It is the tenth night of the great war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Bhishma, the venerable patriarch of the families. Lies fatally wounded on the plains of Kurukshetra. On his deathbed he offers Radheya, his nemesis, a chance to rule the Kuru kingdom by capturing Yudhishthira.
In the Pandava camp, Yudhishthira, a reluctant warrior, tries desperately to hold his allies together and escape capture without appearing to be a coward.
Meanwhile, his young and impulsive nephew, Abhimanyu, a warrior prince, dreams of glory and yearns for a chance to save the Pandava cause.
And when the lives of these three warriors—Yudhishthira, Radheya and Abhimanyu—collide brutally on the thirteenth day, history is irrevocably changed.
Reimagining India’s greatest epic like never before, The Thirteenth Day reveals how stories are created, how fact becomes fiction, how history becomes mythology and how men become legends.
Aditya Iyengar is a writer who lives and works in Mumbai. To know more about him and his work, follow him on Twitter @adityaiyengar
The old warrior lay on a bed of arrows.
At least, that’s what the bards would say. He groaned softly and tried to adjust his position, then winced as a thick whip of pain jolted through his body. He was a young boy again, being pinched awake by his tutor in the middle of class. He chuckled at the memory, greeting it like a long-lost friend. Memories of his childhood had been scarce for some time now, and it was strange that this one had slipped through the usually impenetrable wall of his thoughts.
Truth is, Arjuna had panicked and fired more arrows than were strictly necessary. They were bronze tipped, not surprising considering iron arrows were in short supply in the Pandava camp. Arrow after arrow had rent through the iron breastplate, a couple had cracked open his helmet and lacerated his skull. He remembered swivelling around and then falling onto the black-red soil.
And then nothing.
His eyes had opened later, without his knowledge or consent. A number of concerned faces peered down at him. He tried to stand up but found that he couldn’t. After a short struggle he realized that the the arrows that had struck him in the back were propping him up unevenly. He remembered picturing a cockroach writhing on its back waiting to be killed, and thinking it was funny and wholly inappropriate for a Kuru patriarch to feel this way. He tried to stand once again, but the arrows twisted within him and dragged him out of consciousness.
‘Arjuna’s masterpiece,’ he thought to himself and chuckled. In the four hours since he had fallen on the arrow shafts, he had become a minor attraction at the battlefield. His body, along with the protruding arrows, had been heaved delicately by an entire platoon of soldiers to a tent that had been hastily set up on a small hillock overlooking the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
All the important kings of Bharatvarsha came and paid their respects to him—some out of reverence, most out of sheer curiosity. He had become a living, breathing installation; a morbid work of art. Ironic for one who had spent his life behind the stage rather than on it.
The battle had been suspended on that day given his unique status as grandfather to both sides of the battlefield and his eminence as a senior statesman of the Kuru empire. Medics from both camps had attended to him and had dislodged nearly all the arrows by now, squabbling every minute of the way on the line of treatment to be prescribed.
The arrows were gone, but pain still racked his body, thundering through him whenever he got too comfortable. He wondered how the bards were going to describe the horror and glory of Bhishma. Would they depict him stretched on a bed of arrows in elaborate paeans? Would they describe the pain that inhabited him and resurfaced without warning, as if playing a macabre game of hide-and seek, thumbing its nose at him and running away? Would he be seen as a casualty of destiny, or its willing servant? Or, if they were generous, would he be seen as the man who did everything in his power to prevent the Kuru kingdom from its tragic inevitable end?
Strangely enough, he felt comfortable now, in a way he never had before. The weight that had straddled his shoulders for the past two generations had been lifted almost instantly as the first arrows scuttled his armour. Now he, Bhishma the Wise, the Magnificent, the Terrible, Conqueror of Kingdoms, Destroyer of Heroes, was helpless. The outcome of the Kurukshetra war fought between the Pandavas and the Kauravas was out of his hands.
For ten days now, both sides had battled on the field of Kurukshetra, an even plain surrounded by small hills, agreed upon in advance by both warring parties for its proximity to the allied kingdoms and its relative distance from human settlements. Bhishma and insisted that the battle for Bharatvarsha should not affect the lives of its people. There would be no raiding or marauding. No great manoeuvring or outmanoeuvring. It would remain a private affair of the participating kingdoms and that was all. Battle would begin in the morning and end only as the evening approached.
The sound of footsteps interrupted his reverie. A figure opened the tent flap from the outside and sidled in. It took a few steps towards the bed, hesitatingly, like a child at a yajna, and stood mutely.
‘If you’re looking for a fight, you’ve caught me one day too late, putra,’ Bhishma opened the conversation. He was in a chatty mood, expansive in his plight.
‘I still wouldn’t take you on, Grandsire,’
Bhishma recognized the voice. It was smooth as it was rustic; a singer’s voice, but a country bumpkin’s tongue.
Bhishma had never really liked Radheya, the king of Anga—Suyodhana’s pet bully. An obnoxious little man who took pleasure in being insolent to the elders of the Kuru empire. Suyodhana himself couldn’t rein him in. A few days before the battle, Bhishma had had an argument with him over troop placements and Radheya refused to task the field after that for the past ten days, a decision that was costing the Kaurava army dearly, Immature brat. Not even forty years back, one could have been executed for even stepping outside the camp to take a piss.
The old soldier took a deep breath and sighed, ‘You’re very kind, though my present condition suggests otherwise. What can I do for you?
‘I...I just came to see how you were doing, Grandsire.’
‘I see... and how does it look like I’m doing, putra?
Radheya grinned and shook his head wolfishly, ‘point taken sir... though, I think you took a few more in your back today.’
The one thing Bhishma hadn’t missed was his idiotic sense of humour. Radheya no doubt thought he was being witty and sophisticated, but sarcasm wasn’t Bhishma’s forte and it seemed a wasted effort to counter wits without an audience in the vicinity. Besides, what use was all the anger now when nothing was in his control? Bhishma’s face broke into a tired grin and wrinkles eddied across his face.
‘Pah! Impudent boy. If I could just stand, I’d tan your hide.’
Radheya smiled. “The reason I’ve come is I wish to put the past behind us. I’m sorry we clashed about troop placements. I have decided to take the field. I just wanted to let you know.’
‘Decided to take the field? That’s very considerate of you now. We could have done with your help ten days ago.’
‘I’m sorry, but it wasn’t all my fault. You didn’t have to be so stubborn.’ Bhishma calmed himself. Now was not the time to lose his temper.
Not when he had a plan.
He sighed, ‘I’m too old to bear any grudges, putra. And I reckon you’re too young. But let’s not talk about the battle for a moment—I suppose you know how you are related to the Pandavas by now, Radheya?’
‘Yes, grandsire. I’m Kunti’s, I mean, Lady Kunti’s first child. But she abandoned me to avoid facing the wrath of her parents after an...ah, affair. She told me the whole story a few days before the war.’
‘I see. Well, it’s heartening to know that Kunti has finally decided to act like an adult. I didn’t learn of your birth until much later. And when I did, it was from your Uncle Vidura who kept the fact a secret from everyone to protect Kunti’s marriage to Pandu. My apologies for not informing you then. It hardly seemed necessary once Suyodhana brought you out from the stables and made you king of Anga. But none of that is important now. Think of the future, putra. You are related by blood to the five most powerful princes of Bharatvarsha who would welcome you with open arms and a kingdom. Doesn’t it make you feel any differently about them? After all, they are your brothers.’
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