an excerpt from Karna: A Re-Imagining of the Indian Epic The Mahabharata
There is blood all over the battlefield, the broken bodies of warriors and weapons. Spirit shadows rise like mist from the ground, and among the fallen soldiers rides Yama, the god of death, upon his mighty buffalo. Dark as a rain-cloud, with eyes of burning flames, he brandishes a noose and spear in two of his four hands. Newborn babes in Bharat are never given names too early, lest Yama call them to him. And until they are old enough to protest, mothers mar the cheeks of their sons with black spots of kajol, so that the god of death is not tempted by their beauty.
But I cannot be distracted from my goal. Not by the calls of Yama; not by the trickster Krishna, who I know seeks my downfall; not even if Indra, king of the gods, were to charge down on me upon his trumpeting elephant.
I am not afraid, though I have been thrown down from my chariot. Its wheel is stuck in the mud, and even if I were to dislodge it with my great strength, I could not fix its splintered spokes. And so I wait for my enemy Arjun. I wait to kill him, or be killed myself.
Sometimes I think it’s what I was born to do. My only reason for being.
My lips form, over and over again, the holy words of the mantra I will use to kill him. Despite the mystic’s curses, I refuse to forget their magic power. A hundred arrows may fly from his bow toward my armor-covered chest, but I do not need such showmanship. I will send from my bow only one arrow, straight and true. The very sun will burn and fire rain down from the sky.
But I am not the hero of this tale. I am an interloper, even in my own life. This much, the blue-skinned Krishna has shown me. By my very existence, I’ve somehow screwed up the mechanics of the universe, broken the spokes of the wheel of life. Unless Arjun kills me, or so the gods say, the circle cannot turn; life cannot go on in its unending cycle of birth and death.
They know this because it has all happened before. And it will all happen again. They say our lives were already lived out during other ages in other bodies, our joys and sorrows all played out in other times. They say that existence itself is a recurring illusion, veiling us from seeing the truth of the universe.
I don’t know if I believe it.
Reincarnation always seemed like a lot of nonsense to me. Made up by the sages and mystics to keep us lower sects scared. Get out of line and be reborn a cockroach. I never had the patience for that kind of thinking. I knew what I knew. I felt what I felt. This life, this body, this time, this self, was all I had.
But now I wonder if it’s true—if we’re living a story that’s been played out a hundred thousand times, an epic rivalry much bigger than our individual lives.
And so I wait, hoping that this time I can kill my enemy rather than be killed. Reverse the way the wheel spins, I don’t know. Maybe in this life I can change things for good.
The first time I saw Arjun, I was thirteen years old but big for my age, so that, when I was out doing chariot repairs for my father, I could get mistaken for a boy of seventeen or eighteen.
Which would make my cousin Avi twelve—but looking like she was about nine.
Avi and I were in the forest. I was up a mango tree, tossing down the ripe fruit to my cousin. Well, not all the mangos. I made sure to eat a good number myself.
“Hey, come on, leave some to take home!” Avi called.
“Two for me.” I ripped into the mangos with my teeth like a ravenous dog. “One for you.”
“You’re disgusting,” laughed my cousin, catching the fruit in her slim hands.
I had yellow juice dripping down my cheeks and chin, but I didn’t care. So high above the ground, the hot sun baking down on me through the tree branches, I felt like I could do anything. I beat the golden armor on my chest and howled, which made Avi laugh even more.
It was nice when Avi laughed. Usually, I didn’t think of her as anything different than me. She was small and wiry, but that made her fast—which came in handy whether we were swiping some chapatis from a chariot stop or taking down some tough guys from another trade sect with a well-aimed brick. But when she laughed it made a sound like a river skipping over stones, and I remembered she was actually a girl.
I surveyed the forest from my treetop perch: the swaying leaves and vines, the cawing birds, the occasional monkey. I was watching a herd of deer darting through the forest floor when I saw them—the saffron-robed man and the boy. They were coming our way fast.
I didn’t need to say anything more. Without a word, she scampered up the tree. I grabbed onto her wrist as soon as she was within my arm’s range and lifted her easily onto the branch. I didn’t even bother to see if she got scratched or anything. We were going to get hurt a lot worse if we were caught.
Avi stilled her breath. She knew as well as I did that we worker sects weren’t supposed to be out in the woods, and we certainly weren’t supposed to be pilfering fruit from Queen Kanti’s mango grove.
I pointed toward the ground. We were hidden by a thick curtain of leaves from below, but we had a good view of the clearing.
The man and boy came into sight. I could see that the man was a scholar as well as a sage, for above his robes he had a shorn head. He was entirely bald except for a tiki, a topknot right at the crown.
The boy was the son of a wealthy warrior family, dressed in a silk dhoti with gold necklaces and armlets. The bow and arrow over his arm were intricately carved and delicate.
“Arjun,” Avi breathed near my ear. Her breath was warm, and I shivered.
So this was Arjun, the Lady Kanti’s third son, the gifted archer. Though he was only Avi’s age, he was already known throughout the kingdom as a warrior of unmatched skill. I’d even heard murmurs that his real father was not the long dead Pandav king, but Indra, king of the gods himself.
Since Avi’s father was Queen Kanti’s chariot maker, he and Avi lived above the palace stables. Which meant my cousin had seen Arjun—at least at a distance—any number of times. But I was an ordinary village boy, and my father fixed chariots for merchants and low-level soldiers, not royalty. This was the first time I’d seen the famous Arjun in the flesh.
The teacher took a few minutes to set up various natural targets around the grove—a stick, a leafy palm frond, and, I noticed with disgust, an overripe mango. Just like the sages and warriors to waste perfectly good food while people went hungry.
Then the teacher did the most remarkable thing. Taking a thin piece of silk out of his waistband, he bound it around Arjun’s eyes.
“All right, your majesty.” The teacher’s voice was soft but full of power. I could hear it as clearly as if he was sitting right next to us on the branch. “Imagine the leaf in your mind, then see yourself hitting it. Feel the arrow leaving your bow as an extension of your own body.”
I took in a quiet breath. There was no way Arjun was going to do it, no matter how good an archer he was. It was hard enough to hit those targets with your eyes open, but with your eyes closed? Impossible.
Everything was silent for a few minutes, as if the trees, animals, the very blades of grass had stilled themselves in anticipation of the warrior boy’s feat. And then Arjun let his arrow fly. He hit the leaf just where his teacher had marked. Then he hit the stick too. It was pretty impressive, I had to admit. But I couldn’t help but feel gleeful when the third arrow missed its mark, hitting just to the left of the overripe mango.
“Your highness, forget the other successes. There is no past, no future,” The teacher said, his hand on the boy’s muscular shoulders. “Think only of the fruit, this moment, this arrow.”
I wiped the drying mango juice from my mouth onto my shoulder. Without even realizing it, I took out my homemade bow and threaded one of my crudely crafted arrows onto the string. Closing one eye, I cocked it halfway back.
“What are you doing?” hissed Avi. I don’t know if she spoke the words out loud or if I just knew her well enough to hear them without her having to actually say anything.
I shook my head. I wasn’t going to shoot the arrow. I wasn’t completely crazy. If we worker sects weren’t supposed to be in the Lady Kanti’s fruit orchards, we certainly weren’t supposed to be there with homemade weapons. In fact, no worker sect was supposed to own weapons at all. Such a crime was punishable by exile, or even death.
But the prince missed again. The teacher sighed.
“Concentrate, young majesty.”
“I am,” Arjun protested, yanking off his blindfold. “Guruji, I don’t want to disappoint you, but I can’t do it. I’m not good enough.”
I almost snorted aloud. The best equipment, the best training, the best of everything, and this spoiled rich kid was giving up so soon? If I had those kinds of opportunities, I would never give up, I vowed to myself. Never.
It was only a few seconds later, though, that I’d have to live up to that promise.
“All right then, young man.” The teacher looked straight up at our tree branch. “I know you’ve been wanting to give it a try. Do you think you can hit that mango from where you sit?”
Avi gasped. The teacher knew we’d been up there the whole time. I should have guessed. Damned holy men and their magical ways.
My cousin shook her head, her face screwed up with terror and fury. “Don’t you dare,” she whispered.
But I could feel the excitement building up in my blood. I was an excellent shot, even at thirteen years old, and with no training at all. I tried to remember the teacher’s words, and visualized my arrow plunging into the mango’s soft flesh.
“NO!” Avi breathed, as I let my weapon fly. From our angle up in the tree, I could barely see the yellow fruit. I felt, more than saw, the arrow pierce the ripe skin of my target.
“Very good.” The teacher clapped. “Now, would you like to come down and show us your face, young marksman?”
“Stop!” Avi practically yelled. “You idiot!”
But I was already on the ground in one leap, leaving her to clamber down from the tree by herself. I clutched at my weapon and pulled myself to my full height, which was an inch or two taller than Arjun.
But I didn’t have time for the rich boy right now. My heart was hammering in my chest as I faced the teacher.
I knew he could have me taken by the morality patrols, have my family shamed, even exiled from our village. But somehow, I knew he wouldn’t. The robed man wasn’t exactly smiling, but his narrowed eyes gleamed with something as they stared at me. Curiosity?
“Your name is Karna?”
I bowed low to the teacher. In Arjun’s direction, I gave a half-hearted bow as well.
“You’re a worker boy!” Arjun sputtered. “You shouldn’t have a weapon! Where did you get that?”
I gritted my teeth and was about to take a step in his direction when the teacher’s comment to Arjun stopped me as firmly as if he’d put a hand on my armored skin.
“A man is like a river, young majesty. One cannot always know his origins.”
Something in this odd statement pricked at me, like a mosquito nipping at my subconscious. But like most things I couldn’t understand, I swatted the discomfort away. Damned obscure holy men.
“I would guess that young Karna made his own bow and arrow,” the teacher went on. “And even taught himself how to shoot it.”
I swelled with pride.
“Am I right?”
I nodded. “I don’t have too many.” I plucked the arrow out of the fruit I’d split in two and placed it back in my makeshift quiver. Then, hoping the teacher wouldn’t notice, I slipped the fruit into my pocket too.
It was only then that I realized that Avi hadn’t made it down from the tree yet. In fact, she was hanging off a low branch, still a few feet from the ground.
“My cousin,” I started, running back toward her.
But Arjun made it there first. “You can let go, boy,” he called. “I’ll catch you.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. With her hair covered, in her dusty boy’s clothes, there was no reason that Arjun would think she was anything other than what she appeared to be.
Avi dangled a few more seconds from the branch. “I can’t….”
“Of course you can, boy; I won’t harm you,” Arjun laughed. “Let go!” His voice was light. How easily he shrugged off his failure, and our little conflict. It was never so simple for me. I seethed as he held his strong arms in her direction.
Maybe forgiveness was a privilege only the rich could afford.
“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t mean to cause trouble.”
I ground my teeth. We may not be royalty, or warrior sect, but why should Avi humble herself to this spoiled rich boy?
But then she let go. I watched as my cousin—whom I’d thought of up to that point as nothing but my buddy, my best friend—landed light as a feather in Arjun’s outstretched arms.
They were both laughing as he set her down. He may have had a baby face, but Avi still had to crane her neck to look up at him.
“Thank you, sir,” she breathed. “You’re too kind.”
“Don’t I know you?” He squinted at her. “Wait a minute….”
It was about time to nip this friendship in the bud.
“I’d better get my cousin home.” I gripped her wrist, and yanked her away from the curious archer. I noticed with a pang that Avi’s eyes were still locked with Arjun’s. Despite his dark skin, his eyes were shockingly blue, almost as blue as mine, and she seemed to have taken a wrong turn somewhere within them.
I pulled a little more firmly on her arm. She didn’t budge.
“I’d better get my cousin home,” I repeated, louder.
The teacher muffled what I thought was a laugh. “Meet me in the grove tomorrow morning, young man.”
“I’m sorry?” Avi and I both whipped around to face him.
“Bring your bow and arrows,” the teacher went on. “As long as Queen Kanti approves, I’ll be training you every morning before I work with the young princes.”
With a wave of his hand, the teacher silenced the protest on Arjun’s lips.
“You’re going to train me?” I breathed. It was unheard of. A worker sect being trained by a proper teacher? We weren’t even allowed to learn our letters anymore. And I was going to learn the ancient ways of war? It was a dream come true.
The teacher nodded. “And you can bring your young cousin here, too, if she would like to watch.”
Avi froze, as if she were a statue. For me, it took another second to register.
She. He’d said she. Oh, gods.
I saw Arjun’s azure eyes widen as he turned back toward Avi. “Wait a minute….”
“If you tell anyone, rich boy, I’ll rip your throat out,” I roared, but the teacher’s hand was firm this time on my arm.
Avi fell on her knees before the archer. “Please, sir, no one at the palace knows….”
I roared again, this time at the sight of her kneeling, but everyone ignored me.
“Never will your secret pass these lips,” he murmured, helping her to her feet. “If only to pay penance for ever thinking you a boy.”
They locked eyes again, and I felt… what? Jealousy? No, it couldn’t be. Yet Avi’s awe-filled expression churned up a bitter emotion in my gut I’d never felt before.
“Don’t forget, Karna, tomorrow morning in the grove,” the teacher called.
I yanked an unusually quiet Avi out of the forest behind me. “I won’t forget.”
I could never forget that day. The day I met my teacher. The day I met my enemy.