The rider and horse, on a battlefield, had to have a companionship on which the lives of both were firmly dependent.
It was dark when he reached the last outpost, a hut of no humble nature. The descending darkness had just begun to cast deep shadows among the thick growths on either side of the path.
The path itself, dim and dusky, curved steadily upwards to be swallowed up by the darkness. He wearily turned off the path towards the hut, with no eyes for the serene beauty of the surrounding twilight.
The hut, the last that he would encounter on his way to the village was one of the many endeavors of the former ruler of Pithoragarh intended for the comfort and relief of fatigued travellers on this road.
It was equipped with the most modest conveniences and behind it, a delightful stream tripped along its way down the hill. But his unseeing eyes took in none of this.
He passed the stone slab erected in front of the building, which loudly and surely stated the benevolence of the king in catering to the comforts of the wearied travelers.
It proceeded to categorically list the numerous utilities of the bungalow and the consequences of attempting to pillage any of its contents. Here he slipped off his horse and absentmindedly patted it.
It had only been over a couple of months ago when he and his friends had stopped at this very hut.
The enthusiasm with which they had left their village together had not dimmed in any way. All of the surrounding still seemed to be induced with their cheer and spirit.
Here was the slab that they had examined to the last detail and had laughed at some of the errors in the Samskrit proclamation.
There stood the paneer tree that Prithvi had climbed and had been warded off by some most indignant bees. Here in the shaded veranda, pleasantly scented by a sandal tree, they had laughingly divided the fruits of Prithvi’s efforts.
Inside they had spent a noisy and boisterous night to the consternation of the eldest — staid, dignified Mir Chacha, perhaps the only one of them who had fully foreseen the course of events to follow. He had withstood patiently, the frenzied cheer of their youth leaving, for the first time, the shingles of home and village in anticipation of a great adventure.
They had plunged headlong into the makings of a history with no regrets and an intense feeling that they were indeed doing the right thing. They had talked of it as if it was no great task. All along the way they had sung in loud and brazen voices, the praises of the Lord.
Lower down the hills near Pithoragarh, they had joined more men on their way to the same battlefield. But now, the hut stood quiet and dark. The trees swished softly in the darkening twilight. The voices of his friends seemed stilled and distant. And so far away….
* * *
We had reached Kurukshetra only 15 days before the battle was scheduled to begin. It was mid-morning. The entire fields were agog with a flurry of activity. There were soldiers, tents, elephants and strange engines of wars being, so it seemed to us, dragged around in a dangerous and haphazard manner.
Horses neighed and reared up their front legs, elephants trumpeted and clumsily laboured their way amidst tents, men of various military ranks moved round in groups, discussing and gesturing rapidly.
Others plainly attired in white dhotis, more of a menial rank, rushed about carrying armfuls of swords, shields and assorted weapons of wars. For perhaps the first time in the past ten days his friends stood still, silenced by the chaotic and concentrated and yes, even organized efforts around them. Everyone in the crowded chaos seemed to rush past with a purpose, frowning and tense.
While some of us stood in awe viewing the scene of activity around us, Mir Chacha had already enquired as to whom we were to report to. We then trouped down to a tent to the left of the fields winding our way through more soldiers, elephants, horses and other engines of war under preparation for the final day.
With a sign Mir Chacha asked us to wait outside while he conferred with the inmates of the said tent. Presently Mir Chacha came out again followed by an old man with a long white superfluous beard who passed a gentle eye over us briefly and entrusted us to one of his assistants.
This one set down to enquiring all our details, training and our past experience (which was negligible, to say the least, as we had not even had the occasion of fighting off bandits let alone a mighty war) and proceeded to draw up documents for each of us to endorse.
This took up nearly a ghatika considering that we were in all ten of us. After disappearing into the folds of the tent for another ghatika, he returned this time calling for us one by one and assigning us to various garrisons, detailing our duties and directing us to our respective in-charges.
The group of youths, who had been set forth from their homes in pomp and cheer after appropriate aarties and such ceremonies to guarantee their safe return, solemnly bade each other farewell, hardly meeting each other’s eyes. The silent doubt of our future hung heavily over us now.
We could not bear to face each other even though those were perhaps, our last moments together. Soon Kantha and I were left alone. We, both being horsemen, were destined to face the battle together.
After locating our deployment we duly reported to the Chief, whereupon we settled our horses into some make shift stables. And here we waited.
The 15 days passed more quickly than we could ever have imagined. We were soon caught up in the blur of activity around us. There was constantly something to be done.
As we were, but professionally untrained in the mechanics of war we had a crash course on rules and regulations, skills and techniques, survival tricks, formations of armies, patiently and arduously explained to us by a muscular man who sped through some 10 years of training in as many days.
He also put us through a rigorous fitness programme that began at 4 in the morning when all of us gathered somberly in front of the stables and ended at 11 when we spent an hour with our horses. The horse, for the soldier on horseback, is his one vital friend.
The rider and horse, on a battlefield, had to have a companionship on which the lives of both were firmly dependant. One disobeyed command by the horse could result in fatal consequences for the rider.
As the soldier would be engaged in a combat with the horseman of the other army, he had the dual job of striking swiftly with his sword in one hand and controlling his horse with the other.
The second was, almost always accomplished by an intuitive bond between the rider and horse. I was relieved that this at least was assured beyond doubt between Sindhu and me.
I had had Sindhu for the past 7 years and we had spent every day of it together, riding all over the Pithoragarh hills. But on the battlefield amidst the cries and noises, buffeting against each other a horse could easily bolt with disastrous consequences.
Most of the afternoon, as a result was spent in the company of the horses, riding and grooming them. In the evenings, prior to retiring, we sat in small groups and said our prayers by the light of glowing oil lamps until, weary with aching muscles we crawled into our rough makeshift beds.
Thus the days passed swiftly in preparations, everyday we would check and recheck our equipment, and only once in all those days did Kantha and I meet Jeev, one of our friends who had come down with us.
Our meeting was brief, with only a few words between us. Our village seemed light years away from the hub of activity around us, the fresh openness of the hills we had wandered on, the coolness of our low roofed homes and warmth of familiar faces, all had assumed a distant dreamlike mist.
At last we lay down on the night before the battle. The crescent moon shone a dim, colourless light over the shadowed faces of many a soldier. The camp was silent and chill. We settled down, gazing into the long night with unseeing eyes.
Dawn brought with it a chill that crept through our armour and stilled our bones. The vast length of Kurushetra was intensely quiet .On our side the Lord’s armies stretched endlessly.
Across the fields, like an immense black falcon ready to spread its wings stood the sea of Duryodhana’s fleets, spreading over the low hills beyond. The battleground was ready in formation even before the Lord of the skies had raised his sleeping eyes.
Slowly the dark blue slipped away, the east was pink and in that vastness we at last heard the prolific conch of the Grandsire. As the last somber tones died away, the Grandsire’s troops took up the challenging tones by sounding their conchs, trumpets and horns.
The Lord answered with his conch and his army followed suit and the tremendous sound echoed through the fields, announcing that justice would be served at last. As the sun slowly crept over the far trees, the armies moved forward.
And in one breath charged towards one another, with a deafening, roaring sound, we surged forward and clashed. The day that followed was perhaps the longest ever, a blur of swooping swords and screams that rent our hearts, as we endlessly, so it seemed, were engaged in a bloody battle.
Those that were unfortunate to fall were trampled under the war above. Husbands, brothers, fathers fell on both sides.
The air was thick with smoke and noise, some collapsed with sheer grief. But still the rest fought. The sun crept slowly across the skies and still the roaring did not cede.
After what seemed like a lifetime the day drew to a close. The fields fell silent until all that could be heard was the moans and cries of those the dying and the armies retreated.
Sindhu was snorting and frothing at the mouth when we reached the camp, weary and distraught. He refused to be left alone and after failing to find Kantha, I too, found his company welcome and settled down with him at the stables, after conferring with my commander.
That night though hardly able to sleep, exhausted, we fell into a strange stupor where the terrors of the day followed us into our dreams. Stationed the next day at the battlefield we found that it had been cleared of most of the spoils. The injured, men and animals, had been carried off for care. The dead were removed.
The broken spears, shields and swords left a bitter memory. The foul air had cleared a bit to allow some freshness. And ere the battle began afresh. And so, Sindhu and I withstood the onslaughts for 3 more days, until exhausted we succumbed to fatigue on the fourth.
By sheer lack of alertness, Sindhu and I were subjected to the sharpness of the sword of a young horseman, who gave a determined fight before he fell to that of mine.
All my efforts to locate Kantha had failed but only now, lying in the care of an elderly Vaidya, did I have the time to turn my thoughts to my friend. I wondered what had become of all of them.
The battle ended over a week later by which time Sindhu and I were thankfully fit enough to move around though incapable of joining in. Bheema had triumphantly vanquished his enemy and fulfilled his vow.
Celebrations of the victory were unceasing, and news of it had reached the far corners of the country. No doubt our poor village had heard of it too. The work on the battlefield had not ended, nevertheless. The injured were to be taken care. The news of the dead had to be sent to the near and dear.
The remaining chiefs and commanders had the unenvied task of informing the relatives of the martyred. Sindhu and I still remained on the campsite, recovering slowly and searching for our friends. Of Jeev, Bighu, Giri, Prithvi, Raam there was no news.
They had one by one been presumed dead early in the battle as their bodies too could not be located. Kantha, I found in one of the Chikitsa-shala tents. He had fallen off his horse and in the ensuing melee, his right leg had been trampled upon by an elephant and crushed.
He lay whimpering in a semi-conscious state for many days. Of Mir Chacha, Sawan and Vibhu, I heard of their heroic deeds and their masterly fighting. But they had all one by one succumbed to injuries.
The day after the battle I had just heard of Mir Chacha that I rushed to be by his side. He lay peacefully as if he was not in much discomfort, though I knew otherwise. He died late that night, serene in the knowledge of having done his duty. After this I spent many hours with Kantha.
I left Kurukshetra nearly twenty days later, after having performed the last rites of my friend Kantha, who had died slowly and miserably. Sindhu had recovered from his wounds considerably so I could ride him again.
The Commander entrusted me with the wages of all my friends and as the forbearer of the fate of nine men, I set out on my long journey home, alone.
* * *
He stepped out into the pale morning light and looked into the chill, misty dawn. High up here the winter was fast setting in and he would be at his village just in time. It would be a long cold one for most of the families, bereaved as they were of sons, brothers and fathers.
But justice was served and perhaps it was so for the last time, as a new age had set in and he sighed for he was sure that it would be a long time before it was so again.
This short story was first published in Meghdutam.com (between 1999 to 2002).
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