Hastinapur, but their sons are still at the camp. All of them are murdered, their heads chopped off and presented to the dying Duryodhan as a macabre offering. Here is our revenge, sir. Are you proud of us?
Barbareek’s eyes burn as they witness this crime.
How much, Krishna? How much more?
The sun rises over a grisly scene. The vulture does not move, its presence no longer a source of dread, but of comfort.
The Pandavas mourn their sons. Funeral pyres dot the battlefield. Bhishma breathes his last, satisfied that the throne of Hastinapur is safe. Yudhishthira will be crowned king, Bhimasen and Arjun will protect the borders.
That evening, Krishna climbs the hill for what, Barbareek knows, will be the last time. As he approaches, the vulture flaps its ungainly wings and takes off into the air.
“Wait! Come back!” cries Barbareek.
But the vulture is gone.
Krishna stands in front of him, waiting. There is no smile on his face today. Is this, too, a mask?
Barbareek squashes the questions and grievances rising up within him, determined not to be the one to speak first. The silence stretches between them, acquiring a competitive quality.
At last, Barbareek can’t take it anymore. “Great-Aunt Gandhari cursed you,” he blurts out.
Krishna nods. “I know. She has every right to be angry with me.”
“But what she said—it won’t come to pass, will it?”
Krishna’s lips twitch. “To the one that is born, death is certain. This is the most fundamental truth of life. Yet, humans tend to forget it.”
“It’s difficult to live, knowing you will die,” mutters Barbareek.
“On the contrary,” says Krishna. “It’s impossible to live if there’s no end in sight.”
“What was the vulture?” asks Barbareek, changing tack.
“A metaphor,” says Krishna.
A familiar irritation wells up in Barbareek. “For what?”
“Surely you can figure that out yourself, child. You witnessed it for eighteen days.”
Silence returns to the hilltop. Barbareek replays the ghastly scenes of the last few days and wishes he could forget them.
“What will you do now?” asks Krishna. “Go back home?”
Barbareek gives him a disbelieving glare. “How am I supposed to go anywhere like this?”
“Oh. Sorry.” Krishna snaps his fingers.
Barbareek’s body materializes before him, strong and healthy as ever. It is clad in loose warrior clothing, with a bow in one hand and a quiver on its back. The bow was a gift from Agni, the god of fire. The three arrows were a boon from Lord Shiva. Much use they have been to him.
“Ready?” says Krishna.
Barbareek’s head floats up from the tree stump, drifts to his body, and settles on his neck.
It’s the oddest sensation, having a body again. He flexes his hands, wiggles his toes, and stretches his neck with a wary delight.
“Everything working fine?” asks Krishna.
“I think so.” Barbareek takes a few experimental steps, slinging the bow on his back.
“Your mother will be happy to see you,” Krishna offers. “So will the Pandavas. They have lost all their sons. You are one of the few to survive from the next generation. If you go to Hastinapur, they will welcome you with open arms.”
Barbareek sighs. The bow feels heavy on his back, the quiver doubly so. “I can’t.”
Krishna waits, a picture of patience.
“I think I must leave,” says Barbareek. “Leave…everything.”
Krishna nods. “If you must, then you must. There’s a nice forest five miles west of here, although you’re a bit young to retire.”
Barbareek hesitates. “My mother…”
“I’ll talk to her,” says Krishna.
“Then I guess this is goodbye,” says Barbareek, a lump in his throat. “Will I see you again?”
Krishna’s smile could melt a glacier. “Once.” He does not have to say when.
Barbareek bows and strides downhill, resisting the urge to look behind. When he reaches the bottom, though, he cannot help himself; he turns around.
The sun is setting behind the hill, casting golden rays on the hilltop. There is no sign of Krishna or the tree stump where Barbareek spent the longest eighteen days in the history of mankind.
Far overhead, a vulture soars, its wings black against the dusky sky.
© 2021 Rati Mehrotra