God in his wilderness circles his distant chariot.
Earth wheels but is still, still to the distant eye
As a mad dog running in circles is still to the vulture’s
One track mind. As a boy, his spine smashed,
Spins on the floor of War’s theatre.
Earth isn’t still to him, the dog, or to us, drugged
Actors on a battlefield, spinning along like tops in dark excitement.
We whistle like tops to the beat of war music . . .
In Earth’s theatre.
Earth and the troubles within us. At its hub
A boy of fifteen,
Thirsty to lap at the edge of a whirlpool, the whirlpool of War.
Earth’s a house divided against itself, storms open
And slam its doors, but so do we, so does the hungry man-eater,
The ruthless leader, setting cousin against cousin, brother against brother
In wars he believes to be just.
Call the sides what you like,
The War never stops, only its players shift.
Once, on an Indian plain, between two rivers,
There grew a rift that swallowed the world . . .
A battle between two powers . . .
The Kauravas and the Pandavas.
What’s Dharma? To say its the truth
Isn’t much use,
To say it’s right conduct, natural law
Your duty, yours and none other’s
Is getting there.
Watch this scene-setter and his pupils.
They aren’t getting anywhere.
They’re strictly theatre
Make-up, gestures – you know that camp.
This one might play the vamp
One day. He’s got talent.
The sort who
Never gets anything right.
He says there’s nothing new under the sun.
Everything has a history. Even this stage production.
The only original is “O,” the circle, zero.
Which is the mark he’ll get for acting smart.
He’ll never get anything right.
Except the one line he was never taught.
“This is the age of lies, deceit and spite.”
Time throws us like pots and we spin
As one great cycle’s ending,
On the battle-field of Dharma,
The war of the Mahabharata,
Our Dark Age begins.
There’s Kurukshetra . . . every nation gathered
On one side or the other.
Forced to reclaim a kingdom
Lost in a game of dice, are five warriors,
Five brothers – there –
The Pandavas, forced to fight a war of attrition.
The other side shows its might.
The wind comes up, flags flutter in every direction.
There is no make-believe, it’s the war of every nation.
Our scene-setter points out the bad ones:
Ox, Insect, Fox.
Among them a Brahmin teacher.
And those the good ones
Who’d lost that teacher to the other side.
Across the field, he sees a peacock dance:
The flag of our hero, Abhimanyu, Arjun’s son.
And the play’s about to start.
Ladies and gentlemen, says our sutradhar,
Welcome to our small stage. The scope of the eye you see through
Is also small but your hearts are big. Receive our players there.
For the events of the war we describe, where Krishna played,
Is also the daily war in our sick hearts as we strive to be
Perfect warriors in the cause of Dharma.
Take us on trust. As I take your leave,
This is no place for us.
We’ll leave you to the War.
Eat the small ones, break the tall ones.
This is the war of flags.
Power-grabbers flag our war off.
The whole Earth’s up for grabs.
Battle-horse, you come with an empty saddle.
Battle-chiefs, come dance to the end of our play.
With battle-toys we ride and riddle and raddle.
Dance, battle-chiefs, dance to the end of our play.
Powertall, you send the small to battle,
Powerhigh, you down us while we play.
“What passing bells for these who die as cattle?”
SACRIFICE! You’ll carry us all away.
Kurukshetra . .
Kurukshetra . . .
You’ll carry us all away.
The wind sang in grief. On both sides of the house,
Great warriors lay like logs, piles of timber.
Drona grieved too. He smelt the bad blood in his heart.
Smelt defeat. He had fallen too. From holy teacher to Warmaster.
The Marshall court-martialed himself.
He knew he had sinned. Once a small rose tree, scented with wisdom,
Now a petrified forest. He stood between Dharma and night.
His shadow passed, was passing into the dark field of Time,
This fresh age of spite and unreason, this field of endless War.
He prayed for forgiveness.
His retreat . . . cut off!
Enter the royal pack, to hound him with mistrust.
Sure of themselves, sure that he’d split himself
Between them and the other side. They call him
Coward, Spy, Pandava side-kick,
The other side’s man, after all.
Yesterday they were badly whipped,
They snap at his heels, snarl, whine and lick him.
Dushasana sounds like a wasp,
Breaking into his guru’s prayers.
Sakuni adds his note: the politician’s.
Do gurus also promise and not deliver?
Drona agrees it’s all politics.
The name of their game is politics,
Breaking his spirit on their wheel of doubt.
What more can be do about
the war, he asks the king,
than try his best to win?
Duryodhana has reason to doubt.
“Let Truth triumph! Let Dharma win!”, the people shout,
Fully behind the other side. Fooled by the greatest sinners of them all,
The ones who can do no wrong but who do it all the time.
Like that two-faced Brahmin, he says.
My religion’s Dharma, everything’s Dharma,
The word tears the king apart.
Insults pour out like blood.
Those preachers of truth and right conduct had killed his grandfather
In battle by hiding behind a eunuch dressed as a woman.
Who thought up that plot but Krishna, the so-called god
Who asks us to leave our duties in his care?
It’s as bad as that stupid prayer,
The guru was saying – to Krishna!
They go for their guru’s throat, hound him and lick him.
The fox calls him a spy.
A crane flutters and flatters,
The insect calls him a traitor.
The insect gets slapped. The Brahmin’s stung.
Duryodhana tries to command.
His ally, Jayadratha, reports how a king fell yesterday
A falcon brought down by iron-beaked sparrows.
The arrows of Arjun were flying in every direction,
They were losing, that was a fact.
They hound Drona again to make him react.
The King goes into his act
He swears the injury done to his clan cannot heal.
This Dark Age done
Time will show he was right.
He has done no wrong.
He swears by the sun
That chariots will be his rack if he has,
Dragging his body through the streets
Until it cracks open, trailing his guts through forest and field,
He has done no wrong.
Not wrong, says Drona. It’s just that he’s not as young as he was.
And Arjun is . . .
Arjun is teacher’s pet, snaps the fox.
His words suit
This age of deceit.
The King’s not past deceiving.
Their guru’s the warrior they really believe in.
Its time he proved it.
For the crane it’s time for a song.
Brighter than a thousand suns, he croons,
Your face just like the milky moon’s
You are our guru, our real guru.
Purer than the purest ghee, he sings
Your wisdom worth a thousand oafish kings,
You are our guru, our real guru.
Drona sees what they can’t.
They’ll soon be singing another tune.
Krishna’s not on their side,
He loves Arjun.
Since he can’t win their hearts, he offers to lose
Sakuni thinks that’s a terrible idea.
His mind begins to reel
Until it snags on one no one had thought of:
The Wheel! The Wheel!
The fox’s mind runs like a sewer
Into the maze of CHAKRAVYUHA!
One Pandava trapped in the Wheel
Tomorrow will wipe out his doubt.
One dies before tomorrow’s out.
He’s licked. The Brahmin’s licked.
He’ll give them that gift,
That lotus of death,
Its trap of petals swords
That fold around a victim, swift!
Arjun isn’t the victim. He knows how to get out
Leaving a crumpled flower. It was Drona himself
who taught him how.
He agitates, this man of God,
To have a suicide squad from the hills
Draw Arjun away – just the right
Diversionary measure to get him off their backs
While they make the wheel formation and fight
Whoever’s mad enough to try and break it.
He chooses his circle of warriors.
To guard the gate, he chooses Jayadratha
Who’s deeply honoured.
The guru knows he’s got to do it, but his heart’s not in it. His mind’s
A battlefield of numbers and chants. He finds
He can’t think straight.
He offers himself to Krishna.
Krishna’s brightness blinds.
Over the scattered soldiers’ camps, day was about to break.
One man kept vigil over one
He loved as his own grandson,
Asleep like a tired moon at the end of night.
Sumitra recalled the words of his ward’s mother:
“Bring him back safe from the War.”
The words returned like a song
On the field of Kurukshetra: a woman
Imploring an old retainer
To care for her only son.
And the rivers went their peaceful way.
The dawn was about to break but so was Abhimanyu’s sleep
Racked by nightmare.
Slowly waking to light, he recalled:
Angels had called him away from his mother’s lap,
Angels had asked him to leave back his garland,
Krishna’s gift for valour,
And follow them and win a garland in Heaven.
It’s nothing, Sumitra explained.
Just a bad dream you had.
The garland still smells sweet.
It’s really nothing.
It’s the smell of flowers that got him dreaming.
Today, the son misses the mother.
A sentry announces the break of day . . .
And the War comes his way . . .
With chariots and drums.
Is someone hurt? The young soldier asks,
Is a charioteer dying?
Did he hear right? He must still be dreaming:
The King and the lion-hearted Bhim!
Why should the King come to him?
It seems today the field will run with blood
As never before. Bhim’s in a foul mood.
The King explained that the enemy had thrown
A challenge they couldn’t refuse.
The Warmaster had promised to smash them in the Chakravyuha.
Arjun and Krishna had already set off
For another battle before he could reach them and give them the news.
He wanted a serious discussion about that
That lotus of death . . .
Its petals swords . . .
The word clicked.
A gate opened. Abhimanyu had the answer, he had the key,
The youngest of warriors would do it.
He’d find the way.
The King couldn’t believe it. He thought it a young man’s boast.
The boy swore he had the key.
They didn’t know what to believe. Had his father taught him how?
So Abhimanyu told them:
The key dropped into the womb that housed him
when he was five months old, not yet born,
The memory hurt . . .
Like a thorn in a garden.
He went back to the womb,
Hearing the wind sing as it sang that night, of the moon
And small perishable flowers.
Among the most fragrant flowers in the world
And flowers too soft to touch
Arjun’s choice is still Subhadra.
He went back to that night, hearing his father’s whispers, his mother’s sighs
Listening to their play.
She talks about their unborn son, worries about his safety.
Arjun plans to teach him to be true.
He listens to the plans they make for him:
To be a fighter soon
A burnt-out age vomits smoke before the final Fire starts.
This smoke discolours Truth, gets into everything we do,
Till we can’t tell true from false.
He tells his wife about their cousins, their schemes
To grab their land, their plans to snare
Dronacharya, his guru.
Though Dharma abides,
Their schemes seem to be working, he tells his wife,
His guru was changing sides.
There had to be War.
If that was the price of the final Fire, Subhadra thought aloud,
All their son amounted to was
The foetus heard and promised to be true.
The Age, after its birth, would never corrupt it.
As a child it would follow their dear example
And be true. He would do no wrong.
Then Arjun ran through the arts he’d teach his son,
Skills of combat even the gods didn’t know.
This one and that one and that one and that one.
He’d teach his son all he knew about War.
He’d teach him how to smash the Chakravyuha.
The foetus heard. It wanted to know, to know, to know.
But what did the word mean in terms of War?
Subhadra asked Arjun to explain.
So did the foetus ask. For more.
So Arjun described the formation:
Its warriors in red,
its horses and chariots and chants
He spoke of the right time to enter it and the right words
to enter it.
The bravest couldn’t get in.
Only he, of the brothers, had been taught
He mentioned the sacred words, the key to get in.
The unborn child heard it tinkle.
But how to get out alive – that was a different matter.
No one got out alive if he didn’t know how.
And the key to get out was lost
In its mother’s sleeping ear.
An unborn warrior, a foetus,
Eager to leave one gate and enter another, wanted
To know, know, know,
And kicked about.
So Abhimanyu confessed to the King that he knew
The secret to get in but not out of the Chakravyuha.
What difference did that make? Yudhisthir laughed.
They swore to follow once he got through the gate,
They promised support.
Bhim too promised to follow. All their allies would follow.
The Kauravas would be smashed.
Enflamed like an insect drawn to conflagration
Abhimanyu grew brave and strong.
His promise Dharma, against wrong, wrong, WRONG.
He would save the nation.
And the king, with sweet words, blessed him,
Blessed him with Dharma,
Against wrong, wrong, WRONG.
The Ganges went its peaceful way,
A blood-fed ocean.
The Brahmin stood on the hour
To set the wheel in motion.
Six the number of men he wanted.
Seven, with him, to make his rosary.
Amongst them, his son.
He told them their positions.
Soldiers at a distance, chanted
Smash the tall ones! Break the small ones!
This is the war of nations.
Warblood danced in the boy’s veins,
Went to his head.
His armour the colour of Krishna’s skin.
He saw red, red, red.
He knew he would win.
A stripling chosen for a sacred mission,
A father to his grandfather, comforting,
A girl demanding war trinkets
Before the fight itself,
Abhimanyu was all these on that occasion.
He wanted the best of everything. Not any advice
On what the gods required – offerings
To those who preach while others practice
In the calm before the storm
Hell’s gate was formed.
In the battle in his head
one man lies dead.
In the heavy stagnant air
one simple prayer
reaches Shiva: “Keep your promise.”
So Jayadratha prayed, guarding the gate
But soon snapped out of his prayer.
Only Arjun could defeat him,
But Arjun was away.
So what oppressed him?
What was this thing
Riding his way?
His nephew! asking him to play!
This was no place for children, he shouted.
If he didn’t go somewhere else, he’d die!
Corpses lay like logs on both sides of the house.
One more to join them.
So fight, fight, die!
The fox’s tails on fire.
He’s running in circles.
The ox is dragging a leg. The boy’s
Almost got him.
The Marshall’s lost his weapons
And is losing his mind.
Sakuni sees everyone running in circles,
Caught in their own trap.
There’s got to be a master-plan
Behind all this, he thinks.
And thinking of what it might be,
What Krishna had in mind –
The boy a demon but still a boy –
The fox becomes a man.
He sees the hand of the great Manoeuverer
Hold the boy there, on the battlefield – at that point – there.
He sees through Krishna’s plan.
He sees Death, fat
With the children of warriors,
The boy’s stunned bride, their child
Lost, her womb flat.
And appeals to the egotist Krishna:
Not that, not that, not that.
Dharma, Dharma, Dharma.
The words explode in Duryodhana’s head.
Insults pour out like blood.
The injuries done to this man cannot heal.
The injuries done to his clan cannot heal.
The guru is the other side’s man.
He can’t shoot straight when he sees the boy,
His eye’s shone like a lover’s.
He placed his own son in their midst, one more Brahmin!
How could they win?
He should have seen through the tricks of those who preach
Dharma, Dharma, Dharma.
From childhood onwards, the word battered
Into his ears . . .
“Truth by mouth, falsehood in hand,
selfishness by heart,”
That’s the Brahmin’s slogan, he shouts.
He saw the truth as multiple drops of sand,
Not as opposing sides of right and wrong
And trembled at what he saw.
As the sap of a tree struck by lightning,
Bubbles and flows to its roots, so the king
Let rivers of rage scald his split self
Down to the roots he cursed, his father blind from birth.
Cursed. Cursed. To see for himself. To see what
Truth is and what it isn’t. Never to trust
The blind history of gurus
Nor the vision of blind fathers.
He didn’t care if his guru heard
His insults. He wanted his meal
Of one warrior trapped in the wheel –
That was the guru’s word.
He kept it. The Brahmin turned wheelwright,
Driving seven hard spokes towards the boy,
Seven charioteers to hub the boy,
Breaking the rules of conduct, the rules of battle.
Seven hard shafts to kill one boy,
Each a rotten toothpick without the other.
“Kill the boy! Jump him from the back!
Kill the boy!”
“Do as my father says.
Circle the boy
“Acharya, we’re here, we’re here!
Who’ll kill the boy?”
“I’ll do it since you’re so scared,
Karna will kill the boy!”
“Over here, king – we’d be mad to take him on singly.
Together, we’ll get the boy!”
“You, Abhimanyu! Look what’s coming to get you.
Happy playing soldier, are you?
Look what’s coming to get you, giddy little boy!”
“Stand by your word, great teacher.
Get ready to kill the boy
Or he’ll wipe us all out.
He’ll send our race to hell,
And you’ll go with us. Kill Arjun’s son!”
He came like a black ray, this sun,
His garland eclipsing his black.
As the rivers went their peaceful way.
He shone like a dark hope, this son,
His veins running with gold.
Far from his father’s sight.
They kill Sumitra, his charioteer.
To which country will you take your garland? they shout
As Abhimanyu falls.
Call him back, boy, to mend that chariot wheel of yours, they shout
As Abhimanyu tries to stand up.
Remember the wheel, something tells Abhimanyu,
Fight with the chariot’s wheel.
Call on your father now, his enemies cry
As Abhimanyu fights.
Shout on. No one minds.
A boy calls on Krishna.
Krishna’s brightness blinds.
As Abhimanyu’s spirit rises towards Heaven,
As it gazes on Kurukshetra, beginning to understand,
Another voice speaks through the spirit,
Another dead soldier’s:
“What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them . . .” [*]
When I set out for Heaven’s Gate, I thought
It would be easy . . . “Drop dead in the Great War,”
They said when I enlisted, “and the soul flies
Straight up to God.” After all, brave lads have done it before,
For him, King and Country, and got there.
It didn’t turn out like that. When I rose towards God
I turned . . .
Something compelled me to turn and look back
at earth . . .
The battlefield again, soldiers rising and falling,
My body being sniffed by dogs for what it was worth.
So I went back for love of my body, leaked with its blood,
Pass root and clod, away from God,
Into a strange town.
There I met others who had fallen with me and long
Had fallen . . . by rivers that fed great empires, or fallen
In valleys and seas, kings, merchants and slaves,
A prince whose star was on the rise,
Killed at my age, whose mind coiled and recoiled
like mine, in a different time,
‘Round pointless sacrifice.
This thing of going straight up to God when you’re killed
in a righteous War sounds nice
On paper. What often happens
For a blind ruler
Obsessed with his own race, his own nation,
And of course for God . . . who needs our blood
To oil the wheels of his great enterprise . . .
the rise and fall of nations.
“In every age I come back
To deliver the holy,
To destroy the sin of the sinner
To establish righteousness,”
So will I come back, again and again
To harrow the living. We are the dead.
Makers of pointless Sacrifice,
and you who believe in its worth,
Give of yourselves as much as you can
For Palem [**], Earth,
The mother who cares for us all. Give,
That this be Paradise,
Where we once and only live.
* from Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth.
** Palem means Mother in Manipuri
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