“I Duryodhan, first-born to the King of Hasthinapur- pronounce you Karna as the King of Anga. You, my beloved friend from now on, will be known as Angaraj Karna.”

The words resonate in my ears as though it were just yesterday that Karna had narrated the scene from Hasthinapur. It was the day of the return of the Kuru princes to Hasthinapur from Gurukul, along with their Guru Dronacharya. A contest was held in the capital city to showcase the talent and skills of the Kuru princes to the world. It was on that day that Karna first came across Arjuna, the third Pandava who claimed to be the best archer in the whole of Aryavrat.

Karna desired to compete with Arjuna, in a duel of archery. When it became evident that Karna, a student of Bhagwan Parashuram, was a skilled warrior and an exceptional archer, probably the only one who could defeat Arjuna, his caste and social status were brought into the picture.

When all the noble and wise men in the court of Hasthinapur refused to acknowledge Karna’s valour and strength, it was Duryodhana who had stepped forward and backed him. When Karna came home that day, a rare emotion playing on his face, I knew something big had occurred. For the first time ever Karna’s face had the radiance that resembled his armour glistening under the sun. He had finally achieved what he had desperately strived for all his life- recognition and dignity.

Radhama and Kaka ji were not his birth parents. They had found him on the banks of river Ganga and had brought him up as their own. Kakaji, a close friend of my father, was the charioteer of the Maharathi of Hasthinapur, Bheeshm. Karna was therefore known as Suta-puthra or the one belonging to the Suta clan. I too belonged to the same community. My father served as the charioteer to Prince Duryodhana in the later years. It was Kaka ji who wished to strengthen the bond of his friendship with my father by getting me married to Karna. If Karna’s happiest moment was the day he met Duryodhana, mine was the day I got married to my first and only love.

“Vrushali, we no longer have to live like this. This is the end of all our miseries. You will soon be the Queen of Anga” he had announced, spinning me around. His contagious smile made us all beam with pride and happiness. Little Sudhama, who was too young to understand any of this danced around us clapping his hands. Karna had picked him up and loving whispered in his ears “And you my son, will be the Yuvaraj. You will never be called a Suth-puthra. You will have everything that I always craved for. You will live the life of a prince.”

But Anga had taken everything we loved and treasured in return for its glamour and glory, including our son Sudhama. He was only nine when he got killed in the swayamvara of princess Draupadi at Kampilya. Karna lived all his life blaming himself for his son’s death. The fierce duel that took place between him and Arjuna during the swayamvara, had resulted in showers of arrows, taking many lives of the commoners. Sudhama was one of them.

Sudhama’s death was just the beginning.  Somewhere between Karna’s fight against his misfortune and keeping his promise to his best friend, our life began to fade. Karna paid a huge price in return for Duryodhan’s friendship. Along with a lifetime of faithfulness and gratitude, he also paid the price with the lives of our sons (all our sons were killed in the eighteen-day bloodbath that took place in Kurukshetra, following Queen Draupadi’s disrobing in the Dhyuthsabha of Hasthinapur) and finally his own life, leaving behind his old parents and three helpless widowed wives.

Supriya and Urvi, his other two wives were the later additions to our family. Supriya’s wedding to my husband was devastating, to say the least. It was yet another price that we had to pay in return of Duryodhana’s favour to my husband. The day still flashes before my eyes. Duryodhana, a regular visitor to our palace in Anga, had come with an unusual request to meet me, alone. I had never spoken to him before that day and had become sceptical of his visit.

“Pranam Bhabhi sa, I believe we have not had the opportunity to converse before.” He had started the conversation, a grin on his lips and eyes twinkling with admiration.

“Pranam, Prince Duryodhan. What is it that brings you to our humble abode in the absence of your beloved friend?” I never really liked Karna’s friendship with Duryodhana, it was one thing I and Karna’s youngest wife Urvi agreed upon. We both believed that no prince no matter how generous would acknowledge a man of low-birth as his friend unless he got something equally big in return. It did not take us a very long time to realize what he wanted in return.

“I have come here with a request, that only you can grant me, O wise Queen of Anga.”

“What is it?” I had questioned, knowing that another sacrifice, another commitment was on cue.

“Princess Bhanumathi, daughter of King Chithrangada, placed her desire to marry me during her swayamvara in Kalinga. I too wish for the same, for she seems to be my ideal match. I have not been able to take my mind off her, since the first time I laid my eyes on her.”

“Then what is the problem?”

“But now, after having placed the garland around my neck, she refuses to marry me unless my beloved friend Karna agrees to marry her friend Supriya.” Duryodhana yet again had placed a selfish demand in the disguise of a request.

“What did Karna say about this?” I had asked, hoping Karna’s answer would have been in denial. It was foolish of me to think so, for Karna never denied anything to Duryodhan.

“I know my friend all too well. He will never go against my wish. But I realized it would be unfair for me to do this without your consent. That is why I am here.”

From Duryodhana’s words, it was evident that the decision had already been made. Karna had agreed. There was nothing left for me to say.

Soon the wedding ceremony took place and with a stone on my heart, I welcomed Supriya into our house and our lives. Princess Urvi followed soon, this time it was not a part of an agreement. Karna had actively participated in the swayamvara and won her hand, winning another Kingdom’s alliance for Duryodhan.

For the most part of our life after that, I remember Karna coming to me only for advice on state affairs and debates on our favourite philosophical topics. Defeating the Pandavas and bringing victory to his friend was the only motive of his life.

Only days before his death was the secret of his birth revealed to him by Queen Kunti, the mother of the five Pandava brothers. He was born a Kshatriya to Kunthi, who was then the Princess of Mathura. Blessed by the Sun-God with a son as brilliant as the sun himself, she feared humiliation in the society which had no place for an unwed mother. She had placed the new-born child in a floating basket, surrendering him to his fate in the holy river Ganga.

When Queen Kunthi pleaded with him to spare his sons, Karna was yet again tied by his own words. He had promised her that under any circumstances, no matter who won the war, she would have five of her sons back. It would be either him or Arjuna, whose ceremonial pyre she would have to witness.

My husband’s death was known. With the curse of Bhagwan Parashuram swaying above his head like an axe meant to kill and the alliance with the Kauravas who had lost all sense of Dharma in the mad drive to kill the Pandavas and conquer the world, the pious and righteous man I had known was lost. In his own words, all of Karna’s good deeds were washed away when he stood as a mute witness to the disrobing of Draupadi and participated in the killing of Abhimanyu, which was done violating every single law of Kshatriya Dharma.

Today, as I take to Sati and burn in his funeral pyre, I do not feel any pain instead I feel a sense of calmness and relief. Karna is finally free from all the shackles of his own words. As the last of my ashes, merge with his, I pray to Lord Parashuram to forgive Karna for his treachery in his desire to learn from the most powerful warrior of all time. I pray to the Sun-God to forgive him for his participation in the doing of wrong Karma and  I pray to Lord Shiva for the immortality of his name and his valour, for it is only this that he desperately strived for all his life.