Midday. The flames of the cremation ground shimmered on a grass-thick rivulet of the Ganges. The priest who taught Ishan his formal studies conducted the ceremony of Raghu’s last rites with solemn vigilance.
Instead of having to pay for an expensive, anonymous priest to handle the funeral, Ishan’s teacher offered his services. He had taught Raghu primary studies up until he was sixteen—before his ambition made his feet lighter for a different place and a different state of mind.
After the priest commemorated him for completing his education on the Vedas and Sanskrit, Raghu decided to leave to Benares, where many notable scholars of literature resided. Eventually becoming a playwright and attaining a position in a local touring theater, Raghu had briefly returned to Vatsala with his troupe to provide a three-day festival of performances. He found that his ancestral land made his city lifestyle seem frivolous—a slow weakening of his internal senses. He had enjoyed the mass system of people in the trade centers of Benares and found pleasure in the array of artistic activities that were present in the city known as the capital of Magadha at the time. But while he was in Vatsala, his mind veered into the mentality of his previous life. Seeing nature in its raw state revived a sense of composure that he had not found in his childhood. Vatsala also reminded him of his dreams to not write just plays, but poetry and stories. The plays he was writing and adapting propagated the holy lives of saints and rulers of the past. Though he believed these stories were important for the citizens of Magadha to revel in, he yearned to create his own stories that would bring a renewal of hope for the future.
He desired to see his epics change the consciousness of people—to have them live out their duty as the inheritors of their holy land. The extent of his songs’ influence on Vatsala and the surrounding villages could not be underestimated. Though he was praised by a discrete following of people, Raghu felt that that quantity of revolutionaries that he associated with through his compositions was not enough to complete an expedition against the kingdom. His vision needed a mass effect, yet he didn’t know how to extend his influence without exposing himself to acute danger from the regulatory guard.
The crowd at the cremation was large enough to man a crop field of workers. Among the village chiefs, tradesmen, family, and friends were the regulatory guard. They kept watch on the ceremony for any rebellious activity against the King—any sign of riot, no matter how innocuous. Though the soldiers were scattered and vied to appear as inconspicuous as they could, the chiefs of neighboring villages and the family of Raghu could not help but be alert to the murderers’ affiliates. The soldiers stood as if they were museum pieces.
Ishan read Vedic hymns after the priest had initiated the cremation. Between the Sanskrit words that he had learned since his early childhood, his breathing was broken. His mother rested her slender hand on his back while he read the sacred lines, trying her utmost to get through the ceremony with as much dignity as she could find between her sobs.
Before the crowds dispersed, Ishan wanted to ensure the attendants that he would rebel against the King—but his mother’s advice about not speaking out against the King in front of royal subjects relayed inside his head. He had enough constraint to bear his urges then, but he didn’t know
how long he could go without rallying citizens to his cause.
Sati guided the ash of her husband into a porcelain cup—the lid shone with an insignia of omkara.
“Son, hold your father too.”
Ishan set out his arms to receive the ornament that was supposed to be aesthetic, but all Ishan could see in it was dread and the guard’s blood he would spill. His mother kept her hold on the ceremonial cup as Ishan grasped its bottom with tentative hands—she didn’t know if it was his grief or his anger that had caused his reluctance.
Three Months Later
The tradesmen that had been clients of Raghu supported Ishan’s overseeing of the family business. Now Ishan had to run as fast as his father, overtaken by the raze of the sun—treading the paths that made men calloused enough to endure the brink of starvation.
He spun his dreams while splitting wood and catching up with the merchants in villages sometimes far off from Vatsala. At night, his mother would have daal, rice, and chapatis ready for him after he took his lukewarm bucket shower. Her words lulled the penance of his day’s work away, leaving only the simple act of eating.
But she could not soothe the dejection she felt in the absence of her husband. For nearly two months after her husband’s death, she was despondent. She rarely spoke or confided in others. Wearing her white sari as an indication of widowhood, she donned her loss. But as Ishan showed his responsibility more and more through managing his father’s business, her attitude lightened. Her pride grew for her son, whose devotion to his work was apparent—cutting wood and delivering it as if his dedication to his father’s business was enough to stave hunger.
During his menial tasks, Ishan was planning a strategy to desecrate the regulatory guard. He had schemes of putting together a mass of villagers to create a covert militia. But he also knew that he had to become a warrior that could more than handle the King’s army. Finding a teacher that would instruct him in the art of warfare was essential.
Though he was strong and agile due to his constant running and hauling of wood, he did not know the techniques of fighting. On trips to distant villages and cities, he kept his eye steady for a chance of meeting a warrior distinguished enough to teach him the true ways of being a warrior.
He heard rumors and advice from merchants he met along the way. Though some warriors and those who could fight well enough to take down a regulatory guard were given enthusiastic recommendations, he wasn’t assured in their expertise. He felt that the hearsay about these ‘exemplary fighters’ was more talk than anything else.
It wasn’t until he heard of Balraj that he was convinced that he had found someone. Once an imperial soldier in the court of King Pradyota, he now resided near the Vindhya Mountains, living as an ascetic. Ishan wasn’t sure if Balraj would instruct him, since he seemed to be leading a life as a monk, concentrating on inner peace and austerity. But learning under the old warrior appeared to be the only chance to take the confrontation with the regulatory guards seriously.
Though Ishan had searched for a master in far-off villages and cities, he didn’t have to go far to hear about the accomplishments of Balraj. In his neighboring town, Saraswati, he had spoken to a merchant that had known his father well enough that he invited Ishan in for lunch. While eating the customary moong daal with chai, Ishan told the merchant about his ideas for an uprising on the regulatory guard and his search for an able warfare instructor. Unlike most tradesmen, this particular merchant shared Ishan’s fervor for wiping out the King’s men openly.
“Though I am getting on with my age, I know a strong and willful youth like you can work these problems out.”
The wily-faced merchant, swiping away a fly with a handkerchief, continued in his encouragement.
“I know a teacher that could set you straight, but he might be hard to reach—or hard to persuade to take up his old ways.”
The merchant’s wife handed another chapati with purified butter spread over its top to her husband. Almost oblivious to his wife’s pouring of extra daal, he spoke of his association with the warrior.
“He lives at the base of the Vindhya Mountains as a man who has given up society and all the baggage that comes along with it, but he isn’t a feeble old man—at least I hope not. Well, he was a royal guard for King Pradyota until he had enough of Pradyota’s dealings. He was issued to kill many innocent people in the name of acquiring a few coins. It wasn’t the life he wanted—he escaped out of the sight of the regulatory guard into the territory of the Vindhya Mountains.”
The merchant finished his daal and chapati with a smacking of his lips, wiping the sweat from his puffed, round face with his handkerchief.
“Ishan, this man… I can tell you where he is in the Vindhya Mountains—but I have to ask one favor of you… don’t tell him that I sent you. He was once a part of my family—my sister’s husband—when he left for the mountains. I tried to convince him as much as I could to not leave. But he was stubborn and wanted to give up everything he knew—even my sister and his children. I won’t lie to you, Ishan—he is not the most amiable of men—but I wouldn’t doubt his expertise as a soldier.”
Ishan couldn’t help but be intrigued by the account of such a figure. He wasn’t worried about the man’s disposition—he would do whatever it took to further his skills in warfare. If it meant spending years with a cranky old man in the mountains, that is what it had to be. Besides, it would be a change of scene from the lingering memories of his father and the village he had lived in for his whole life.
“Thank you, sir, for telling me about this man. But I got a favor to ask of you as well: please don’t tell anyone that I am looking for him. The regulatory guard might catch wind of my intentions and confront me on my way to him—or even worse, try to kill him… what was his name?”
“Oh, his name is Balraj, or you can call him Lion’s Spear—his weapon of choice was the spear. He could stand up to several warriors simultaneously and beat them off with his control of the spear. He is fierce in character, absolutely disciplined in the art of fighting. It is strange that he would leave all that he learned behind—or maybe he still does his practice out there in those mountains. But before he left, he made it seem as if he wanted only to be spiritual and give up even the idea of getting into combat… you got some work ahead of you Ishan.”
No matter what the merchant said, Ishan was convinced that he had to see Balraj. If the old man couldn’t be persuaded, he would take any measure to get it into his head that it was his duty to teach him.
On the way back from Saraswati, Ishan planned what to say to his mother. She either had to stay in Vatsala or come with him to the Vindhya Mountains. His mother bunking with extended family did not seem like an option: someone had to take care of the property in Vatsala. But if he left to live with Balraj, would his mother be struck with too much grief that she couldn’t handle it? And would she be able to give up her home for a fanciful expedition? Ishan was not sure how to answer the these questions, but he wouldn’t let doubts and obstacles take away his persistence. Besides, a warrior’s mark is his loyalty: either to an authority, or to the honor of their own character. He had found his teacher and he would be loyal to him—even if, at this moment, Balraj was only a part of his imagination.