The Caretaker (Three Chapters)

PROLOGUE

Life is meaningless. There is no deeper purpose to it. We are creatures of instincts drawn to trivial pleasures like moths to a flame. Crisis and grief are inevitable. Here they engulf a nation all at once. There is no good or evil. Violence and strife seem to be the natural order of things. At times a person comes who changes the lives of people for the better. Seemed unlikely here in the burning streets of an once prosperous nation. Soon there may not be a nation India anymore.  

It is unknown when, where or how the nation began to crumble and came to such a pass. Some say the economic collapse brought about the break down of law and order. Others claim internal strife, violence and lawlessness crippled the economy. The fact is that the economy and the law and order situation has collapsed. Unemployment was at its highest since independence. Millions of people lost their jobs overnight. Many were government employees and they took to the streets first, soon joined by others. In many regions people wanted to secede from the union so they can take care of the mess. 

A few ruthless politicians in power saw it as a chance to permanently hold power by taking control of the democratic institutions by intimidation. The unruliness of their supporters added to the chaos. Some promoted caste violence and hatred, burning villages and cities. There was an intense law and order problem. Terrorist attacks had risen through out the nation. Foreign terrorists were working hard to drive the final nails in to the coffin of a languishing nation and force it in to disintegration. Some of the truly affluent had skipped the nation. A vast section of people unaffected as of yet continued as if nothing much was amiss.  

The nation has passed through a period of stagflation which is inflation without any actual growth in production. Now hyperinflation has set in with a loaf of bread costing a few thousand rupees. The inflation was predicted to double in a couple of months. After that it would spiral and the fiat currency almost worthless now would truly become worthless. The failure of the monsoon and resulting crop failure was said to be one factor. The global recession and poor GDP posted for several quarters was cited as a factor. Poor Fiscal prudence, increasing international debt and low GDP pushed the nation in to a debt trap. The increase in the NPAs of the public sector banks and the need to close down a few led to a panic of the people. It resulted in a run on other banks and a few couldn’t manage it. This resulted in high levels of panic and was said to be a major factor for the situation. The unchecked unemployment scenario led to riots and lawlessness and caused the collapse it was said. 

What was not said was that the ever increasing divide between the ultra rich and the poor became untenable. There were several major political scams. Several second generation businessmen and other heirs of business empires ran their businesses to ground and filed for bankruptcies or where they were personally liable fled the nation. This caused the banks to crumble. The people took to the streets and burnt shops and properties, crushing an already weak economy. The political opportunists and secessionists helped by foreign terrorists joined the fray bringing the lawlessness to untenable proportions. 

It was sad that all this had to happen in the Prime Ministership of Mr. Satyendra Dubey. He was an honest uncorrupt politician. At a time when the nation needed a strong leader the electorate gave a fragmented mandate. The Jan Shakthi Party to which Dubey ji belonged came as the third largest party next to BJP and Congress in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The Janta Vikas Sankatan (JVS) Coalition under the Jan Shakthi party was asked to form the government. There was a fight for Prime Ministership between Manoj Pandey who was now the Home Minister and Vikram Bhatt who was now the Finance Minister. This threatened to break the party. Ninety year old Ashok Gaekwad, the founder of the party, with a couple of Septuagenarians constituted the high command of the Party. The high command invited the austere Dubey ji, who had been Education Minister in the NDA coalition, to be the Prime Minister as a consensus candidate. The date today is August 26 , 2021 and the country even in its ravaged state had a festive independence day, a few days earlier, but to see another independence day it has to cross the threat on the coming Republic day in 180 days. 

PMO, South Block, Secretariat, New Delhi, Aug 26

One of Samyuktha’s assistants gave her a cordless phone and said, “Call from the Chief Secretary of Maharashtra.”

She got the phone and the Chief Secretary said, “We need more CRPF personnel here urgently.”

“The CRPF is already stretched thin through out the nation. I will see what I can do,” she said. 

“The Chief Minister wants to talk to you,” said the Chief Secretary. 

She waited on the line as the Chief Minister said, “The condition here is worsening by the day. We need additional forces urgently.”

She said, “Don’t worry sir, I will deploy an army contingent there as soon as possible.”  

She then made her way in to the meeting room and waited for the others to arrive. Soon they arrived and the meeting started. She yawned and wondered why the damn air conditioners were so chilled in the Prime Minister’s office, as the wise and powerful men of the nation exchanged pleasantries. She was sitting beside Dubey ji who sat at the head of the table. She was a principled pragmatist. She worked within the constraints of the existing system not struggling to change it. But she never compromised on her principles and personal integrity. She felt comfortable in the black and white salwar kameez. She mostly wore salwars or saris. She hadn’t bothered much with her shoulder length curly hair today. She was short, fair complexioned, mild featured but with piercing eyes, she was told. At thirty six, she considered herself stylish and attractive. Then she turned left and her eyes fell on Mayuri sitting beside Dubey ji like her and she felt unsure of herself.  

Mayuri was a vivacious girl. She was a tall alluring beauty. She was wearing a knee length black skirt and a violet shirt tucked in neatly. The shirt had the top two buttons undone. This exposed her ample melons, which she shamelessly thrust in the face of anyone she was talking to. Shame on that vixen, can’t she at least button up when she talked to other girls. Samyuktha found it very distracting. In the short bob cut hair Mayuri looked fairly fashionable.     

This was an important meeting to review the steps taken to handle the crisis in the nation. Though frankly all steps have not helped to change the situation. Samyuktha loved the nation enough to want things to change. Yet she was cynical about the nation’s ability. The situation was so precarious that they were only fighting to postpone the inevitable. She was worried for the nation. Yet she was more worried about her nemesis Mayuri, two years her junior in IAS and also in joining Dubey ji. Both were with him from his days as union minister for education. Dubey ji did not trust Mayuri as there were rumours that she was corrupt and was on the take. Yet even Samyuktha had to grudgingly accept that she had certain cunning in political and party affairs. She was a wild fun girl and extremely popular. This made Samyuktha even more furious. Mayuri was only a private secretary yet was cunning and influential. Samyuktha could tell from the way Mayuri was hovering over Dubey ji that she was upto something. Whatever it was would not bade well for a nation in crisis and must be thwarted at inception. 

She worked hard putting in more hours than others. She put up with inconveniences because she loved her work. Being a joint secretary to the PM was a prestigious and powerful job. She was proud to have the distinction of being the youngest Joint Secretary to the PM at thirty six. She just loved waving her ID in the face of everyone in the capital and see them cringe. She loved shouting at people even more. These perks don’t come with any other job.  Technically except a handful of bureaucrats above her everyone else in the nation worked under her. It was as if the whole administrative wing of the nation bowed to her. She had scores of people working directly under her command who would dance to any tune of hers. Dubey ji had made bold decisions and was loved by the people before the crisis. She had the ears of the most powerful man in the country. Her ideas found its way into several executive decisions and a few legislations. She was proud of it.

The morning had not gone well for Samyuktha. She slipped on her sister’s strewn clothes and fell in the living room. She liked neatness but that was not to be had sharing an apartment with her irritating younger sister Pratyusha who worked in an IT firm. She received a call from her parents. The issue was the same as always, her marriage. She had postponed her marriage talks on one pretext or other. They used the same old routine, only if she got married could they search a groom for Pratyusha.This made her really angry. She conveyed the decision, she had made a while back, that she would never marry. She felt like a rat chased by a storm. She wanted to marry but she wanted to be in love and then marry that person, like in the movies. She bathed in cold water as her sister had forgotten to repair the geyser. She then read two major national newspapers almost page to page even while dining. Then the chauffeur arrived and she had left for work. She saw picketers lining the road side and glimpsed a couple of tanks on the road on her drive to work. 

She snapped back to reality as the meeting got underway. The meeting was attended by the Principal Secretary Hari Prasad, the National Security Advisor Pankaj Mehra, the Cabinet Secretary Harish Wadia, the Home Secretary and Finance Secretary. 

“What is being done to check the hyper inflation? Prices are skyrocketing,” said Dubey ji. 

“The Indian Rupee has been pegged to the dollar. It is the standard measure in such situations,” said the Principal Secretary Hari Prasad. 

Dubey ji turned to Samyuktha who said, “The measure needs time to take effect Dubey ji.”

Though she herself didn’t believe it. It has been months since the Rupee had been pegged to the dollar yet it hasn’t restored confidence domestically or with foreign investors. 

“What else has been done about this?” asked Dubey ji

“RBI has increased the Repo rates and the CRR, this also needs time,” said the Finance Secretary.

“What else?” asked a frustrated Dubey ji. 

“The loan to IMF which is apart from their bailout package is due shortly. If we fail to make it the consequences will be disastrous. Moreover we have already exhausted most of the bail out money far ahead of schedule,” said the Finance Secretary. 

“I ask for what can be done and you pile up more bad news. I am moving America and Europe for more aid. We will see how that pans out.” 

Samyuktha yawned again and felt guilty about it. She had been in so many of these meetings where various measures were discussed and some implemented but the situation just kept worsening. 

“We are taking stern measures for fiscal discipline and have cut expenses across all ministries. We have stopped almost all subsidies across sectors. We need more time sir for these measures to take effect,” said the Cabinet Secretary Harish Wadia.

“The law and order situation is worsening. What has been done about it?” asked Dubey ji. 

“The situation is unprecedented I agree. It seems as if the whole nation has took to the streets in protest. There has been heavy rioting, looting and arson in many parts of the nation. We have begun to clamp down heavily on it. We have taken several persons in to preventive custody to improve the situation,” said the Home Secretary. 

“You’ve arrested everyone opposing Pandey ji while his supporters and goons are on a rampage. You are worsening the situation,” said the National Security Advisor Pankaj Mehra. 

“But…” started the Home Secretary but was cut off by Dubey ji.

“I don’t care if Pandey’s supporters get zealous but ask him to restore law and order to the nation or else all of us may be out of our jobs soon,” said Dubey ji then turning to the National Security Advisor asked, “What of the terror situation?”

“There are reports of increasing terrorist incursions and something big has been planned for the Republic day that is capable of destroying the nation. It includes a series of bomb blasts in the capital. We don’t have any more intel on that as of now,” said the National Security Advisor Pankaj Mehra. 

“Then please find intel on that. What use in knowing something disastrous will happen on a day if we don’t exactly know what it is. Step on it,” said Dubey ji and the NSA nodded his head. 

“Sir, the terror strikes are on the rise, the law and order scenario is a mess, the opposition isn’t helping either with their protests and picketing. We are of the opinion that the only way to restore law and order would be to impose emergency,” said the NSA Pankaj Mehra. 

“No one can stop the inevitable. We will see how the situation is in a month’s time when I return from hospital after my surgery. If it still hasn’t improved we will impose emergency,” said a visibly tired Dubey ji. 

Dubey ji glanced at Samyuktha and Mayuri and asked, “Have I missed anything?” both nodded their heads in negation, then he said to the group, “that is all folks. Hope you have better news by the next meeting.”

Samyuktha who was still feeling mildly sleepy was glad that the meeting was over. She looked at the ornate clock on the wall. It was almost noon. 

Home Minister Pandey’s Residence, Akbar Road, New Delhi, Aug 26

Home minister Manoj Pandey was in his pyjamas and a vest helping his grandson feed red meat from a bucket to the twelve doberman dogs in the cage at the back of his house. These dogs would be let out only at night and were fed only once during the day. He was an unprincipled pragmatist. He was a pious man but that didn’t prevent him in doing anything wrong or convoluted to achieve his ends. He was a doer. He did things on the ground while the principled idealists stood on the sidelines never doing anything. He liked the word pragmatism a device to hide behind for any person without integrity. Integrity was a myth according to him. He was tall, muscular and had a thick greying moustache and greying hair. It was said he used to be a wrestler in his youth. He was from a village in Mandsaur district of Madhya Pradesh known for its caste violence. He was born to a poor shopkeeper of a dominant upper caste in the region. He caught on to caste politics at a very early age and was now the home minister at 62. He would have been the Prime Minister if not for the London educated prick Vikram Bhatt. Yet it doesn’t matter as he was now presented with the opportunity of holding on to power forever as the PM. He was Home Minister at a time the nation was crumbling and the Law and order situation was the worst. He would be unquestioned in his measures now. Any lesser mortal would pass up this opportunity but not him. He would strike at his enemies and inspire fear among the people and take over the institutions of democracy like the courts and the election commission. 

 His aides, his P.A Milind Shukla, his Man Friday Vipul Bakshi and his top goon Jignesh Malviya were standing behind him patiently. Shukla was a corrupt IAS officer, meek and balding. Vipul was once a henchman. He used to run an underworld gang with Jignesh in Mumbai and had steadily distanced himself from the underworld and joined active politics. Jignesh, a dark lean guy with a pock marked face, on the other hand had stuck to being a gang leader and ran his goons all over the nation from the capital. Pandey seeing potential in the men and the multiple uses they could be put to had promptly absorbed them. 

Pandey gently caressing the hair of his grandson turned back with an empty bucket and Jignesh soon replaced it with a bucket full of red meat. Pandey was the god of his world. People fell at his feet seeking blessings but mostly out of fear. He liked it that way, fear and awe are a sure fire way to maintain power. He had started at the grass root level. He had a basic degree to his name, that is all. He wasn’t London educated like that thug Bhatt. He had pasted party posters as a humble party worker when he was young. He had grown with the party and was powerful now.

Seeing the dogs go for the meat he thought human beings were like them. It was truly a dog eat dog world. Human beings would also do anything for their survival. They just didn’t know it yet. When put to test in perilous times all their principles would vanish. Fear was the ultimate motivator.

He started speaking as he fed the dogs, “What has been done about the movie?”

There was a movie in which a character similar to him was shown in bad light.  

“Babu ji, protests have been successful in four states in north India. Several buses have been burnt down and shops forced to close. Normal lives have been effectively disrupted,” said Vipul with a quiet pride in his voice as though he had done something remarkable. 

“That is not enough. We need to stop the screening of the movie. Burn down the theatres that screen the movie.”

“But the courts have allowed the screening and asked us to protect the theatres.”

“I don’t care about the movie. But we need to prove a point to people that the courts can’t be trusted anymore. I want the judges themselves to know that. The people have to come to us and the courts have to act through us. Let Jignesh take care of this for now.”

Jignesh said excitedly, “I will burn down the theatres and kill anyone opposing us, Babu ji.”

Pandey used to favour the political savvy and discrete Vipul to do his bidding. But changing times meant a more ruthless man needs to handle things and Jignesh was the man for it. 

“Do it in broad daylight in full view of the world. I want the people to know who is in charge and fear us.”

He finished feeding the dogs and stood up and patted his grandson in the back sending him inside the house. He washed his hands in a nearby tap and dried it with the towel Vipul extended. 

He then turned to Shukla and said, “Align all the MPs to our side soon. If your persuasion and money alone aren’t enough use Jignesh. Also get through several business deals including the Worlington deal quickly we will be needing the cash.” 

“It will be tough as Dubey ji is uncorrupt but I have Mayuri working on it,” replied Shukla.

“What about the recruitment?” asked Pandey placing his hand over Vipul’s shoulder. 

“A lot many youngsters have become what is being called the ‘Pandey Sainiks’,” said Vipul.

“No, the other recruitment.”

“We have a lot many bureaucrats with us who are mostly corrupt and where they are not they are being intimidated to join us. The cops are under our control by law but we are making them absolutely ours to the extent of overriding the control of the PM. The judges are the most difficult and there is little headway except the lower levels. The armed forces can’t be breached.”

“The judges will be vulnerable with their families and the forces will not interfere out of fear of protocol.” He took a shirt from a hook on the cage and wearing it said, “I need to be in unquestioned control of the nation within the new year which is in six months time.” 

He looked at his watch it was time to feed himself. It was almost noon. 

ISI Headquarters, Aabpara, Islamabad, Aug 26

Salim Akmal sat on the sofa studying the notes in the file on his lap. Despite the meeting being a regular part of his work, he was still nervous each time he met General Hamid Qureshi, the head of the Inter Services Intelligence. For several years he had never been to this plushly furnished section of the ISI headquarters containing the top brass.

He was a short, spectacled and clean shaven man who gave the impression of being a docile and harmless person. He was married and had a fourteen year old daughter. He used to be a software programmer in California. He was a fun loving youngster with a tinge of faith and nationalism. It was to be expected from the son of a man who died in the Bangladesh war. Then he lost his job and had to return to Karachi, Pakistan. After several hardships he became a freelance podcaster or news journalist on the web. He found faith and nationalism in a deep profound way. 

He had to travel heavily and the ISI initially used him to recruit skilled youngsters abroad for the cause of the nation. He became zealous about it and began to take pains to recruit high value assets for the ISI. Back then the ISI had began to recruit civilians in to their fold and Salim was rewarded with a job. He moved to Islamabad with his family. He was put on a stint of field duty in Azaad Kashmir where he handled several hard core terrorists. He had relatives in India and used to visit often. His biggest success was in enticing a top Indian intelligence officer with money. Not resting with the laurels, with the help of that officer he had honey trapped a top Indian politician. He earned the nickname of ‘Recruiter’. This and the economic collapse and lawlessness in India made him hatch a plan to disintegrate India once and for all. This got the attention of the top brass and the plan was approved and Salim was made the terrorist handler in charge of execution of the plan. He was asked to report to General Qureshi himself. 

For this plan on Salim’s idea, for the first time in history, as a cover and carrier for the terrorists, two ten year old girls were recruited and trained. The two girls were from backward villages and were daughters of dead terrorists. The girls were special. A girl Zohura did not talk with people for she had some mental condition. The other girl Ghazia had a heart condition not treatable in Pakistan and will die soon. Salim recognising the value of the girls had used them extensively. Zohura as a resource has been used across terrorist cells and he himself had used her as cover while meeting with the various separatist forces in India. Zohura was considered retarded and therefore not a threat to the plan. Yet she had the uncanny ability to remember things and follow orders. Salim was happy that the plan was going smoothly so far. 

Salim was called in and he was greeted by the General and he sat across the table from the General. 

“Salim, how is your wife and daughter?” asked General Qureshi. 

“They are fine sir. The plan so far has…” Salim was saying when he was interrupted by the General. 

“Relax Salim, what is the hurry. Why are you so uptight and wound up all the time? How do you get work done if you are always like this?”

“Sorry sir.”

“Please tell me the steps in the plan again,” said the General and took the file Salim gave.  

“Sir there are five stages of the plan. Stage one is the recruitment and training of  personnel. This has been done using the terrorist camps in the Kashmir Valley. Stage two is establishing contact, co-ordination and control of the separatist forces. I have visited India and taken care of this.”

The General pressed a buzzer and a man came with two cups of tea. Salim sat silent till the man departed. 

Then he continued, “Stage three is the moving and assembling of our personnel as terrorist cells inside India. It is underway and partly done. Stage four is execution of several major terrorist strikes like the assassination of the Indian PM that can be claimed by the separatist forces increasing their credibility.”

“Assasinate the PM did you say. Isn’t that like a mission inside a mission?”

“Yes sir, the separatists from Tamil Nadu are weak without a militant arm and feel they need to claim something substantial like this before people there could be motivated to join them.”

“Okay, go ahead.”

“Stage five is the final blasts to destabilise and deconstruct India sir.”

“So stages one and two of training personnel and controlling separatists is over. Stage three of assembling our guys there is underway. You can share the burden of stage four of major terror strikes with others on the Indian desk. I am giving this plan the highest priority over everything. If you have trouble with any resource come to me.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Now go over stage five.”

“It has four parts sir. First, blasting the Secretariat building and the Parliament making the nation leadership deficient. Second, our forces with separatist forces will take control of Kashmir, North East, Punjab and Tamil Nadu. Thirdly…” Salim was saying when the General took a call from his home on his mobile.

When the General signalled Salim to continue he said, “Thirdly, our guy, the union minister will unilaterally make an announcement supporting Nationhood to these regions. Finally the United Nations under Chinese and our lobby will grant diplomatic status to these regions and send in UN peace keeping forces from Ireland and other neutral nations.”

“Wonderful, what is the schedule for this?”

“On January 26, the Indian Republic day, at exactly noon the Secretariat and Parliament will be blown and India will disintegrate in to pieces.”

The meeting was over and Salim looked at his watch it was almost noon.  

Tuticorin, Tamilnadu, Aug 26

Oblivious to the events of the world a lazy Saravanan rolled over in his bed and peeked at the clock it was not yet noon so he went back to sleep.

His mother shouted to him from outside his room, “Get up Saravanan it is almost noon and you haven’t had breakfast yet.”

Saravanan impervious to the midday heat because of the air conditioner in his room, pulled the blanket firmly over him and rolled back to sleep. 

Lack of accountability and transparency were the primary reasons for the state of the nation and Saravanan. 

CHAPTER 1

Tuticorin, Tamilnadu, Aug 27

Samyuktha stretched her limbs on the side of the stage as the Prime Minister Dubey ji addressed a massive state assembly election rally in the south eastern tip of Tamilnadu, India. 

“Thud,” Samyuktha swatted a mosquito on her arm.

“By the year 2020 India will be a super power, you are just pigs,” boomed the voice of Prime Minister Satyendra Dubey over the loud speakers.

A shocked Samyuktha hurriedly referred the speech in her hands, it was written ‘India will be a super power if you don’t vote for those who think you are just pigs’. Some loose connection in the microphone had cut a few words. But it didn’t matter as the crowd cheered in the high decibel levels she was used to. Damn the mosquitoes, damn the heat and most of all damn this dead beat town, she thought. She felt uncomfortable as perspiration soaked her armpits, chest and other parts of her body. If standing in the shade she felt like this, then what about all the poor idiots standing out there in the sun. It was early evening and the wretched sun had not yet set in this god damned town. Seeing the crowd she realised you can never separate people and politics. She hated politics and politicians but the only exception was PM Dubey ji. Even that was a grudging exception. 

Samyuktha was standing in a corner of the stage.  So that if the Prime Minister glanced in her direction, she could help get whatever he wants, from his monkey cap to his false teeth. She wished she hadn’t worn the thick, high cut, brown salwar kameez. It didn’t help with the heat situation. She felt like a pig being roasted. She will make a tasty meal she mused.

To her left stood her rival, the vile and vulgar Mayuri. To her right stood Kalpana who was dressed in her standard issue uniform of black suit and pants. She looked mean carrying a machine gun. Samyuktha wondered what turn on men found in women in men’s clothes. She would never want her boyfriend to wear women’s clothes, not that she had any boyfriend. Kalpana had a navy cut hair and was beautiful in her own way. The tall, dark and crisp looking Kalpana was an agent in the special protection group assigned to protect the Prime Minister. Samyuktha liked her company though she was of the silent type.  

Dubey ji was campaigning for the state legislative elections of the state of Tamil Nadu. Despite the dominance of the national parties in the north, here the two Dravidian parties dominated the scene. All that has began to change under the leadership of Dubey ji. This was Samyuktha’s home state and she had with her wise counsel and innovative ideas helped change the scene. Though yet the Jan Shakthi Party was not a contender and had no chance of forming a government in the state. 

She could smell her sweat and she cursed the hot and rundown town. She was born and brought up in the city of Chennai. She had never been this far south and was appalled by the stupidity, brazenness and uncouth behaviour of these mongrels. What more, she would have to babysit one of these idiots for a month, all thanks to Mayuri’s bright idea. 

Mayuri leaned in and whispered in her ear, “Didi, you look tired, if you want please go ahead and rest. I have everything covered here.”

“How very considerate of you, thanks, but it is all right,” replied Samyuktha with the sweetest smile she could muster which came out as a half scowl. 

 Everything covered my foot, cover the babies peeking from your shirt first, thought Samyuktha. ‘Didi’ means sister and she hated it when Mayuri called her that. She put her hands around Mayuri’s neck and strangled her with her bare hands or at least wished she had done so. 

Mayuri was on the phone with the State youth wing president of the party and asked him to be prepared. The day had dawned weirdly for her. She woke up in a strange place in bed with a stranger and had a terrible hangover. Then she remembered she had hooked with him at a party last night. Guys and almost all people were to be used as pawns in a game as far as she was concerned. Heck did she hate the serious sentimental types. She really hated the guts of that prude Samyuktha. She silently snuck out from there and raced to her bungalow in her Ferrari. She was the only bureaucrat to live with such a grand lifestyle. Not just because she was on the take but also because she wasn’t stingy like the other buffoons who hoarded. She was the only one in the top rung of Dubey ji’s circle who was on the take. She had contact and influence with most cabinet ministers who were corrupt.  Once in her bungalow she got ready real quick and hopped in to her other car and drove to work. 

The principled bureaucrats and others who talked of poverty and the suffering masses and the need to uplift their plight were the ones who never knew the meaning of the word poverty. Having been through the slums of Mumbai while growing up and having used public libraries to crack the UPSC she knew the in and out of poverty. She had started up as an honest bureaucrat but her higher ups and politicians had reminded her that she came from the trash and could be easily sent back to it. She then immersed herself in corruption and cunningness like a monster and started living it up. Hell, life is short and principles have no place in it, was her policy. 

Her car was stopped three times and she had to show her ID at all places. At the last stop her vehicle was checked summarily before being allowed to pass. Then after a metal detector screening and handbag check voila she was at her office cabin. She was only a private secretary and not a Joint secretary like Samyuktha but still had a private cabin. She had the ears of the PM more importantly, so she was in a powerful position like Samyuktha. But it was not to be denied that Samyuktha had the respect of Dubey ji and the party high command while she had contacts with corrupt cabinet ministers like the Home Minister Pandey. The way things were going in the nation Pandey might grow powerful than Dubey ji. She was waiting for such a day where she would be far more powerful than the prude Samyuktha. For the past few days she had been pitching an idea to Dubey ji. It was time to see if it worked or not. 

As soon as she settled in the office she didn’t bother about her routine work files. She called Dubey ji and asked him of what he thought of her proposal to have the caretaker PM she suggested while he had surgery. She stated that Gulzarilal Nanda had been such a caretaker PM for a fortnight twice, once when Nehru died and again when Shastri died. She added how making a guy from Tamil Nadu, caretaker PM, would bolster their party’s performance in the coming Tamil Nadu State elections. When Dubey ji said he’ll talk to the high command she was pensive. But then he called and said her plan was approved and that he’ll make the announcement during the campaign speech in the state youth wing president’s home town. Mayuri was elated. All this meant was that she could have a few dubious files signed when Dubey ji was indisposed. But it meant a lot of money and to have pulled it off without that nag Samyuktha knowing was something.  

Samyuktha’s attention fell on Dubey ji and she couldn’t help feeling a bit let down by the various compromises he made for electoral politics. He had a kidney problem that required major surgery and will hospitalise him for a month. He felt it was too long a time for the country to go without a Prime Minister. There was a problem in appointing a caretaker Prime Minister because of the feud between Pandey and Bhatt.  

That morning under the helicopter’s wings Dubey ji said “Today Mayuri made an interesting proposal. If we announce a caretaker PM from this state, it would bolster our performance here and will not antagonise Pandey or Bhatt. She has vetted a candidate who belongs to the town we are going to visit. He is the state youth wing president, I am told. Even I haven’t seen him before. It is kept as a secret, even the man doesn’t know yet. The party high command has approved.”

“But sir, who else has vetted –“ started Samyuktha.

“That is why I need you to stay behind the guy full time. I have made it clear to Mayuri that once the new person assumes office, you would be the one in charge of him. I trust you to hold the fort till I return from hospital,” said Dubey ji. 

“Sure sir,” she replied. 

She didn’t like this even a teeny bit. She was pissed that Mayuri had managed to pull this off from right under her nose. She had no doubts that this strange unknown candidate must be well known to Mayuri and of the same breed, the corrupt breed. She just hoped they don’t loot the nation to bankruptcy before the month was over.  

What the hell, why do the damn speakers have to be so loud. Samyuktha eyed all the television cameras and crew in front of the stage. Even in a normal campaign speech of Dubey ji these wolves would be in full force. But today it has been leaked to them that an important announcement was about to be made. They were having live coverage of every single minute. She hated the press and wished she could swat them like mosquitoes. They just didn’t get that running a country is a tough job. 

If not for the likes of her, the nation would crumble. She was such a smart individual to rise to such heights at so early an age. But she knew smartness needs to be backed by real hard work to bear fruits. She knew this from her IAS preparation days. Boy was she a nerd then, she was sort of a nerd even now. She didn’t have much of a social life. May be all high risers were like her she mused until her eyes fell on the twerp Mayuri. 

Samyuktha thought, that girl Mayuri was almost in the same level as far as job goes, but was a few years younger. She had a string of boyfriends and was close to several political bosses. She danced at parties and was popular. But that minx drank and Samyuktha can’t tolerate even the boys who drank. Was this all because of the fact that Mayuri hailed from Mumbai and Samyuktha from an orthodox family in Chennai. No, how could she even compare, she was the more mature and wise person. 

She was brought out of her reverie when she saw Mayuri waving to someone in the front row.

Ignoring that she turned to Kalpana standing beside her and said, “We are beginning to stink, aren’t we? 

Kalpana smiled and said, “Yes, I am used to the heat and the cold, part of a field job. But at times like this, don’t you smart cats wish you had taken a different job?” 

“It isn’t everyday that I’ve to suffer this. I will live,” said Samyuktha with a genuine smile on her face. 

“I am proud of what I am but when I see you, I feel a tad envious. Want to trade jobs with me?” asked Kalpana.

“I don’t think so. In the mood I am in, if I am given a gun then quite a few people might find release from this world.”

“That bad huh, is it just the heat or are you having a real bad day.”

Samyuktha wiped the sweat from her neck with her kerchief and said, “I am riled up. Please don’t ask.”

“Cheer up. At least soon you will be in an air conditioned office while I sweat it out on the outside.”

That was true Samyuktha thought. Kalpana was in no way less intelligent than her. In fact Kalpana had to also be physically fit to do summersaults, flip flops or whatever the black suited people do. Both jobs were highly prestigious. Her job though had more power and perks attached to it. More over the influence she had on the Prime Minister was considerable while Kalpana would never fall in the radar of the Prime Minister. Tough world and lucky me thought Samyuktha.  

“Didi, when do you think the Prime Minister will make the announcement?” Mayuri asked. 

Samyuktha knew it was less of a question and more of a boast to piss her off. 

When you are dead and rotting in hell thought Samyuktha but instead smiled and told, “Anytime soon, most of the topics are over.” 

Saravanan sitting in the front row closed the game he was playing on his mobile. He was of average height and build, fair with an unshaven and pock marked face. He was a sore and disgusting sight to the eye in the condition he was in. 

He whispered in his friend Kamal Pasha’s ear, “It is great man that you got a front row seat to the Prime Minister’s speech but I am bored and leaving.” 

“Please wait buddy till the announcement,” Kamal begged.   

Kamal was a friend of the nephew of the state youth wing president of the Jan Shakthi party. An important announcement concerning the youth wing president was about to be made it seemed. Today too like all days Saravanan had woken up at noon around twelve and after breakfast had promptly immersed himself in pirated movies from the internet. He lived life watching movies on his laptop while smoking continuously. Books and movies were not only his pass time but also his whole life. 

Saravanan rarely ventured out of his house except to drink cool drinks and buy several packs of cigarettes from the shop adjacent to his home. He lived with his parents who were retired bankers. He had no job and had squandered quite a bit of money on business ventures in the distant past. He suffered from a mental condition called Bipolar disorder and his parents and brother supported him now without any questions asked. He was defeated by life and didn’t even make attempts to socialise with others. He had a couple of friends like Kamal with whom he drank and went to restaurants occasionally. He stopped taking the effort to go out even for that a while ago. Out of the blue Kamal had called and compelled him to come here.

He had however managed to complete his Bachelor of Engineering and Masters in Business Administration. He even had worked two jobs for six months each, ten years apart. He was thirty eight and single. He had given up hopes of getting married. What girl in her right mind would marry a loser, loony and jobless guy like him. The one lucky thing for him was he never had to worry about money from his childhood. Yet he too had felt the pinch of poverty as a jobless youth in Chennai searching for a job. Those were the days when he still had some fight left in him.  

He didn’t mind spending money. Yet he had to be prompted to do good like give alms to a beggar or biscuits to a dog. He lacked initiative to do even these ordinary things. He though acted impulsively at times shocking everyone around him. In short he was a dude who was in no hurry to get anywhere and enjoyed life the way he was. 

Today Kamal had called and despite Saravanan’s protests had dragged him here. The youth wing president left to the restroom and he had left his mobile on the chair. Saravanan was wondering when that damned announcement would be made and he could leave. 

Right on cue Dubey ji said, “Due to a medical necessity I will be hospitalised and  indisposed for a month. The party high command has decided to make a son of this soil, one of your own, as the Prime Minister till I recover.”

 The phone on the chair was incessantly ringing and the youth wing president’s nephew and Kamal panicked and pushed Saravanan to go to the stage and stall them for some time.

As soon as Saravanan, the young man with a pock marked face and unshaven half grown beard, climbed the stage Dubey ji hugged him and dragged him to the microphone and said, “This is the new face of India for a month from now,” and raised the hand of the youth. 

But Saravanan didn’t notice anything else except the girl in the brown Salwar Kameez who was looking at him curiously. He noticed that the girl standing next to her was stylish in her short skirt but this one looked so homely and captivating that he didn’t have the heart to take his eyes off her. He chided himself for he was destined to be alone forever. Marriage and a family of his own was one dream he will never attain. 

“Didi, this isn’t the person,” shrieked Mayuri and rushed to Dubey ji and Samyuktha followed her close behind. 

Dubey ji got away from the microphone and waved to the crowd as Mayuri went and whispered in his ears. 

“Wrong man or not, this is the guy who will be Prime Minister for a month unless he has any terrorist or other party affiliation. Samyuktha, call a meeting of the high command and make sure they are okay with this,” said Dubey ji and climbed off stage, closely followed by others. 

Kalpana followed the developments unfolding before her with bewilderment. She wondered at how a bizarre turn of events has made an unassuming young man the PM, but she did not let it show on her face. Any by stander seeing her standing on the sides with a machine gun in her hand would have thought of her as some tough person on a dead beat job with less intelligence. 

They would have been too far from the truth as Kalpana was an IPS officer of the rank of Assistant Inspector General. She had put in her share of days in the Intelligence Bureau (IB) while working for the Indian Police Force and had even recently in the Special Protection Group (SPG) been in the intelligence function. She and intelligence were entwined together. Yet she couldn’t help but wonder what this accident could mean for her and most of all this nation.

She was from Assam and believed herself fortunate to have born to such dependable and supportive parents as hers. Her elder brother was an army man who died at the border and this left a gaping hole in her heart. She was tough and had dealt with corrupt politicians and underworld goons with a firm hand. She was patriotic to the core but still people in the bureaucracy doubted her antecedents since she was from Assam in the North East. At a time when the nation was facing its gravest crisis this clueless and unassuming man has been made the PM. She wasn’t sure if she should feel sorry for the nation or for this youngster who was sure to be out of depths in his new job.  

Samyuktha tried to hide her fury. What a folly of gigantic proportions. It was a stupid plan to start with. Only an idiot like Mayuri would come up with such absurd ideas. And Dubey ji, how could he let himself be trapped by that fool Mayuri. But now his decision to go ahead with the plan was a colossal blunder. Has he lost his mind? 

“But Dubey ji, we can still say it was a mistake and announce the selected guy,” said Samyuktha. 

“What difference does it make, I will be back soon and I have full faith in you,” said Dubey ji and then putting a hand on the young man’s shoulder he asked, “are you willing to be the Prime Minister for a month?”

“Sure sir,” replied the young man.

 “What is your name boy?”

“Saravanan”

“What were you doing in the stage?”

“The youth wing president asked me to enquire what the issue is.”

“So you are a sincere party cadre.”

“No sir, I was bored and a friend brought me here.”

“Do you belong to any other party?”

“No sir.”

“Have you been to prison?”

“No sir.”

“See I told you, destiny has made the ideal choice for us,” said Dubey ji looking at Samyuktha and Mayuri. 

Samyuktha didn’t like Saravanan from the moment she laid eyes on him. What a creature with so much hair, left uncombed and ruffled. He had an unshaven face with a sort of a goat beard. He had no sense of personal hygiene and had big dirty nails. He is a god damn cave man she thought. Now it fell to her to take care of this mess and hold the fort for a month. She thought maybe it is for the best. She wouldn’t have to worry about Mayuri’s pawn being the Prime Minister for a month. Yet this month is going to be a great ordeal she thought. Little did she know that this incident had irrevocably entwined the fate of these four people and that of the nation together for much more than a month.   

CHAPTER 2

Connaught Place, New Delhi, Aug 27

Mayuri sipped her lemonade observing the Home Minister’s P.A Milind Shukla from the corner of her eyes. This balding and bespectacled old man might fool others with the look of helplessness, but not her.

“Have you been waiting for long?” she asked leaning forward. 

“Not really, no problem, none at all,” he said to her chest. 

She didn’t mind ogling youngsters but lecherous old men made her murder crazy. She sorely wished to knock hard on the baldpate before her with her knuckles. She wondered how these stupid ducks managed to grow this high. They were just chump change to her. Cunningness was her staple diet. The person sitting next to Shukla was Jignesh, Pandey’s goon, whom she knew by reputation. The mere sight of him gave her the shivers. They were in a private booth of the Bonbon restaurant in Connaught place. She had helped the restaurant get a permission to add extra floors. So she was taken good care of, whenever she visited the place, which was often.

“So what is the real status of Dubey ji’s health? Will he be back in a month?” asked Shukla. 

“Yes, unless any complications creep up,” she said. 

Old man, don’t worry about Dubey ji’s health, he will be here even when you are rolling in your grave, she thought. 

“So how does the presence of this new one instead of our planned man affect the plan?” asked Shukla. 

“Now it is a whole new game. We’ll have to wait and see.”

She enjoyed such parlays but with weaker moronic opponents like Shukla one just gets bored. The new Prime Minister was a curve ball she hadn’t expected. All her carefully laid plans spoiled on the last moment by sheer mad chance. She had even hoodwinked Samyuktha. Now that was a worthy adversary. 

The new guy had been elected Prime Minister by the selfless wise guys in parliament as soon as Dubey ji tendered his resignation. They neither had self nor self esteem. He had also been sworn in by the president. Dubey ji was now hospitalised. Samyuktha had managed to keep the new guy away from public eye and her eye too so far. But it is early days yet. 

“The client is getting impatient.” said Shukla still looking the wrong way, at her chest, maybe he needs a map to find the face.

“I will get in touch with you within this week. By that time I would have pulsed out our new Prime Minister.”

Impatient or not, the only way to get shady deals through the PMO was through her. She was the only one on the take in the PMO. Dubey ji was a clean man and ran a tight ship. She was a lone wolf in a den of lions. This new Worlington lead extraction plant was considered untouchable. It was so polluting that several countries had rejected it. That wouldn’t deter sweet India though, after all folks here shunned any form of untouchability. This one month window was the only chance to get permission for the venture. 

She watched with distaste at Jignesh slurping his ice cream but took a box and said to Shukla, “Here is the newest remote controlled helicopter for your Grandson on his birthday.”

“Oh, you shouldn’t have,” Shukla said while his eyes told a different tale, “this is the difference between you and the others.” 

At least this time he had looked at her face. Not so hard now, is it, looking at the face. 

“How is minister Manoj Pandey ji doing? Convey my regards to him,” she said.

“I’ll do. He has high regards for you. As do I. With age on your side you’ll go very far.”

“But I am hoping for an early retirement.”

“At your age you shouldn’t talk of retirement. Leave such talk to old men like me.”

Very true, why don’t you retire? You old cretin, she thought. 

“So with Dubey ji hospitalised, is that other girl Samyuktha, the one calling the shots,” asked Jignesh. 

“Yes, but not for long if I have my way with this new guy,” said Mayuri. 

She admired Samyuktha, that clever fox. But it was inevitable that they both were pitted against each other. Samyuktha was as straight forward as they come. Her motivation was to do something big and good for the country, what a load of crap. Mayuri on the other hand had no pretensions. She craved power and wealth, a heady cocktail. She was corrupt, devious and cunning.   

She parted with Shukla and Jignesh and got in to her car and drove to the Prime Minister’s residence on 7, Lok Kalyan Marg. There had been no sign of the new Prime Minister in the Secretariat office for quite some days. So she decided to flush him out of his cocoon and came here. She had with her a few files that needed the Prime Minister’s signature, but nothing important. This should help her get past Samyuktha.

7, Lok Kalyan Marg, New Delhi, Aug 27

Mayuri breezed through the security check ups and entered the main building. She was told that the Prime Minister was still in his bed room. Samyuktha came down to the foyer and greeted her. Samyuktha was wearing the usual salwar kameez, this time in blue colour. Mayuri looked at her own dress, a grey skirt and a cream shirt. She can beat that old girl at fashion anytime, she thought to herself. 

“Didi, I know you don’t trust me and that too with good reason. But if we are going to get through this month, I think you need my help. You can’t keep him locked up forever,” said Mayuri

“You don’t know how true that is. He is an absolute nut case. Come with me,” said Samyuktha and led her to the Prime Minister’s bedroom. 

Kalpana was standing outside the bedroom door in her usual black suit. How can people tolerate jobs doing nothing all day long wondered Mayuri. She pitied these poor creatures on such deadbeat jobs. She could never last for a day in such a job.

“Is the Prime Minister ready? Has he come out yet?” asked Samyuktha.

“Not so far,” replied Kalpana. 

Samyuktha knocked the door and a brusque voice yelled, “Come in.”

As soon as the door opened a rotten burning smell hit Mayuri in the face. Saravanan had a towel around his waist and was drying his hair with another towel. Mayuri saw that the dustbin had been converted in to a giant ash tray. It was lying near the bed already half filled with ash, cigarette butts and copious amounts of spit. She felt like puking. The bed stand had three unopened cigarette packs and a litter of empty cigarette packs. She looked at her watch, it was twelve already. The television was tuned in to some music station.  The whole place looked like a pig sty. The smell of tobacco was too strong for even her, who occasionally smoked.  

Samyuktha looked exasperatedly at Mayuri and said, “His highness can’t wake before eleven and the most he could be made to do is ten. More importantly highness takes longer than any girl to get ready. He looked a lot worse when he came in. But I had hairdressers come in to cut his hair and shave him. Highness doesn’t know to shave himself. We even had to give his highness a manicure and pedicure.”

Mayuri was happy seeing this state of affairs. Samyuktha was pissed beyond limits but not enough to dump this person in Mayuri’s hands. Still it was enough to make her seek Mayuri’s help. This meant that Mayuri still had a chance to push the industry deal that would make her filthy rich. 

“Please don’t talk like I am not even in the room, it is demeaning. Be glad that I am not a greedy or power crazed political animal,” said Saravanan. 

“Prime Minister, please forgive Didi, she forgets herself in her dedication to the job. I am Mayuri,” she said shaking his hands.   

“Let me be frank with you guys, I have an Engineering and Masters of Business degrees. That doesn’t mean much though. I’ve only been in two jobs in my life, ten years apart and both for not more than six months,” said Saravanan.

“We don’t want your Resume pretty boy. Just do what you are told for a month and you’ll be out of here and out of our faces,” said Samyuktha. 

 “I’ll show no pretensions. I don’t have any interest in politics or the affairs of the state. I am a bachelor who once had this one girl friend. I am not interested in romance either. I am here to have a nice time away from my parents. Yes, I am thirty eight years old and still living with my parents,” said Saravanan. 

“That also doesn’t concern us. Just cooperate for this month and make our job easier,” said Samyuktha. 

“I’ll do my best. As you can see I am a chain smoker and can’t help it. I couldn’t drink as much as I liked when with my family. So I intend to be drunk for the next month.” 

“You can’t smoke in public and neither can you be drunk. You are the Prime Minister for god’s sake. Can you do that?” asked Samyuktha. 

“Sorry, you have to work around those things,” said Saravanan. 

“Prime Minister, we are here to help you. So don’t worry about anything. Didi and I will find a way to make sure you enjoy this month,” said Mayuri. 

“If you girls wait here for a moment, I will get dressed,” said Saravanan. 

“Today dress as you like, tomorrow the Kurta Pyjamas will arrive and you are to dress in that,” said Samyuktha. 

Mayuri turned to the buffoon who was now Prime Minister and mouthed the word ‘Sorry’. 

Saravanan mumbled “Who is the high and mighty now,” and went to an inner dressing room in the suite.

Mayuri got a call in her mobile from Principal secretary Hari Prasad. At 72, the man still worked zealously and was the architect of several major policy decisions of the nation. Technically he was the big boss and most strategic decisions pass through him but the day to day running of the nation and other major political decisions stem from the secretary or joint secretary closest to the PM.  

She flashed the caller name in the mobile to Samyuktha and took the call, “Hello sir.”

“Where are you?” asked Hari Prasad.

“I am at the Prime Minister’s residence with Samyuktha Didi”

“Do you both need to be there? Dubey ji disposed most of the important stuff before he got hospitalised but a few things are still pending. Will the new Prime Minister come here or do I have to come over.”

“No, please, not today sir. I will come to office around evening and brief you.”

Saravanan came out wearing a red and black checkered shirt and black pants. 

“Is there anything planned for me for today?” asked Saravanan. 

“No, nothing today, we still got to vet you, train you and make you presentable,” said Samyuktha. 

“You talk as if I were a monkey. You are lucky that I am kind of a cool fun guy. Any other person will take affront at the way you talk.”

“Any other person wouldn’t be as degenerate as you. So take your Prime Ministerial ego somewhere else.”

“My ego doesn’t come from being PM. Though I guess your ego comes from being a hot shot IAS and in being secretary to the P.M. Yet I must admit I love your candidness.” 

“Didi, did you realise, caretaker or not, he is the youngest Prime Minister we’ve got yet,” said Mayuri. 

“How can I miss, when it is plastered all over the idiot box. He has been a silent partner in some shipping firm. That has effectively camouflaged his being idle for over ten years. His parents are retired bankers and his brother runs a successful restaurant. All this I learnt from the news. No skeletons in the past, we are lucky that way at least,” said Samyuktha. 

“You hate  me, don’t you? Not an iota of respect. You are pissed that sheer luck has made me PM, your boss,” said Saravanan. 

“It doesn’t matter what I think of you or for that matter what you think of me. Let us get this month done,” said Samyuktha. 

They are like snake and mongoose, throwing daggers all the time. Samyuktha has let her prejudice take precedence over her rationality thought Mayuri. Things have gone beautifully, more than she expected. Yet, Samyuktha can’t be counted down yet. That wily fox will not let anything come between her and her job. Still Mayuri thought conditions were favourable to her. She just had to get the approval of this clown.. All she had to do was to stoke his ego. 

“So when are you planning to let loose the new Prime Minister?” asked Mayuri.

“I am thinking of our Prime Minister hosting a party here for the visiting Japanese delegation. That way there will be no media monkeys. We can cover our mistakes,” said Samyuktha. 

“Excellent idea Didi, don’t worry, nothing can go wrong that way,” said Mayuri. 

“There you go again, talking as if I am not here,” said Saravanan. 

Mayuri got ready to leave. She would play the fool of the caretaker Prime Minister some more, but when he was alone. She was giving the files she brought to him when Samyuktha got a phone call. She went outside to attend the call. 

When Samyuktha came back she looked crestfallen. There were mild tears on the corner of her eyes.

“Dubey ji’s operation has gone well but it seems that he has slipped in to a coma. Doctors say he might recover in a month, maybe a year, maybe even more, they just can’t tell. Party high command says choosing a new Prime Minister now might break the party. They want our boy to continue until they find a consensus candidate,” said Samyuktha. 

“No, that can’t be, I agreed to only a month of this and I am already beginning to hate it,” said Saravanan. 

Mayuri felt as though Diwali had come early. This clown may just turn out to be her ticket to great fortune and power. 

Lajpat Nagar, Delhi, Aug 27

Ten year old Zohura sat in the bus looking through the window at all the big buildings packed closely together and the people in colourful clothes milling about in great hurry through the crowded roadsides. Her village wasn’t like this at all. It had small shanty houses but there was space, wide grazing fields and lush green farms. She had never seen such crowds in her village. She was a Pakistani but she had never been to any of the Pakistani cities like Karachi or Lahore either. These people were the bad folks, the devil worshippers who had killed her father. She looked at the old woman sitting near her and thought she didn’t look like a bad person. But then chastised herself not to be weak and be fooled by appearances. 

Her father was a freedom fighter killed by the godless people living in this nation. She loved her mother very much. She missed her and wanted to be hugged by her and to hear stories from her. She wondered how she agreed to be taken away from her mom and village. She could talk only to her mother and a few other girls of her own age like Ghazia. She intuitively knew she was not like other girls. She couldn’t talk to people like others and she always seemed to think slow and different from others. She stuttered when talking to the girls. She has heard people telling that she was not right in her mind. She used to wonder why God had made her that way. But now she got a chance to prove that she can do things just like others. She will be known fondly by all and God was on her side.  

She looked through the window at the cloudy skies. At first the clouds looked like mountains in the sky, then she thought she could discern the shape of a face in the clouds, but then no, no, it definitely looked like a person reading a book. She tapped the shoulder bag lying near her feet making sure it was still there. She felt proud to have been entrusted again with a task to do all alone. She had done several such errands for commander Naqvi. She had carried a few such bags from Rajasthan to here. She had been counting stops and was now anxious as she had to get down in the coming stop and the crowd was heavy both outside and inside the bus. She hefted the heavy bag on her shoulders and slowly made way towards the exit of the bus. She somehow managed to get down from the crowded bus. Then came the next ordeal of crossing the busy road.     

Kalpana went to visit a friend who lived in Lajpat nagar before starting her shift. As she was walking by the road she saw an affable traffic cop trying to help a school kid cross the road. Kalpana liked to see kindness in people in this increasingly cynical world. But as the cop offered to get the bag off the kid’s sagging shoulders the girl resisted. The bag seemed unusually heavy for the girl. Kalpana’s suspicious instincts kicked in and she quickly went and flashed her badge to the cop and snatched the bag off the girl. Inside were a couple of books and several packets. She opened one with her Swiss  knife and found black sticky material which her trained eye recognised to be Semtex. 

The girl by then had panicked and started to run. The traffic cop followed suit and the girl hit an opposing passerby and fell. In panic the girl took a gun from her salwaar and fired at the rushing cop. Kalpana had arrived on top of the girl and had her arm with the gun crushed beneath her foot and took the gun out.  One look at the fallen cop told her that he was dead. She phoned her friend who was DIG at the Intelligence Bureau and yanked up the girl. Without a sign of drizzling, rain suddenly began to pour in sheets accompanied by heavy lightning and thunder. She felt it was the foreboding of some very grim things to come. 

7, Lok Kalyan Marg, New Delhi, Aug 27 

Samyuktha patiently explained how the PM should behave with a foreign delegation but Saravanan was half listening to her and half fiddling with his mobile phone. She wondered how a person could sink to such depravity as to not respect the opportunity of a lifetime. How could a person be oblivious to everything. This was not even selfishness but depravity and indifference at its extreme. 

Samyuktha got a call from the Director of IB and listened to him patiently. She finally said “I’ll get back to you shortly,” and kept the phone down.

As soon as she recovered she snapped at Mayuri, “Get off the phone, something has come up.” 

Mayuri didn’t take affront at Samyuktha’s manner for there seemed to be some sort of secret code between bureaucrats that indicated when something bad had happened. She ended the phone call and went near Samyuktha. 

Samyuktha said, “A ten year old Pakistani girl Zohura has been caught in the capital with seven kilos of Semtex enough to blast 20 Boeings to smithereens.”

Then Samyuktha hesitated a bit before continuing, “An IB officer has threatened her and man handled her a bit and she has told them of a terrorist hangout and a phone number and mail id to be used in case of emergencies. IB believes her story but have intelligence that the girl could lead to the plan of the terrorists and their capture. The first few hours after the capture of a terrorist are vital. IB wants permission for advanced interrogation of the girl. They are sure they can end this once and for all. We have to reply soon.”

Samyuktha and Mayuri kept talking as usual as if Saravanan was not there. 

Saravanan clapped and said, “Enough, girls,” and then he hollered, “Kalpana,” and when she entered the room he said, “have the staff bring me brandy, Err… one second.”  

He turned to Samyuktha and Mayuri and said, “Get me the emergency phone number the girl gave, I want to know what kind of people would use kids for their nefarious purposes.”

Samyuktha spoke on the phone and then got Saravanan’s mobile and stored the number under the title of ‘Handler.’

She then said to Saravanan, “The number has been traced to Islamabad and is suspected to be of the ISI handler behind whatever blasts they have planned for the Republic day. There is no use trying to contact it as you won’t get any response.”

He called the number and was diverted to a voice mail box and he said, “What kind of low life are you to use kids for your plans? Shame on you scoundrels.” 

He then paced the room for a while and said to Samyuktha, “Reprimand the officer who had been rough with the little girl and say no to advanced interrogation, yuck what an euphemism for torture. I can’t think how you guys would even contemplate torturing a little girl. End of discussion. I am the PM after all, you can blame it on me if something went wrong. Now move away I want to watch a movie on the TV.” 

Saravanan said this with such a force that both Samyuktha and Mayuri were taken aback. 

He then turned and said, “and sweet Kalpana, a chicken tandoor along with the brandy please.”       

      A stunned Samyuktha looked at him haltingly but glad to have a weight lifted off her shoulders silently called the Director IB and conveyed the PM’s decision. 

   

CHAPTER 3

7, Lok Kalyan Marg, New Delhi, Aug 28

More than the Prime Ministerial position, the presence of young and attractive women around him made Saravanan happy. He felt like a rabbit in a carrot shop. The capital must be swarming with beautiful girls he thought. Why do grumpy old men alone become Prime Ministers and get the chance to be surrounded by the most beautiful women. He was no flirt but he loved talking to girls. He was not the type looking to score with anything that moved and had a pair of headlights. He was thinking of cars of course. 

 just wanted to have a few laughs with girls. Samyuktha and Mayuri seemed to be constantly around him. Having no sisters and only a brother, he had little exposure to girls growing up. 

He wasn’t exactly a nerd, he had wild fun in his college days. His excessive smoking, joblessness and a sort of a mental condition has made him almost a sociopath. At thirty eight, he was the only bachelor in his batch. He lost touch with most of his friends over the years. Was life back in college one big party with the head ache and hangover still tormenting him?  

 The party for the reception of the Japanese foreign minister and his delegation was hosted on the terrace of one of the five buildings in the Prime minister’s residence complex. He went there accompanied by Samyuktha and Mayuri. All other guests were already there. He was wearing an orange and white kurta pyjama. The girls were wearing saris, Samyuktha in green and Mayuri in pink. Both looked ravishing. 

The Japanese foreign minister and his wife were introduced by Samyuktha. He greeted them in Japanese, telling them it was an honour to meet them. 

“What was that?” asked Samyuktha when they were alone. 

“I googled some Japanese,” he said smiling. 

He greeted most of the other guests and had polite conversation about climate, food and other naïve topics. After those numerous conversations he gleaned that Japan had the loveliest climate and the most delicious food and India was worth crap. At least that is what the Japanese claimed. Everyone claimed this about their junk countries and called it nationalism. After half an hour of this he was left alone with Samyuktha and Mayuri. Almost everyone had a glass in their hand, sipping something. He had declined everything so far. He was bored and was thinking maybe it was time for him to hit the drinks. 

Samyuktha said, “You clean up well. You look fine in this dress. The foreign minister’s wife told me, ‘we not only have a young but a very well mannered Prime Minister.’ Even the kitchen staff were all praise for you. It seems you’ve dropped in and complimented the cooking. But I know you’ve not taken a bite of anything yet.”

“We’ve got ourselves a winner. Cheers,” said Mayuri raising her glass and then looking at him, “Where is your glass? I’ve specially ordered your preferred black rum.”

She swished her fingers and suddenly a glass of black rum appeared from nowhere. 

Saravanan finished the glass in a single gulp. He never had enough patience to sip his drinks or enjoy the so called finer things in life.  

“Boy, do I like you. You downed it straight and fast,” said Mayuri. 

“What are you drinking?” asked Saravanan looking at Samyuktha.

“Oh, me, it is just lemon juice. I don’t drink,” said Samyuktha and left to mingle with the other guests. 

“She is confident about you that she is leaving you alone,” said Mayuri. 

“Damn her and damn these foreigners. Let us get drunk,” said Saravanan and led Maayuri to the makeshift bar that had been set up there.   

Drink after drink was downed by them. It became a kind of a competition on who would out drink the other. Both were drinking fast and had not factored that the effect of alcohol takes time to set in. Soon both were sloshed and pretty tipsy. He had never drunk with a girl before, heck he had never done pretty much anything with a girl before, and so loved this moment intensely. 

“I’ve never been this drunk before, not even in the private parties with my friends,” said Mayuri giggling at him. 

“Let us do something completely insane,” he said drowning his glass in a single gulp as always. 

“Let us start by playing a truth or dare game,” said Mayuri.

“Okay, ladies first.”

“Have you ever slept with a girl?”

“No, and you?”

“With a girl, no, no way. With a boy yes, with two boy friends who were going steady then and a few one nighters.” 

“What? Why do girls opt for one nighters? I’ve heard they are more in to the emotional aspects of a relation than the physical.” 

“I don’t know about other girls but I opt for the one nighters for the thrill. Truth or dare?”

“Dare,” he said. Truth was easy for him. He always spoke the truth. He never had to lie or use subterfuge. He was clever but not cunning. He trusted others and even tried to put himself in the shoes of the buggers who wronged him. A dare would be fun he thought. 

She raised her eyebrows and whispered in his ears. 

“That’s easy,” he said and got up with Mayuri following him, and went in to the crowd and stopped at the first Japanese delegate he came across. “All you fools look the same, like monkeys. Now tell me which the head monkey is.”

Luckily the man said, “No English, no understand,” and bowed and went away. 

Saravanan returned to his chair and Mayuri said, “Boy, that was close, an international disaster was averted there.”

“Your turn, truth or dare?” he asked. 

“Truth,” she said giggling and almost fell off her chair. 

Saravanan thought for a while and wondered if she would reply honestly to the next question. 

“Are you corrupt?”

She paused for a long while and after thinking hard said, “Yes, did Samyuktha tell you that?”

“She warned me against you,” he said and admired her audacity in accepting the truth to him. 

“My turn, I dare you to slap the behind of any girl in the party.”

He got up and she too followed suit, he slapped her behind hard. 

“Ouch, no, that’s cheating,” she said laughing.

He turned and slapped the behind of a passing Japanese female delegate. The woman yelped like a puppy and turning to him spewed a tirade of words that he guessed could only have been profanities. 

“A cockroach, not to worry, I got it,” he said with a bashful smile on his face. 

Mayuri stood with her jaws open and looked like a puppy that has lost its dog food.  

“My turn, I dare you to walk a straight line,” he said.

She put her glass aside and tried to walk straight but was zig zagging this way and that and almost fell but steadied herself holding on to the bar table. 

“Don’t stand there laughing, why don’t you try doing this,” she challenged. 

“I can do even better,” he said and climbed on the parapet wall and began walking on it. He had to balance with his hands to keep from falling. All conversation stopped and everyone there was gaping at him. Samyuktha who was standing in a far corner rushed towards him. But a hand pulled him in even before Samyuktha reached him. He was standing in front of Kalpana in her ever faithful black suit.   

Samyuktha took charge from then on. She confined him and Mayuri to their chairs and disbursed the delegates slowly after they had their dinner. At last the terrace was empty except the kitchen staff and the four of them including Kalpana who was standing in the shadows. He had never seen her sitting. He looked at Mayuri who was sleeping in the chair. Samyuktha called them over to a table in the centre. He woke up Mayuri and dragged her to the table. He invited Kalpana over too. She refused at first but finally relented.  

“I give up, it is a disaster. He is a walking, talking disaster. I could have managed a month but any more with this moron is just impossible,” said Samyuktha burying her head in both hands. 

“Didi, don’t exaggerate, we’re fine, not a word of this will go out. Quit worrying,” said Mayuri. 

“See,” said Samyuktha pointing her mobile phone, “some idiot has photographed the Prime Minister’s monkey dance on the parapet wall with a mobile and it is plastered all over social media. The media have found sources within the party attendees confirming his drunkenness and are running it as we speak.”

“Didi, forget it, I assure you, if we ignore, it will go away. Let us have him do something substantial and all this will go away. We’ll take care. Silence is the best damage control for now. Relax Didi,” said Mayuri. 

Saravanan felt bad for Samyuktha. She was sort of a busy bee with no life outside of her work. She was kind of like him, except that he had never really worked. He had thought being Prime Minister would be fun. But seeing the sad face of Samyuktha, he felt she deserved better. Mayuri at least had a life outside her work and was fun he mused. 

“Not one of us has had dinner. Let us all have a bite,” said Samyuktha and signalled a waiter.

“I don’t want food, all I need are a couple or more of drinks,” he said. 

“Are you serious? No more drinks. It is bad for health to sleep on an empty stomach after drinking, I’ve been told,” said Samyuktha. 

Saravanan also felt tizzy and a mild rumbling in the stomach. Maybe it would be wiser to eat he thought. Soon food was brought for all four of them. The egg noodles and chilly chicken felt very tasty to him. 

“Mayuri was a lot of fun today. Have you ever been like this enjoying life without a care,” Saravanan asked Samyuktha pushing his plate away.

“No, I’ve always been a bit of a more serious person than Mayuri. I always was an ambitious girl,” said Samyuktha. 

“It must have sucked not being popular and having very few friends,” said Saravanan. 

Samyuktha blushed a little and said, “I was popular in my own way with quite a few friends. I was a kind of a singing sensation in my college days.”

She then hummed a few lines of the evergreen ‘Pyar hua ikrar hua’ love song. Saravanan was mesmerised by the cute sincerity of her voice. He wished he could hear her sing all through his life. Soon everyone finished their dinner. 

 “Sir ji, Can I ask you something? You could have died out there if you had fallen from the parapet wall. Even I wouldn’t dare such a thing. Was it the alcohol or was it something else?” asked Kalpana. 

He realised that this was the first time she had spoken to him and he replied, “No, it wasn’t the alcohol. Yes, it was stupid and yes, indeed I was really afraid.” He mused on how the emptiness of his life made him do it but instead said, “leave me, where do you come from Kalpana? What prompted you to become who you are?”

 “I am from a village in Assam. Where I hail from, you are either a patriot or part of a riot. My family was patriotic right from the word go. My brother was in the army and he died at the border.”

“Was it Kargil or something else?” he asked.

“No, my brother died of a stomach flu but he was my inspiration that made me what I am today.”

They all finished their dinner and were having ice creams when Samyuktha got a call. She moved away to attend the call. When she returned she looked tired yet pensive. 

She said, “News of Dubey ji’s coma has already made the two factions fight as to who the next Prime Minister should be. High command wants our guy to fight a by-election and thus hold the fort for the next few months until a consensus candidate emerges.”

On that note every one departed saying good nights to each other. 

Samyuktha’s residence, Chanakyapuri, Delhi, Aug 28

When Samyuktha reached her apartment she found her sister Pratyusha watching news on the television.

Her sister greeted her saying, “So finally her highness, miss perfection has decided to grant us humble mortals with an audience.” 

Samyuktha slumped on the sofa next to her sister and hit her with a pillow. On the television was the news of the girl with Semtex which was cut short for the breaking news of the Prime Minister dancing on the parapet wall. 

“Oh, what a nightmare for me and what a gargantuan fool to have landed on my hands,” said Samyuktha. 

 “He is kind of a cute and handsome fool though. Won’t you agree?” Prathyusha asked. 

Samyuktha pinched her sister hard and asked, “are you insane?”

“Ouch, I am saying what is a popular opinion with girls. I kind of have a crush on our youngest PM as do most of my friends. He is trending as the third hottest Indian on Facebook neck and neck with movie actors.”

“Good, if at all any good has come out of this terrible ordeal, it must be the spicing up of the desirability of this moron. Let him have that.”

Prathyusha detected a hesitancy in her sister while talking so she asked, “Come on, what is bothering you, spit it out?”

Samyuktha sat up straight and said, “There is something about this guy that bothers me. Leave alone the life threatening parapet walk. He is an insufferable, indifferent moron. What right minded person would get bored by being a PM. He simply isn’t interested in the trappings of being a PM or leading the nation.”

Prathyusha was about to say something when Samyuktha interrupted her and continued,      “And one more thing. There was the question of harshly interrogating Zohura, the kid with Semtex, which me and Mayuri were pondering over when he said no in such forceful yet nonchalant manner. Was it indifference or conviction I can’t tell yet. I hate that moron like anything but he is also a puzzle that intrigues me at times when I am away from his madness.”

“Didi, what is happening? Tell me, do you find him interesting?”

“May be if it weren’t for the PM thing I might not hate him this much. Heck what am I saying, he is the greatest moron and the quicker I get him away the best it is for me.”

“Didi have you fallen for his charms?”

“Yuck, what?” Samyuktha hit her sister with the pillow and said, “If that moron was the last and only man standing I still wouldn’t fall for him. So sleep peacefully.”

Vasant Vihar, Delhi, Aug 28

Kalpana got a phone call as she was opening her apartment door. She entered and closed the door and switched on the lights before attending the phone. 

“Papa, your timing is perfect I just entered the apartment. You’ll live a hundred years too for I was just thinking of you,” said Kalpana.

“You remembering me. Do you need money?” asked her father. 

“Come on Papa, I never took money from you after my first posting as ASP.”

“Ah, come on, I was kidding you my girl. Your first posting was in Rajasthan, wasn’t it? I believe your posting as the SP of IB, Mumbai though was the high point of your career. I still don’t understand why you opted and got deputed for the dead beat job in SPG. I saw the dance on the parapet wall by our PM.”

“I opted this job for the prestige and also the experience. As for our PM, for the first time I feel proud and content in my job because of him. He is a good guy. He is unassuming and affectionate to all, including us. I am confident he will do great service to the nation.”

“Okay, did you have dinner?”

“Yes, I am not twelve anymore.”

“Yes, okay, go sleep early, bye.”

Kalpana took a book in to her hands when another call came from her friend Arun who was DIG in the IB. 

“Kalpana, You heard of a plan of the terrorists for Republic Day?,” he asked. 

She replied “Yes”

“A guy in Rajasthan who rents out premises says he saw Zohura there. He also claims seeing maps of Delhi and black plastic like substance probably Semtex. The guys have shifted from that place though. We are enquiring.”

“So the terrorists have crossed via Rajasthan,” said Kalpana.

“Yes, also a call intercepted by RAW confirms an impending threat to the PM’s life by the same gang who employed Zohura.”

“Wow, aren’t those fellows ambitious.” 

“Anyway analysts feel since the bombing and assassination require separate planning, the attempt on the PM’s life might be very soon. This has been submitted to the regular channels and you’ll be informed. But I thought of giving you a heads up.”  

She cut her call and sat there brooding. This guy had been plucked out of nowhere and made PM and now his life is under threat. What a sorry state of affairs for him. She had heard him put the foot down on torturing Zohura. She resolved to protect this guy from the impending danger. 

[The complete novel is available on Amazon kindle]

 

Advertisements

Velan in Yavvan (First 13 Chapters)

CHAPTER 1

“Servant, here too you are just a servant, same as before, never forget that boy,” said Velan’s father to twelve year old Velan as they walked on the forest road. 

Velan shivered now and then, half from cold and half from fright. He wasn’t afraid of the forest or the dangerous creatures it may hold. He was afraid of the new place, the ashram, wondering if the new masters will be cruel.

“Vayanad being a border village is populated by all kinds of lowlife drifted from Kingi. Black magic is practiced by some of the scum. Don’t do anything foolish boy. Stay away from focus,” said Velan’s father. 

Velan was surprised as to why his father was telling all these things. Normally he never spoke to Velan.  

“Not that it matters, for the world we know, our kingdom Malla is coming to an end. The person ending it has already been born and will finish his task in a couple of years,” continued his father. The sky was overcast and it was dark even though the sun was up. For as long as he could remember Velan had been a servant in the household of lord Pamba. He rarely saw his father. He had been told that his mother had died giving birth to him. 

Up ahead, Velan saw two bullock carts parked on the side of the road and an old man and a woman standing nearby. 

“Hi,” they greeted as Velan and his father approached them. 

“Are you the boy’s father? Are you taking him to Rishaba Shringa’s ashram?” the old man asked. 

“Yes, this is my son, he is to join as a servant there,” Velan’s father replied.

“We are going to drop our master’s children off at the ashram,” said the old man.

“Help, help, someone please get this freak off me,” a voice hollered loudly from within the woods. 

All of them rushed towards the source of the sound. A thin pale faced boy of the same height and build as Velan but fairer was lying pinned on the ground. Sitting on top of him was a broad shouldered and strong girl with a huge boulder in her hand, poised to drop over the boy’s head. 

On seeing everyone come, the girl nonchalantly threw the boulder away, got off from the boy and said to him, “See, I told you, girls can fight too.”  

 “Whatever freak,” the boy muttered under his breath and got up and dusted his clothes. “One minute I was telling girls don’t know how to fight and the next minute I was lying on the ground with that freak over me. It isn’t like I can’t tackle her or anything but I was just caught unawares,” the boy said to everyone around.

“What is a freak?” the girl asked the boy.

“Err… hmm… It means a nice girl,” stuttered the boy. 

“I am a freak, I am a freak,” the girl hummed as she caught the two plaits of her hair in each hand and began to dance a little.

“It is enough Gowri,” said the woman giving the girl a stern look. 

“And you master Mithun, do mind your words. I apologise for the behaviour of my charge,” said the old man.

Velan was astonished. He had never seen servants ordering around lord Pamba’s children like this. The servants there were treated more like slaves.

“Shall we leave the children to themselves and go see if the bullocks are ready,” said the old man and the adults including Velan’s father left. Velan was confused as to if he should stay behind with the soon to be students of Yavvan. He ran behind his father to the forest road again. 

Just then a gold coloured chariot drawn by two spotless white horses approached. A tall, beautiful and fair girl about his age with a taut expressionless face was seated in it. “Stop,” the girl said and the chariot came to a grinding halt beside them. 

The girl got down and pushing away a strand of her shoulder length hair from her face said “Hi, I am Apsara,” then looking at Velan, “you must be a student who is about to enrol.”

“No Madam. I am just a servant about to join the Ashram. Two new students though are just behind the woods. If you like I can take you to them,” said Velan.  

  Apsara curtly nodded her head and Velan led her into the woods. Mithun and Gowri were not to be seen in the earlier place. Velan went deeper into the woods with Apsara closely following him. That part of the forest had rotten. There was only deadwood and fallen branches and leaves mostly. He found them near a muddy pond. Mithun was wetting his feet in the muddy water while Gowri was sitting on a rock a few feet behind. 

“Hi, I am Apsara, also a new student, I come from the capital city Anantpur” said Apsara looking at both of them with an earnest smile. 

“Hi, I am Gowri from the river tribe north of Malla.”

  “She is a tribal, that’s why she is a tad dumb. Damn Rishaba Shringa, teaching girls, tribals and what not. I must have gone to Kaala Nathan’s ashram. The prince studies there and they don’t allow girls too. I am stuck here instead,” said Mithun.

“What is up with him?” asked Apsara.

“Oh, don’t mind him, he is just upset that he lost fighting with me,” said Gowri with a thin smile on her lips. 

Mithun jumped up and said, “Lost, you must be joking. One moment we were talking and the next moment you pounced upon me,” then looking at Apsara he added, “She even had a boulder over my head. Can you believe it? She is mad. She is out of her mind. She must be locked up.”

“You lost fair and square. Yet if you want we can wrestle again. You know what bothers you too much? It isn’t losing but the fact that you lost to a girl,” said Gowri and stood up and edged towards Mithun. 

  “You stop right there. Look at Apsara, a proper girl who is here to learn knitting, cooking etc. Take a leaf from her book,” said Mithun. 

“What? Are you out of your mind? I am here to learn how to fight and also learn ancient magic, like the rest of you,” said Apsara bristling with anger. 

“Poor dearie, you don’t know, do you? He is right. We tribal folks from the river have women soldiers. So we are allowed to train in the arts of war. The daughters of lords from Malla aren’t allowed. They are trained in domestic activities by the Guru’s wife,” said Gowri. 

“No, that won’t do. I came here to learn to fight and I will do it,” said Apsara clutching her fist.

  “Save it for the Guru,” said Mithun. Then looking in the direction of Velan who was standing several paces behind Apsara, he said, “Boy, why are you all silent. Can you speak at all? You are not a mute, are you?”

Velan was happy as long as they were talking to each other. He was always happy when he was left alone. He was even happy when he was doing his chores. But when he was in the presence of the upper class and especially when they were talking to him he felt uneasy and nervous. 

“Can I do something for you sir?” Velan asked hesitantly.

“Yes, you can drop the ‘sir’. Just relax man, chill, we are all kids here. You can save the servitude thing for the adults,” said Mithun. 

“In an ashram, not just the guru but even the students need to be obeyed and tended to, I was told,” said Velan. 

“Yeah man that’s true. It is kind of a tough life for you. But as far as me and the freak here, we aren’t that kind of students I guess,” Mithun said and then looking at Apsara added “I am not sure about miss haughty face there though.”

“No need to fear on my account. I am a friendly person really,” said Apsara.

“How many friends have you got then?” asked Mithun.

“No one till now but now I can count on you three as my friends. Can’t I?” asked Apsara.

“Friends aren’t made like that. You must like them, play with them, fight with them before you can be friends,” said Mithun.

“You can be my friend Apsara. I can’t believe that you have no other friends. You must be really lonely,” said Gowri. 

“Ouch! What the hell is this,” yelled Mithun lifting his pant leg and shaking his leg here and there in a sort of a one legged dance.

Gowri laughed and said “Easy hero. Those are just leeches. They’ll suck off your blood, fatten themselves and then drop off.” 

Mithun still jumping around said, “Easy for you to say.”

“If you heat them they’ll just drop off. Anyone here have any matches?” asked Gowri. 

Apsara took a match box from the hip pocket in her dress and threw it to Gowri. Gowri lighted a match and burned away the leeches in Mithun’s leg one by one. 

“Here all done,” said Gowri letting a deep breath. 

Velan sensed the smell before he saw it. “We must get out of here,” he said to one and all.

“Whoa! What the hell is that,” yelled Mithun. They were surrounded by fire. Tall flames were leaping into the sky. The matches must have lighted the dry leaves around them. They might be the cause of a forest fire if the flames weren’t put down Velan realised. He looked for an exit but fire had encircled them.

“Help, help,” yelled Mithun. 

“We are so deep into the forest that no one from the road can hear us,” said Apsara.

“Someone walk through the fire and bring back help,” shouted Mithun.

“I’ll go,” said Velan and began to walk towards the fire. He felt a hand grasping his hand and pulling him inside away from the fire. He saw Apsara standing beside him holding his hand. 

“No, it is too risky,” she said.

“Ippidy dippidy do will turn out the fire for true,” chanted Gowri fervently.

“Have you lost it, what in the name of the seven kingdoms are you doing?” asked Mithun.

“It is a chant to quell fire that my friends taught me,” said Gowri.

“Has it worked before?” asked Mithun.

“How would I know, I’ve never been in a fire before,” said Gowri shrugging her shoulders.

“The world today shall lose a valiant warrior, all because of a stupid fire and a stupid girl,” said Mithun. 

“Look there is a rabbit. Let us at least save it,” said Gowri.

“That is very considerate of you given the fact that a lot more animals than just a rabbit are going to die because of the fire that you started stupidly,” said Mithun. 

“If not for your fear of leaches none of this would have happened,” said Gowri.  

Velan felt bad for these kids. They seemed kind enough towards him. Suddenly the sky exploded with lightning and thunder. A ferocious rain came down upon them. They were all drenched but the fire was put out. Everyone rushed outside to the forest road. Velan was offered a ride in the bullock cart with Mithun.  

Velan’s father pulled aside Velan and crouching beside him so that they were eye to eye said, “Listen carefully boy, I might lose my head if this gets out. This is the last time we will be seeing each other. I am not your real father. You were given to me to be raised by a high officer of the court when you were just a baby. It was on his orders that I made you a servant in lord Pamba’s household and now here. I am sorry that I didn’t act like a father to you. I wanted you to know the truth.” 

Nothing in the world had prepared Velan for this. All the euphoria and joy he felt a little earlier were wiped away. He really had no one in the world. He was an orphan. He was all alone. May be it would have been better if he had perished in the fire, for his whole life seemed to be a misery.

CHAPTER 2

Even from a distance Yavvan was the most spectacular sight Velan had ever seen in his life. It was situated in a huge clearing in the forest. There was a clear stream flowing around and further up was a clump of dense trees to both sides of a lengthy open ground that led to the spectacular central mansion. The mansion was flanked by an assortment of other buildings. There were too many people beyond counting assembled in small groups in the great open ground. There was a big banyan tree outside of the mansion. The most amazing thing was it had no surrounding wall around all of this. 

Velan climbed out of the cart after the other kids and followed at a respectable distance behind them. 

“What is this place? I was expecting a hut and a dozen students. What is a Guru without a hut? Maybe they’ve got a hut hidden somewhere in all of this,” Gowri said with disappointment.

“Wow! Toss aside what I heard, Guru Rishaba Shringa does have a cool, comfy and spectacular haunt,” chimed Mithun.   

“Yuck, what is the smell? What a small and spartan place, how do people live here?” asked Apsara.   

The Guru was sitting under the banyan tree on a raised platform. He seemed young for a guru but he did have a long and dark beard that extended up to his chest. 

“Well, well, if it isn’t the dreaded quartet who almost caused a forest fire on their very first day. I have a mind to send you all away and save a great deal of trouble. I might send away the servant at least,” said the Guru.

“He had nothing to do with it. He was only a silent witness,” said Apsara in a challenging tone. 

“Are you then willing to take responsibility for him if he does anything bad?” asked the Guru.

“We all will,” interjected Gowri before anyone else could speak.

Mithun pinched Gowri’s arm discretely and whispered, “Speak only for you, freak.”

“You two,” said the Guru pointing Gowri and Mithun, “Go join with your fellow classmates.”

“Can I ask you something? How did you know about the fire and stuff?’’ asked Apsara.

“I have the forest road and the perimeters of the ashram marked by the stream under a protective spell. I can sense things like the fire, happening within its boundaries. The spell also prevents intruders and dangerous creatures from entering,” said the Guru. 

Velan saw a young, beautiful woman with kindly disposition emerge from the mansion. She came and stood beside the Guru. 

“This is my wife Avantika and she will teach you Apsara, things like cooking and other etiquettes as befitting a girl of your stature.”

  “But Guruji, I want to learn martial arts and to fight like the others,” said Apsara.

“What good will that do for you. I shall have no complaints,” said the Guru and then looking at Velan said, “You too will be told of your daily chores by Avantika. That is all.”

A dark and slim boy approached the Guru and said “Guruji, I am Rudra from the village, please accept me as your student.” 

“I sensed you as soon as you entered the forest road. I can’t train every aspirant here. My advice to you would be to quit this foolish desire and learn a trade as befits your stature in society,” said the Guru. 

“I will learn to fight, if not from you, then someone else,” said the boy and left.

They were in the library and Avantika smiled from across the table at Velan. She said, “Each day first thing in the morning you’ve to milk the cows and feed the horses and cows. Keep the stable and cowshed clean at all times. You must scrub the floors of the entire mansion, two times a day. There are other servants to wash clothes, help in cooking etc, you’ve got to help them in whatever way they ask you, understood,” said Avantika.

“Yes madam,” replied Velan. 

“You can start now,” said Avantika. 

  Velan went to the cowshed and was happy to be alone at last. He whistled as he worked stacking hay for the cows, filling water and then cleaning the place. He then worked the stable too. It was almost noon and Velan felt hungry. He didn’t have breakfast and all the work had induced hunger. He walked back to the mansion and found Avantika and Apsara chatting and laughing while having lunch in an inner room with other students. 

A stout middle aged lady came and said, “You, new boy, come to the back. That is where we servants eat. I am Jabala and I am the head of the servants here.”

Velan followed her to the back. The aroma was tempting. He had one of the most delicious meals he ever had. He had rice, rabbit curry and roasted mutton. 

“Madam Avantika is an excellent cook. Now you have rest boy but come evening scrub the mansion floors real clean,” said Jabala. 

Velan was astounded by the fact that the servants and the masters had the same food. Avantika had prepared the food. She was nothing at all like his previous masters. 

Velan was lying in the hay mattress he had prepared himself. Yavvan is a far better place to work he thought. Life was simple and easy here. The work seemed easy and he had a lot of time to rest. 

He was interrupted in his thoughts when Apsara came and said, “The classes are over. Come let us find Gowri and Mithun.”

Poor girl, Velan thought. She had to be confined inside the mansion for most of the day. Now she seeks Velan’s company, a lowly servant boy’s company. Velan got up and followed Apsara. They found Mithun and Gowri under a neem tree near the stream. 

“Boy, do I regret partnering with her. She clobbered my shield and then me. It is just practice for god’s sake,” said Mithun. 

“You are stuck with me now. May be I will harden you up,” said Gowri. 

“You are nothing compared to what I am. I cut you some slack today, that’s all,” said Mithun angry and red faced. 

“You used swords?” asked Apsara with excitement. 

“Just stupid wooden swords and shields,” said Mithun. 

“Still, it is cool. Avantika has promised to teach me sword fighting if I behave,” said Apsara. 

“Great, for I’ve heard that she is far better skilled than all the other masters put together. Only the Guru is better than her,” said Gowri. 

The students were taught by masters who were really the senior students of the Guru who have stayed behind to learn even more. Hours ran by as the kids talked. Velan mostly nodded silently.   

“Sorry, I’ve to get back to the mansion. Catch you later,” said Velan and returned to the mansion. 

Yavvan looked even more beautiful under the starry skies. He had scrubbed the entire mansion squeaky clean. Velan was meticulous in all he did and took great pride in his work. He had his dinner alone at the back of the mansion. He explored part of the woods within the perimeters of the ashram. He was tired and wanted to shut his eyes. He sought Jabala in the servant’s quarters.

“There is no space in the servant quarters for now boy. You go and sleep with the students. There is ample space there,” said Jabala. 

When Velan entered the boy’s quarters there was a lot of noise, laughter and even a few pillow fights going on. At the far corner of the room Velan saw Mithun regaling a bunch of guys with jokes. A boy as tall and well built as Velan blocked the way. He was flanked by a few other boys.

“Hi, I am Briju, the General’s son. What is a servant like you doing here?” he asked.

“I was told I could sleep here,” replied Velan.

“I don’t care what you were told. Get out now,” shouted Briju.

On seeing the commotion Mithun came across and said, “Hey, leave the boy alone.”

“I don’t want a lowly servant sleeping here,” said Briju and in one swift motion slapped Velan hard.

Mithun lunged at Briju but was caught by Velan and he had to use all his strength to drag back Mithun. The students who were talking to Mithun earlier caught hold of Mithun and dragged him to a corner and held him back.

“Sorry sir, my mistake,” Velan said to Briju and was about to leave when Briju kicked him hard on the legs. Velan fell down. Briju and his friends started kicking Velan wildly. After some time they grew tired of it. That allowed Velan to rise and drag himself away from there. 

As Velan was crossing the mansion he came across Avantika and he asked her, “Can I sleep in the cowshed  madam?”

Avantika looked at him curiously and said “Yes.” 

At the cowshed Velan took off his shirt and lay down on the hay. Velan wasn’t angry. He knew this Briju was only trying to show himself brave before his friends. He hoped one day he would rise in stature above this Briju and that alone would put Briju and the likes of him in place. He reserved his true anger for lord Pamba and the likes of him. He tossed and turned until sleep finally came to him.

He felt someone, a hand shaking him. He opened his eyes to see Apsara handing him his shirt. Mithun and Gowri were standing beside her.

“We came to console you about today but now realize you’ve seen worse,” said Apsara. “The scars on your back, a neat set of lines that go all the way down, must be canings.” After bowing her head silently, she looked up and asked “Who?”

“Many, lord Pamba mostly,” said Velan. 

“I had no friends until I met you three. I didn’t have enemies either but now I have. Your enemies, all three of you, are now my enemies too,” said Apsara. 

Velan was by now used to Apsara’s grand words and style yet Velan believed that she meant every word she said. 

“How come you three came here?” asked Velan.

“Oh boy, I was all riled up about what Briju did and came outside. I found Gowri and Apsara taking a stroll because they couldn’t sleep, it being first day and all. I told them what happened,” said Mithun. 

Velan grew fond of these kids. He might not have to be alone all the time after all. Yet a silent part of him warned that this trust was a glass shell that might also break like the way it had broken with his father. After some time they all left.

Velan went back to his sleep and his nightmares.

CHAPTER 3

The days and then months passed in a blur for Velan. He didn’t mind doing the work. He was happy when he was with his friends. Meeting them was something he looked forward to each day. 

 Velan was dusting the furniture in the hall of the mansion when Apsara came out of Avantika’s study. 

“I am on a break, come, let us go and watch the classes. It would be fun,” she said. 

There were many groups for the various classes on the ground. Apsara led the way to the place where Mithun and Gowri were learning to fight with wooden swords and shields. 

Master Vikram was shouting “Higher, hold your sword higher, when you go for the upper cut. See how Briju is holding the sword. That was fast Briju, you just gave your opponent a death blow.”

Velan could indeed see that Briju was really good. Mithun waved at Velan and got a hurting blow on the ribs from Gowri. 

“Ouch! Give me a break will you,” yelled Mithun. 

Gowri overpowered Mithun by sheer force. She was also very quick and nimble. She was a very good swordsperson thought Velan. 

“Sir, the two servants there are disturbing us,” said Briju to the instructor Vikram and he gave a sly smile to the two of them.  

“Kids, go away, you are distracting the students,” said Vikram to Velan and Apsara.  

Apsara led Velan away. 

“That Briju dares call me a servant,” puffed Apsara, then looking at Velan quickly added, “not that there is anything wrong in being a servant.”

“That is the price of mixing with servants like me,” said Velan. 

“Leave being called a servant, I wouldn’t mind being a servant if that is the price to pay for our friendship,” said Apsara.

“The world will force us apart, if not now then when we are grown up,” said Velan.

“That is true but I will not allow it if I can,” said Apsara. 

Thus talking she led him to where the students were playing catch with a ball while riding ponies. Master Madhan welcomed them from atop a tall brown horse. 

“Hi, Apsara and Velan, it is good to stretch your legs in the ground after being confined for long, isn’t it?” said Madhan.

“Master Madhan, how do you know our names?” asked Apsara. 

“Who doesn’t know the notorious four who caused a forest fire on their very first day? The whole ashram knows. Some of the other miscreants are jealous of your head start. Keep up the good work and I’ll have it ensured that only the finest ponies are assigned to you guys,” said Madhan. 

Apsara s wasn’t too pleased by the notorious fame. They then went to the archery range.

Master Vipul greeted them while scratching his chest “Hi, Velan and Apsara. Forgive me, I am running a fever for almost four days now, so don’t come too near. It is only today that I’ve come down to take class.” 

 Vipul was teaching the students to nock their bows swiftly. He emphasised speed was as important as accuracy in some close range situations. 

After seeing this for a while they walked back to the mansion.   

Velan and Apsara were seated on chairs in Avantika’s study. Avantika looked oddly at Velan. For a long time she did not speak but kept studying Velan. Velan got red in the face and looked away. He looked at Apsara, the tea pot and everywhere else but Avantika’s face. 

“You have a great opportunity here Velan being close to Apsara. She considers you a very good friend and that can be useful, for I know something about Apsara that you don’t. May be it was meant to be this way, for I also know something about you, that you don’t,” said Avantika. 

This piqued Velan’s interest and he looked up at her. Does she know what he did at Pamba’s place? Does she know his dark secret? May be she knew about who his parents were. What secret could someone like Apsara have? 

“Wha—”   he started but was cut off in midway by Avantika.

“Please don’t ask what it is, let it come, all in its own time. Now you are lovely little children, so just enjoy life. I love the way the four of you guys have bonded. I adore you guys,” she said. 

Usually after his own chores are over Velan would have enquired if the others needed help or would have went to the cowshed. Today Apsara had dragged him in to Avantika’s study saying she was bored by being alone with Avantika all the time. To her credit Avantika showed no surprise at the presence of Velan. Avantika talked of black magic to Apsara.

“Did you know that black magic is allowed in Kingi. The chief priest of Kingi Vakrasura has usurped the throne. He has killed the former king and queen. He is the vilest and most powerful black magician in the world. He is making preparation for war. I want you Apsara to know more about the history of Kingi and the situation there today. Know your enemy well,” said Avantika.

“Ok, but can’t we do something more fun for now?” asked Apsara.

“Well, the three of us can play a game of dice but I want you to read this book later,” Avantika said.   

 Avantika sent them away when she realised that the classes outside have ended. 

On Mithun’s suggestion the four of them decided to go to the village. The village was a vast, colourful and vibrant place. There was the rich part with towering mansions and the poor part with ad hoc shanties. There were also several dangerous places that they were warned against visiting. The villagers were tough but simple creatures. It had its share of strangers and travellers as it was a border village. 

They entered the Vrindha inn in the rich part of the village. They saw that Briju and his friends were seated with a few strangers. One was tall and aristocratic and a bit older than them. A table on the side was occupied fully by the king’s soldiers. 

“Here comes the beggar gang. Go away. Can’t you see we are dining with the prince,” shouted Briju. 

Apsara was irritated by this and she tugged at a waiter and rolled her fingers dropping gold coins into the waiter’s hands. A separate table at the centre was placed and they were accorded royal treatment. Apsara gave the server and anyone that cared to come that way, gold coins. The prince was forgotten and every server flocked their table. 

An irritated Briju shouted “That girl needs a lesson in manners, acting shamefully, not respecting the prince of the realm.”

Somehow this upset the prince and he left in a huff with his friends and retinue of soldiers. 

An one eyed man with a sheathed sword at his hips and wearing silken robes asked them “What is all this commotion. Why did the prince leave in such a hurry?” 

“How would we know? May be he didn’t like the company he was in,” said Mithun eyeing Briju.

This didn’t escape the attention of Briju. He was seething with anger. 

Sharing the table with the one eyed man was the boy Rudra whom the Guru had refused to teach. On an adjacent table several masters from the ashram were seated. Even though it was situated in the rich part of the village Vrindha inn attracted all sorts of people due to its tasty food.   

“Well, well, I had a nice appetite, but the leeches here have ruined it,” Briju said and approached their table.

“Look, a miracle, Vermins are now talking about leeches,” said Mithun. 

Briju came up from behind and kicked the chair Mithun was sitting in and Mithun fell on the floor. 

Velan didn’t know what came over him but he had lifted Briju by the throat and had him thrust against the table.

He said “If you hit me it is okay but if you even lift a finger against my friends you’ll have hell to pay for.”

Velan released his grip on a gasping Briju when he realized that the whole inn was looking at him. 

A fat youth with a freckled face who was eating snacks got up and said, “You so tough boy, why not show it to someone like me.”

The fat guy lunged at Velan. Velan sidestepped and the fat guy hit another man instead. Soon a full-fledged fight broke out. 

“Let us escape in this confusion,” Mithun said. 

The girls on the other hand, patiently broke up the fight and Apsara paid the inn keep for the damages. They also apologised profusely to everyone. Soon the other customers came and appreciated them for handling the situation responsibly. 

They returned to the Ashram. Jabala came and said that they must report to the mansion immediately. When they entered they saw the Guru standing with Avantika. Briju was standing near them with a serene face as if he were the symbol of obedience.

“You can leave,” said the Guru to Briju and he left with a wicked grin on his face. 

“First a forest fire and now an inn fight. I knew you were trouble from the moment I saw you. I’ve never struck or caned anyone in my life but I must confess that you tempt me sorely,” said the Guru. 

Avantika placed a hand on the Guru’s shoulder and said “Please be kind, they are just children.”

“They are not children, they are monsters. Since you are such a gang I will punish one of you and let it serve as a lesson to all. Velan shall have only gruel for a week. No tasty food for him. Let us see if that diminishes his interest for mischief,” said the Guru. 

“But that is unfair. All of us were involved. If punished, all of us should be punished,” squealed Apsara. 

The Guru just waved his hand and went inside. 

Avantika said “I don’t know what to say.”

Velan smiled and said “In my previous employ I was starved a lot and had to clutch my stomach as I tried to sleep with an empty stomach. I respect the Guru too much and believe he has dealt with me kindly so far.”

“You poor little creature, you’ve been through a lot before you came here. It is all the more reason you must be taken good care of,” said Avantika. 

Velan and his friends got leave and departed. 

“We will also eat only gruel for a week,” said Apsara.

“Gruel is actually very tasty. I look forward to the week ahead,” said Gowri and everyone laughed at this. 

“Why are you laughing?” asked Gowri innocently.

“Nothing, you just reminded us how good it is to have you around,” replied Mithun.  

 

CHAPTER 4

Apsara was trying to learn bird talk from Avantika who could talk with birds. Velan was scrubbing the floors. The classes outside got over and the students entered for their evening snacks. Avantika fetched the snacks and came in. Just then Briju and his friends entered.

“Clean properly servant boy,” Briju said and kicked the bucket with the dirty water. It splashed all over Velan.

Apsara flew over in anger and jumped on Briju twisting his arm and pinning him face down on the floor. By then Mithun, Gowri and the Guru had also entered. 

“Enough,” shouted the Guru and Apsara slowly left hold of Briju.

“I was here and I saw Briju start it,” said Avantika in Apsara’s defence.

“If you so much want to fight, then you better learn it properly. Start attending the classes from tomorrow,” the Guru said.

“No, I will attend classes only if Velan is also allowed,” said Apsara and folded her hands stubbornly. 

“Are you sure? Learning to fight was all you ever wanted,” said the Guru.

Apsara remained unmoved.

“Okay, but he will still be a servant, do all his chores and also do the bidding of other students and treat them respectfully. He shall also be a servant forever and use his skills only in the service of his future master,” said the Guru.

Apsara jumped up and down in joy and was joined by Mithun and Gowri. Velan was happy but without showing it went back to scrubbing. 

They were mostly taught by the masters under the observation of the Guru. Occasionally the Guru would have them assemble in front of the Banyan tree and talk on subjects ranging from philosophy to politics. Most of the time they were wrestling, sword fighting with wooden swords and shields, throwing spears or shooting arrows in the archery range. Velan wasn’t as quick a learner as Apsara but with hard effort made progress. He had a knack for swordplay though. Even with time Velan couldn’t believe he belonged with the students. He got mixed reactions from them. At least he felt at peace with his three friends and he thanked god for that. 

One day master Vikram praised Velan for his deftness and intelligence in swordplay. 

An envious Briju said to Velan, “You are a servant, you don’t belong here. Leave,” and looking around to see no one was seeing, he spat on Velan’s face. He hoped to enrage Velan in to fighting and thus land him in trouble with the guru. Gowri who had seen it jumped on Briju hard and punched him hard in the face and stomach. 

“Enough, if you are so intended on fighting each other then do it properly. We shall have a competition between the two groups. Let us call them the lordlings and the servant gang,” said the Guru who approached them from the neighbouring group of students. 

We shall have it tomorrow the Guru said. The whole ashram was abuzz with the news. There were bets going on as to who would win. A majority of them betted that the lordlings would win as they had been in training for long. Velan and Apsara had only recently started to train. But there was no dearth of people who wanted the under dogs to win. 

When they came across Avantika she said, “Don’t place too much emphasis on tomorrow’s events as it is only a game. The real competition is the life ahead of you. That is where you need all the strength. For tomorrow just go and have fun.”

The next day everyone in the ashram including the servants had come to see the spectacle. The servants liked the name servant gang and rooted for them to win. On the other hand most of the masters wanted the lordlings to win for they were themselves lordlings. The students were equally divided in their support. 

The Guru said, “There will be five events. Wrestling, sword fighting, archery, spear fighting and a test maze.”

  Gowri was the obvious choice for wrestling from their end. But it wouldn’t have mattered as a brute of a boy entered the ring from the opposite end. They hadn’t seen this boy previously near Briju, so they must have specifically recruited this boy the day before for this. Gowri fought brilliantly. She used his strength against himself. She parried his attacks and even managed to lift him and throw him hard on the floor. But in the end the boy had her pinned on the ground with her arms twisted. He was declared winner. 

Briju and Velan sparred with their wooden swords and shields. Briju was on the offence from the beginning trying to inflict kill blows. Velan was cautious and caught all of Briju’s blows on the shield. His defence was solid and he worked at Briju’s arms and ribs with non lethal but hard blows. Briju got tired while Velan was just warming up. But the time got over and the contest was declared a tie. 

At archery both Apsara and her opponent managed to hit the target board but were nowhere near the bull’s eye. After some time their contest was declared a tie. 

With two ties and a loss only if Mithun won they had a chance.

“I am a champ man,  but y’all know that and know I’m going to win,” Mithun said and entered the ring.

“That we know hero,” said Gowri. 

The contest got over even before it started. Mithun kept the opponent at bay using his spear and jumped to and fro from left to right, never still. He then feigned a blow to the left with his spear but actually came full force to the right dealing a killer blow that knocked down the opponent. The whole ground erupted in applause. 

Now they were tied with the maze being the decider as to who would win. The others were tired and entreated Velan to take up the maze challenge. Velan was the most tired but he didn’t complain. 

All of them went to the part of the ground where there were two mazes built by the Guru.

The Guru said, “This is a test of the mind and soul. Inside the maze you’ll encounter pale imprints of people which are the spirits of people being tortured for their sins. You have the power to release them but use it carefully. You can save only seven of the souls. Be sure that you don’t free unworthy people while banishing the more worthy. You’ll enter the adjacent mazes.”

Briju came from their side. Both Velan and Briju entered the mazes. After what seemed a couple of minutes Velan came out. In another fifteen minutes Briju too came out. 

The Guru said, “Briju has saved two souls while Velan saved all seven souls. Yes, there were only seven souls in both mazes. But often those inside keep judging the worthiness of the people to be freed. Those kind enough don’t judge. I declare Velan and the servant gang to be winners. But in real life you have to choose the worthy over the unworthy.”

All the people in the ground erupted in revelry irrespective of who they were supporting before. Spectacles like this were not a common occurrence in the Gurukul. A crowd of students swarmed around the four of them. They soon managed to escape all this and get to the cowshed where there’ll be no students, masters or servants. 

“Who’s the man? I am. Woohoo, Did you see how I danced with the spear?” asked Mithun. 

“Yes, for the hundredth time, yes we won because of you,” said Apsara smiling and winked at Gowri. 

“I saw that. You wouldn’t be winking if I had lost, would you? I am glad that the days of drinking gruel are over. Today, it is time to feast,” said Mithun.

“I am kind of sad that there would be no more gruel. It was nice. Hey, why don’t we do something, that we are again made to eat gruel,” said Gowri.

 “You are some weird girl. I’ve been thinking lately of going deep into the forest to the waterfalls and have fun bathing to our heart’s content,” said Mithun. 

“We are not allowed to step beyond the stream, beyond the perimeters of the ashram. In fact only a few of the masters have ever been there. It is very dangerous,” said Apsara.

“I am going to have lunch and then finish my chores. You guys do whatever it is, but without me,” said Velan.

“Hey don’t chicken out man, I’ll be there to protect you,” said Mithun.

“Yeah, like you did at the fire and the inn fight, that was very brave of you,” said Gowri.

“Okay, we are doing this to celebrate our victory. Let us all meet here in the evening,” said Mithun. 

Velan was scrubbing the floor when his three friends barged in.

“Come on let us scoot. We’ve got to be somewhere,” said Mithun.

  “No, I’ve got to finish this,” said Velan. 

“Okay, let us help and it will be over in a jiffy,” said Gowri. 

“No, if the Guru or Avantika sees, it will be my neck on the block,” said Velan. 

They didn’t heed him and came with buckets of water and wash clothes and each took a room and began scrubbing the floors. 

Avantika came and on seeing them laughed aloud and pointing to Apsara she said “I know a juicy tidbit about this girl. She is a spoilt little girl and seeing her like this makes me weep and laugh at the same time.”

Velan became skeptical about this activity as Briju and his gang came in. 

“Oh! Wow! Look at this, the servant brigade and who is leading the charge, miss high and mighty herself,” said Briju pointing at Apsara. 

    Apsara ignored him, as did everyone else and the work was over soon. 

The four of them were standing on the edge of the stream on the northern border of the ashram. Ahead lay the dangerous forest and crossing the stream would mean they are stepping out of the protection of the Guru’s spell. 

“Let us do this,” Gowri said and holding their hands together all of them waded through the water to the other bank. 

They began walking in to the woods. Apsara was marking a few trees with chalk as they went deep in to the forest. 

 “Did you see it? There in the bushes did you see it?” asked Gowri jumping up and down. I saw a cardboard like figure of a man jumping from that bush to this bush.”  

All of them went and peered into the bush very carefully. There was nothing there. 

“You must have imagined it Gowri,” said Apsara. 

“Whatever it is that is hiding in the bush, please show yourself, for I am going to stomp on it and tear it into little pieces,” said Gowri. 

“Please don’t,” said a voice and a cardboard man, red in colour, the size of their knees showed up. “I am Zunga who belongs to the Lota lotis tribe and we can shrink to the size of ants invisible to human eyes and grow up to this size. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must return to our city. Maybe some other time we can chat. Or perhaps you can help me with something,” said Zunga. 

CHAPTER 5

“We’ve got to come a great distance from our village for water. Can you build a canal to our village?” asked Zunga.

“Yes,” said Velan. 

The others knew nothing about this and followed Velan’s lead. They banked the canal which was a small pathway really with shores of wet clay. The Lota lotis village wasn’t that far and their work was completed shortly. The Lota lotis village was camouflaged and in a hollow of a huge tree several feet wide.. It was full of bright colours like red, orange and yellow. They were celebrating the canal, drinking some herbal juice. 

“Boy, am I thirsty,” said Gowri and lifted a glass of the juice and Apsara too followed suit.

“No don’t –“ said Zunga but the girls had drank the juice. “Don’t you feel nauseated or anything.”

“No, why do you ask?” asked Apsara.

“This is our staple drink but can be fatal to humans,” said Zunga.

“Oh god, are you okay? There is a reason not to take food uninvited,” said Mithun touching Apsara’s shoulders. 

Apsara pushed his hand away. 

“Ouch!,” Mithun had fallen some twenty feet behind Apsara. 

“If your body does accept it, then the juice would give you the strength of a dozen elephants. But it wanes away soon and you must sip it regularly for you to have that strength. I will fill two hip flasks full of the juice. You can come for a refill anytime you want. Boys can’t handle it and it is fatal for them. But I must warn you not to show this to anyone as there are all types of people. It might land you and us in trouble,” said Zunga. 

Gowri went and shook a nearby small tree and she totally uprooted the tree with its roots. She threw it away and it landed more than a hundred feet away.

“My god this is awesome. Want to play with me Mithun,” said Gowri calling him with her fingers. 

“In the mood you are in, I don’t think so, I won’t come within a hundred yards of you. Girls collect your flasks and let us go. We must hurry if we are to reach the falls before dark,” said Mithun. 

They kept walking deeper and deeper into the forest. They heard it before they saw it, the sweet gush of the waterfall. Then they saw the massive lake and the awesome waterfall. 

All of them jumped into the lake. They began swimming towards the falls. They bathed at the falls while hollering loudly. They screamed at the top of their lungs. Even Velan joined the fun.

“What is that?” asked Gowri pointing to the other bank of the lake. 

“Maybe another Lota loti,” said Mithun. 

All of them began to swim to the other bank towards the object that seemed to be writhing.  There was a tiger cub and two arrows had pierced its stomach. Nearby lay dead a few other adult tigers. 

“This is the act of a poacher. Someone dangerous, for killing a tiger is punishable by death. The wound is fresh and the poacher will soon come here to collect the cub. Let us get out of here and also get the tiger cub to safety, maybe Avantika can heal the tiger cub,” said Apsara. 

They took the tiger cub, swam to their side of the bank. They ran towards the ashram. But as they tried to cross the boundary stream of the ashram, they were pushed away by an invisible force. 

“It is the Guru’s protective spell. The tiger is considered dangerous. You guys wait here. I will go and fetch Avantika,” said Gowri and ran towards the ashram. 

Velan felt like he was being steam rolled with all that was happening. All he ever wanted was peace. At a distance they could see Avantika and Gowri hurrying. Gowri was carrying a pouch which must contain the medicinal herbs. Avantika came and examined the cub. She went to work, removing the arrows and bandaging the tiger with medicinal herbs. 

“Don’t worry, the tiger cub will survive. But it will take a few months before it can regain full health. The arrows have been black magicked to pierce deep. It is not the work of any ordinary dabbler of black magic. This is an expert of black magic. 

“As you all know black magic is allowed in our neighbouring kingdom Kingi. It has always attracted a dubious sort of crowd there and now with Vakrasura as king it must be a riot there. Being the border village some of the dabbling in black magic has trickled to Vayanad as well. But here is an expert of black magic, probably coming from Kingi. This makes him very dangerous. He must have a deeper purpose to come here. We will have to wait and see.

“On another note, are you out of your minds to break the rule by going out of the perimeter? Then you try to bring a tiger cub in, when you are under the scanner. Don’t you know that the Guru could sense your comings and goings on the perimeter?” said Avantika biting her lips.”

Gowri removed her pendant chain and tied it firmly around the tiger cub. She patted its head and others also petted it before finally leaving to the ashram. 

“We will come and feed it until it is well enough to be by itself,” said Mithun.

“We will call her Libi. She can be our pet tiger,” said Gowri.

“Tigers are no one’s pets,” said Avantika, “I think there is testing time ahead of us.”

 The next day, Velan finished all his chores and reported to class. Everyone knew who they were, now. They had become famous overnight at the ashram. Master Madhan was waiting on his brown horse. 

“Welcome, to our competition winners. I have brought the best ponies for you as promised,” he said. 

A servant led several ponies to the ground. All of them were properly saddled. Master Madhan pointed the four ponies that he had selected for them. They were all white. Apsara and Gowri mounted their ponies with ease. Velan and Mithun had trouble getting up and to be seated on their ponies. The ease with which Gowri rode her pony amazed everyone including master Madhan. Briju went in his pony near her and scratched her pony with thorn. The pony reared up but Gowri handled it well and soon had the pony calmed up. 

Velan had promised that if Briju ruffled any of his friends there would be hell to pay for. So he rode his pony towards Briju. Briju seeing this went full speed on his pony. Velan went after him in a hurry. They cut through the other classes on the ground. All the masters told them to stop. Finally Velan caught up with Briju and jumped on him pushing him down. He would have clobbered him, if not for Gowri and Apsara jumping from their ponies and grabbing him and pulling him away. 

They were brought to the Guru. Velan got away because Master Madhan had seen what Briju did with the thorn and told it to the Guru. 

“This is the most shameful batch of students to arrive at the ashram. If I hear any more complaint I would be severe,” the Guru said and waved them away. 

When they were back to the class all the talk wasn’t about Velan or Briju. Everyone was speaking with wonder of how after giving Velan and Briju a head start, Apsara and Gowri rode fast and hard and caught up with Velan. 

“Why did you stop him? Briju deserved a thrashing,” said Mithun. “If Velan had laid his hands on Briju, he would have got it from the Guru,” said Apsara. That night they were back in the cowshed. Mithun stretched himself on a bale of hay. Though they hate to admit it, all of them liked to lie on the hay. 

“Saving the tiger cub was cool, but it worries me, the poacher being a black magician from Kingi. Some dreadful black magician named Vakrasura has become king of Kingi, I am told. If this is somehow related to him …” teetered off Apsara.

“I too heard of his becoming king. It is just a formality, for some time now he is the one ruling Kingi. But he wouldn’t set his eyes on something as trivial as an ashram. Maybe they are testing the strength of the borders, who knows. But by god he is the most powerful black magician in the world,” said Mithun.

“Say if he attacks Malla, do we have the strength to ward him off?” asked Apsara.

“Don’t worry, our king is not only noble but also wise and strong. Moreover ancient magic is far more powerful than black magic. Vakrasura won’t attack unless he has an ace in his sleeve,” said Mithun. 

“May be it is in pursuit of that edge he has sent this black magician who shot the tiger cub,” said Apsara. 

“Call her Libi. She isn’t any other tiger cub. She is our pet,” squealed Gowri in anger. 

“Whoa, cool it,” said Mithun.

“Why are there only black magicians. Why aren’t there white, red or blue magicians?” asked Gowri.

“Black stands for darkness and bad things and that’s why we call them black magicians,” said Mithun.

“I don’t care, I want to be a blue magician. But what does it matter, the world is going to end soon,” said Gowri. 

 “What are you saying?” asked Apsara. 

“It is true someone has predicted that the world, our kingdom will perish soon. Many have started moving to other places. This talk has been around for a decade,” said Mithun. 

“It is very late and is time to sleep. Even if the world ends, I want to be well rested when that happens,” said Velan.

“I don’t feel sleepy, let us go for a walk in the woods,” said Gowri.

The others agreed and dragged Velan along. Gowri was leading the way. Suddenly Gowri screamed in a high pitched voice and they ran to where she was standing. There was a cow’s head and a circle of bones around it. Briju who had come to the place on hearing the scream, quickly bolted towards the ashram. Soon Briju came back accompanied by the Guru and Avantika. 

“What is it that I hear, that you’ve been sitting in a circle and chanting something,” said the Guru and on seeing the cow’s head his face became grim. He tugged at his beard and said “If it is one thing that I despise most, it is black magic. Ancient magic is the only magic allowed in this kingdom. Black magic is a serious offence. Your presence here is suspicious. If you don’t prove your innocence soon, I will have to expel you. I shall be watching you and any one unwarranted step will get you all expelled.”

“Please let me take care of this and them,” said Avantika.

“So be it,” said the Guru and left.

“All of you come and meet me tomorrow after your classes. You can leave now and let me examine this,” said Avantika and leaned over the cow’s head peering at it carefully.

CHAPTER 6

All four of them had assembled in the library after classes waiting for Avantika who was busy in the kitchen. 

“We have not yet broken any major rules but going beyond the perimeter of the ashram was a grave rule to break at this time,” said Gowri. 

“We have bigger problems. The Guru suspects us  of black magic and wrong doing and will expel us if he–” Apsara was saying when she was cutoff in mid sentence by the arrival of Avantika. 

“Hi guys. I’ve watched you all from afar for so long and I know things that even you don’t know yourself, like the crush Velan has on me,” said Avantika as she sat across from them on a chair. 

Velan got beet red on hearing Avantika’s comment. 

“Nice interrogation technique, to start by intimidating us like this, while sounding so sweet and loving,” said Apsara. 

“What interrogation? What intimidation?” Avantika laughed sweetly and continued saying, “And Apsara you who’ve known me should think that, it pains me. I do not believe that you guys had anything to do with the cow’s head or any other black magic. I believe Briju was lying. I called you here because I believed you guys will help me prove your innocence beyond doubt. Show some trust please.”

“I trust you,” said Velan in an innocent manner and all the others began to laugh. 

“See, I was right about the crush,” said Avantika and added “but seriously, it has been confirmed that one of our cows is missing. So what can you infer from what you saw yesterday?” asked Avantika. 

“It seemed odd that there was no blood on the floor not even congealed blood. So the cow must have been slaughtered elsewhere and the head brought to the place,” said Apsara. “Excellent, what else?” asked Avantika. 

“The rest of the cow, the carcass, what happened to it?” asked Gowri.

“Excellent question, it hasn’t been found lying anywhere. It must have been disposed somehow, buried or perhaps thrown in the river or something else,” said Avantika. 

“The bones around it were cow bones. It might have been taken from that cow itself,” said Velan.

“But who did it and why?” asked Mithun. 

“Those are the most pertinent questions. It was an attempt of black magic by someone inside the ashram,” said Avantika. 

“But why wasn’t the evidence hidden after the act? Why leave it in the open?” asked Mithun.

“That might be because the person might have been interrupted. I believe the person was actually involved in doing the black magic ritual when your sudden arrival near the spot prompted the person to escape,” said Avantika.  

 “Briju was there. I bet he was the one doing all the black magic stuff,” said Mithun. 

“While I agree that anyone near the spot at the time is a suspect, holding Briju to be the culprit is prejudiced, Mithun. The cut is clean, not made by a sickle but made with the fighting sword. Only a powerful adult and expert swordsman could have made the cut. That makes one of the masters the most likely suspect. I’ve compiled a list of masters who’ve been near the place and will enquire them. I will sort out those without alibis or with shaky alibis,” said Avantika. 

“Why would a master want to dabble in black magic all of a sudden?” asked Mithun.

  “The most disturbing thing is the purpose of the magic as sensed by the Guru is to try and penetrate the protective spell around the ashram. Why would someone who is inside want to do that? My guess is that the culprit is acting under the orders of someone outside. What does this outsider want? Anyway, keep your eyes and ears open and report anything you find,” said Avantika.

“By outsider, do you mean the black magician who shot the tiger cub?” asked Mithun.

“Yes,” replied Avantika. 

“What if the culprit had led the cow to the outsider and the black magician had slaughtered the cow. Then servants and even women could be suspects,” said Velan.

“Valid point but mostly the belief is that to appease the demons of black magic, the performer of the rituals must have killed the life by their own hands,” said Avantika.

Velan had not shared something with them. He had seen someone like Jabala in the shadows, the night of the incident. He did it not so much as to protect Jabala but because he wasn’t entirely sure it was her. 

That day all through training Briju kept smirking at them and made snide remarks about them being sorcerers doing black magic. Apsara had to be restrained from attacking Briju on more than one occasion. The other kids and a few of the masters kept a wary distance from them. Mithun sulked all day long. It was only Gowri who somehow through all this felt upbeat. She made the pony gallop fast and encouraged the other three to keep up with her. Before evening she had everyone in their spirits. 

Near finishing time, the Guru called and all the students and masters assembled before the banyan tree. 

“We have reason to believe that a powerful black magician lurks in the woods beyond the perimeters of the ashram. So don’t venture beyond the stream even if you had done before or were in the habit of doing it often. If you do so your life will be in peril. I scouted the woods without result. The king’s guards have been alerted. You can go to the village but be wary of strangers and avoid talking to them. That is all,” the Guru said. 

 “Where shall we go first?” asked Gowri as the four of them entered the village. “We’ll go to the butcher first. The crowd will be thin now. Later it will be overcrowded and all the good meat will be gone,” said Apsara. 

“How much will Libi eat. Do you have an idea?” asked Gowri.

“We’ll buy plenty today and by tonight we’ll have an idea how much she’ll eat,” said Apsara. 

“We’ve got to collect a figurine that Avantika has ordered from the statue shop,” said Mithun. 

After almost an hour the four of them were outside the statue shop having the meat sack in their hands. The man inside the shop was a lanky man with peering eyes. 

 The figurine was of the goddess of knowledge. The man carefully wrapped it in straw and then with a cloth. 

“Be careful, it is fragile, handle it carefully,” said the shopkeeper.

A man came barging in to the store. He had a long dagger in his hands. The frightened shopkeeper ran out of the shop. The man looked menacingly at the kids and stepped towards Mithun. 

“Don’t be afraid, I will not hurt you guys. I  just need a boy hostage to threaten the guards chasing me,” said the man and neared Mithun. 

Mithun backed away in to a shelf and he hit the shelf behind him hard. A big bronze statue fell on the man and he dropped to the floor.

They dragged him outside the shop. The villagers outside began to clap their hands. Soon a stocky man with pencil thin moustache came followed by the guards. 

“I didn’t want to kill the chief minister’s assistant. I was trying to obtain information for Vakrasura and the man didn’t know anything. If I had went to Vakrasura empty handed, you know what would have happened captain Prakash. Can’t you give me some slack,” pleaded the man. 

“Take him away,” said the captain and turning to the kids, “It was brave of you to have taken on such a hardened criminal all by yourselves. Which Gurukul do you belong to?” 

“We are from Rishaba Shringa’s ashram but how did you know we study in a Gurukul?” asked Apsara. 

“Age, your clothes, demeanour and the fact that you were brave enough to take on the man,” said captain Prakash. 

“Yes, it was brave me who fought with the man and made him incapacitated thus,” said Mithun. 

“Yes, it was all work of the champ here and we had nothing to do with it,” mildly interjected Velan. 

“Why were you chasing the man? What did he do?” asked Gowri to Captain Prakash. 

“He is a lowlife. But he has recently murdered the chief minister’s assistant. It is a robbery gone wrong, we believe. He claims that he was recruited by Vakrasura as if that vile creature of Kingi would deal with the likes of this lowlife. Convey my regards to your Guru and Avantika,” said the captain and left.

The shopkeeper came and thanked them. Soon the other villagers surrounded them to offer their congratulations. All of them except Apsara shook the hands offered and soon they left from there. 

 As  they were walking Gowri asked Apsara, “Why didn’t you shake their hands?”

Apsara replied, “Their hands were dirty.”

“You don’t mind getting your hands dirty when you get in to a fight.”

“That is different.”

Mithun said, “My hands are dirty. Would miss high and mighty shake my hands,” and offered his hand.

“No way you filthy mongrel and no more talking about this,” said Apsara.

They headed straight to the northern woods outside the perimeters of the ashram. The tiger cub Libi seemed to recognise them. They fed it and petted and patted it. Gowri cuddled with the creature. Apsara soon followed. 

“Look who is getting all dirty,” said Gowri. 

After playing with Libi they headed back to the ashram. When they reached the ashram, the guru was waiting near the banyan tree with a sword in his hand. There seemed to be some congealed blood on the sword. 

“This is the weapon used to behead the cow. It was found in the cowshed near the place where Velan sleeps. It was found by Jabala. All of you are expelled and Velan shall be sent to prison,” said the Guru. 

“I know what it looks like but please give them some more time to prove their innocence,” pleaded Avantika.

“They get two more weeks to prove their innocence. If they do not, expulsion of all and imprisonment of Velan shall follow,” said the Guru angrily and went inside.  

 

CHAPTER 7

Velan wondered what prison might be like. It must be no worse than his time with lord Pamba. He couldn’t bring himself to hate the Guru for his unreasonableness. The Guru had given him an opportunity to learn with the others. He felt grateful. 

He had finished all his chores early today. He waited for his friends to come to the cowshed and he didn’t have to wait for long. 

Apsara came and sat beside him and asked, “If it weren’t for us you would have been a lot better off, don’t you think so?”

“No, I’ve felt alive and happy only after I met you guys. People respect me nowadays, other students and some at the village, all because of you guys. A servant’s life is hard to consider but for me with Pamba it was the worst. Please don’t worry. No one is going to prison, we’ll find the person behind this,” Velan said.

“And how do you propose to find the person. We are just kids and this isn’t any game. Given we are smart but we are way out of our depths here,” said Mithun.

  “I saw someone like Jabala in the woods when we found the cow’s head. I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t sure. Now that she claims to have found the sword here, I think we should pay her a visit,” Velan said. 

They found Jabala washing clothes by the stream. 

“Why did you lie to the Guru about finding the sword in the cowshed?” asked Velan. 

“I didn’t lie boy, I found the sword in the cowshed like I said,” Jabala replied.  

“I saw you in the woods the day the cow’s head was found,” Velan said.

Jabala stared at him for a long time and said “I was taking a stroll when someone with a cloth around his face and a human skull in his hand ran past me. I stayed there in fear  a long time after he was gone. I didn’t say this to anyone out of fear. I came to the cowshed looking for you but found the sword instead.”

They returned to the cowshed. 

“I don’t believe a word she is saying,” said Mithun.

“No, she is telling the truth. There is no reason for her to invent such a lie,” said Velan. 

“A skull could be hidden anywhere. This is a dead end. We have no hope of catching the culprit,” said Apsara

“I wish I had a human skull. I could decorate the skull and have it as a table piece. Human skulls definitely look more beautiful than human faces,” said Gowri. 

“And while you are at it, why don’t you feed it lemon juice and rice cakes and see if you could make the skull talk. May be make the poor thing your friend, like us fools here,” said Mithun. 

“That’s it. A human skull cannot be bought in ordinary shops. He must have got it from the graveyard,” said Velan. 

“But a guard is there day and night,” said Mithun. 

“Yes, but I bet they would sell you the skulls if a right price is offered. We must visit the day guard soon,” said Velan. Then looking at Apsara asked, “Did you ask for any missing sword?”  

“Seven swords have gone missing. It seems when he decided to plant the sword to implicate Velan, he has stolen other swords to hide his tracks. A dead end,” Apsara said. 

“No, our man will not have disposed his hard gotten skull or swords. He will have kept it nearby. When the time comes that is all the evidence we’ll need to nab him,” said Velan. 

The day guard at the graveyard was a thin scrawny man with dirty clothes. Apsara had to shell out a few gold coins before he conceded to talk. 

“It isn’t that uncommon for me to sell skulls as you think. Black magic is widespread than people think. My buyers don’t tell where they come from. People order all forms and shapes of skulls. If only you gave me something more to go on, sorry I couldn’t be of much help,” the guard said. 

They all started to leave when Velan turned and asked, “Has anyone recently been here buying skull but not knowing what he was doing, like he was buying a skull for the first time,” Velan asked.

“Now that you ask, there was this young man who kept fidgeting and looking over his shoulder all the time. He had his shirt buttons undone on account of a freshly gotten skull tattoo on his left chest,” said the guard.

They thanked him and left. 

As they were walking Apsara said, “We can’t go asking everyone to remove their shirts. But other people might have noticed something, and it won’t harm to ask.” 

“No he would be careful. He must know that a skull tattoo is a giveaway for black magic,” Velan said.

“What if we tell the Guru and examine everyone?” asked Apsara. 

“The Guru won’t allow that and the culprit might use a skin patch or some other such thing to deftly hide the tattoo,” said Velan. 

“Are we heading for the tattoo shops then?” asked Mithun. 

“No, we must head back to the ashram. I have chores to do. Some important person is coming this evening and Avantika will be expecting me to keep the mansion spick and clean,” said Velan. 

“Your call man, but not many days are left. So keep that in mind too beside Avantika,” said Mithun.

Apsara and Gowri giggled at this. 

“You can laugh all you want but it is his head on the block, he is the one who’ll go to prison,” said Mithun.

“And that is so unfair,” said Apsara clenching her fist. 

“It is okay,” Velan said.

Ordinarily Velan could have handled prison, he had seen worse, he kept telling to himself. But now he had got accustomed to his new carefree life. 

“You know what, it is you guys I’ll miss mostly in prison,” Velan said.

Gowri and Apsara hugged him from the sides.

“I think there is time enough for a round up of the tattoo parlours. There is a time limit hanging on our shoulders. The faster we get this over with, the easier it would be for us,” said Velan.

Rang was the most famous tattoo parlour in the village, they decided to start their investigations from there. The owner Sarah was putting finishing touches on the scorpion tattoo she was giving on the arm of a person. They waited outside the shop for her to finish.

 When she was done Apsara asked “Have you recently given a young man a skull tattoo on the chest?”

“Scorpion, skull and rose tattoos are very common and most men after their arms prefer to be tattooed on their chests. So I don’t recall any particular person. Sorry for not being much of a help,” replied Sarah.

There were about half a dozen tattoo parlours in the village. They visited all of them including those in the seedier parts of the village. Everywhere they got the same reply, skull tattoos were too common that they don’t recall any specific person.   

“I am thirsty. If rich girl here is willing to shell out a few coins, I wouldn’t mind a jug of pomegranate juice,” said Gowri.

“Not today, may be some other time. It is already too late. We’ve got to return to the ashram,” said Velan. 

Avantika stared at them from across the desk. From the day that Avantika said Velan had a crush on her, he became even more nervous in her presence and couldn’t bring himself to talk with her. He even had difficulty seeing her face. 

“So how is the investigation of my most favourite kids in the world going?” she asked. 

“The culprit inside, has a tattoo on his left chest, probably hiding it with a skin patch. He is also in possession of a skull and seven swords,” said Apsara. 

“That is good you’ve got to clear yourselves from this cow’s head black magic accusation but keep in mind that it is the outsider, the really powerful black magician, we have to catch. He is up to something. Anyway Velan, start cleaning now and finish before the guest arrives,” Avantika said. 

Velan had finished cleaning the entire mansion thoroughly. He was in the back drinking water and chatting with the other servants when he saw the guest, a tall gaunt man, come through the front entrance escorted by the Guru and Avantika. 

After a while he heard the Guru’s loud voice, “… but chief minister are you sure? You say the prince has been kidnapped .” 

Velan left in search of his friends mulling over what he heard. He found them under the neem tree near the stream. 

“I overheard the Guru talking to the guest. The prince has been kidnapped. This is what the outsider, the vile black magician must have been planning all along. The black magic with the cow’s head was to test the strength of the protective spell. Guru Kaala Nathan also has such a protective spell around his ashram,” said Velan.

“But he failed. He couldn’t break the protective spell here and I don’t think he has managed to break the spell of Kaala Nathan either. Moreover Kaala Nathan’s ashram is surrounded by tall surrounding walls and there is almost a garrison of soldiers there. Even at the village the prince is heavily protected. How in the world could this have happened?” asked Mithun.  

“We must find and rescue the prince. We can. We are good at this investigation thing,” said Apsara in a tight lipped manner. 

“No we can’t. We have to solve our problems first or Velan goes to prison, remember,” said Mithun. 

“Yes. The king’s guards will find the prince. We are kids. I don’t think anyone would take us seriously,” said Gowri. 

Apsara broke down into tears, “But he is my brother. I have to save him.”  

“You are the princess and you’ve been keeping it away from us for so long. That isn’t cool girl,” said Mithun. 

So this was Apsara’s secret that Avantika obviously knew, Velan thought. Velan patting Apsara on the back said, “Don’t worry we’ll find your brother. The cases are related anyway.”  

 

CHAPTER 8 

The Guru talked on the evils of black magic and its prevalence in Kingi. He stated that ancient magic was far more superior and mixing it with black magic was not advisable. He then stood before the platform and nocked  his bow and chanted some mantras. He then took aim and fired his arrow at the skies. After a flash of lightning a thunderous downpour of rain came down forcefully. He launched another arrow and the rain stopped. 

“This is the power of ancient magic,” he said. He then asked the students to train but asked Velan and his friends to remain. 

“First a forest fire, then an inn fight and now black magic. It doesn’t matter what you did. Just tell me who contacted you to perform black magic and where he is. The issue is far more serious and grave now. A life is at stake,” said the Guru. 

“We know. The prince has been kidnapped. He is my brother, how can you mistrust us?” asked Apsara.

“I am not accusing all of you. Perhaps one of you has misled the others. If only I can find the truth with my inner sight. That is not to be,” said the Guru looking at Velan. 

“Why do you hate and mistrust Velan so much? Is it because he is a servant?” asked Apsara.

“I have far more graver reasons to not trust him but it is none of your concern,” said the Guru and waved them away with his hand. 

Avantika was watering the plants in the garden when Apsara barged in followed by the other three.

“How can you water the plants at a time like this, my brother, the prince of the kingdom, has been kidnapped.” shouted Apsara.

“So you  know. It is a testing time for all of us. What do you want from me?” asked Avantika.

“We want to help in the investigation,” said Apsara.

“That can be done. Captain Prakash is in charge of the investigation. A fresh set of eyes and thoughts would help. In fact it has been two days since the kidnapping but captain Prakash is still flummoxed by how the kidnapper gained entry in to the ashram. If you guys could shed some light, you’ll earn his respect,” said Avantika. 

“We are just kids, there is no way we’ll be taken seriously,” said Mithun scratching his ear. 

“Kids who’ve already subdued and helped nab a hardened criminal. In any case I’ll write you a letter of commendation to whoever you give it to. It will not help you with the ordinary folks but I assure you that eminent people like Captain Prakash, Kaala Nathan and a few others will take you seriously,” said Avantika.  

She led them to her study and began writing the letter. 

“Do you have any idea who might have done this? My brother hasn’t been prepared for hardships, they’ll rescue him soon, won’t they?” asked Apsara sitting on the edge of her chair and clasping and unclasping her fingers.

“Your brother is tougher than you give him credit for. Furthermore your brother is only held as a bargaining chip. So rest assured that no harm will come to him,” said Avantika.

“If it is money they want why not just give it to them and get it over with,” said Apsara. 

Avantika stared at Apsara a long time and then said, “It isn’t money. No one kidnaps a prince for money. I believe it is the black magician who had shot the tiger cub who is the person behind this. Don’t worry about the ransom for now, consultations are going on that. The Guru is going to the capital regarding this. You just make yourself helpful to Captain Prakash and let us hope that the prince is rescued soon.”

Avantika finished her letter and gave it to Apsara. 

“Take the ponies and ride to Guru Kaala Nathan’s ashram. You’ll find Captain Prakash there. He’ll lead you from then. No need to attend classes until this mess is over. Remember this isn’t a game anymore. If you don’t want to be treated like children anymore then you must stop acting like it. Good luck,” said Avantika. 

They collected the ponies and rode towards Kaala Nathan’s ashram. Kaala Nathan’s ashram is on one edge of the village unlike Yavvan which is inside the forest. One side of Kaala Nathan’s ashram is the forest though. They soon came within sight of the tall walls of the Ashram. Starting from the guard room till the entrance were guards at regular intervals. They were stopped at the gate by a guard. Apsara handed the letter.

A few minutes later the guard appeared and said, “You can leave the ponies here, they’ll be taken to the stables. Captain Prakash has asked you guys to be accompanied to the scene of the crime, the prince’s chambers.”

They followed the guard to the prince’s chamber. Captain Prakash was waiting outside.

“Let us go right in,” he said and opened the door. 

Kaala Nathan’s ashram and the rooms there were huge and shone of opulence but they lacked the quaint beauty and simplicity of Yavvan. The prince’s room was piled with things here and there but what caught the attention was the message ‘Give me Ender’ in red on the green wall.

“We browsed through each item here thoroughly but there isn’t one suspicious thing. We also brought in the prince’s friends to look at the place. They say it is exactly the way it used to be here. For a scene of crime it unusually lacks any sign of struggle. We asked the guards and they say they saw nothing unusual that day. Kaala Nathan is sure his protective spell wasn’t breached,” said Prakash. 

“Then why do you suppose this is the scene of crime? Just because of the message?” asked Apsara.

“Obviously someone came here and wrote this message.”

“But what if it were an accomplice, someone from the inside?”

 “What makes you say that?”

“The message is on the bottom portion of the wall. Any adult would have written the message larger and right in the centre. A kid has done this as instructed by the Kidnapper.”

“Excellent,” said Prakash eyeing Apsara for a while and then patting on her back. 

“Is it human blood on the wall?” asked Mithun.

“The message has been written with goat blood,” said Gowri.

“Yes,” concurred Prakash. 

“It must have taken a few gallons of blood to write this. Obviously the kidnapper doesn’t carry goats along with him. Any person buying that much blood without meat would be uncommon. In fact I believe the butcher would have emptied his stock,” said Gowri.

“I’ll send a man to the Butcher’s immediately,” said Prakash. 

“No need, we’ll visit him when we leave. At least we can make ourselves useful that way,” said Apsara. 

Guru Kaala Nathan entered the room. He seemed much younger than Guru Rishaba Shringa. He was tall and had no facial hairs. He had tonsured head so there was no hair there too. 

“The kids just confirmed that your protective spell wasn’t breached. The scene of crime must have been elsewhere outside the ashram,” said Prakash. 

Gowri went close to the wall and peered carefully at the message for a long time and said “Flowers will be flowers and fruits will be fruits.”

Velan could see the expression of the captain and the guru. He was amused, welcome to Gowri talk. 

“What is it Gowri?” asked Mithun.

“The letters are slanted from right to left. The message has been written by a left hander,” said Gowri. 

“There are only two left handers in the inner circle of the prince. We can interrogate them both and find the truth,” said Prakash. 

“No need. Just get me their hand written notes and I will tell you who the accomplice is,” said Gowri.  

Soon guards rushed to get what was required. 

“Sorry, Kaala Nathan ji, that we didn’t greet you properly,” said Apsara.

“It is okay, such brilliance and yet I hear Guru Rishaba Shringa complaining about you guys. You’ll get all the assistance you need. Now if you’ll please excuse me, I’ve got to leave for the capital,” said Kaala Nathan and went away. 

“This Ender, is it a jewel or some precious gem or something with magical properties?” asked Mithun. 

“Oh, I forgot you guys would have been babies when this Ender thing hit the streets and swept like a fire through the common folk. There is an Ender’s maze, you must have at least heard of it,” said Prakash.

“Yeah, we’ve heard of a maze in the forest that no one has completed. Anyone attempting it has either died or suffered grave injuries. So if it is a stupid maze the kidnapper wants then give it to him,” said Mithun. 

“Ender is not just a maze it is a person and only the person Ender can complete—“ Prakash was saying when Gowri cut him off.

She struck her forehead and said “Ender is the prophecy about the end of Malla.”

“Actually the prophecy is about the person who’ll bring the end of Malla. Ender is a person. We have committed resources to find about this Ender person. No success so far,” said Prakash.  

“Ender I won’t let you end the world nor let my brother wither for you. By god I’ll have you swapped for my brother,” said Apsara. 

A guard came and gave two sets of notes to Prakash. Gowri got them and browsed through them. 

After reading them for a long time she said “They learn some cool things here.”

On reading the stares her friends gave her she said, “Okay, okay.”

Now she peered through the two notes carefully. Then tossing aside one note she said, “This Hiresh is the person we want.”

“Will you allow us to interrogate him first?” asked Apsara.

“Sure,” said Prakash. 

Velan felt proud of the intelligence of his friends. Yet he had a bad feeling about this Ender prophecy thing. It needs further probing he thought. 

CHAPTER 9

Kaala Nathan’s ashram had indoor classrooms too. In one class room Hiresh was confined by the guards. 

“I would prefer if you stayed outside while we question him. For we believe he will be more forthcoming if he sees only us kids,” said Apsara to Prakash.

Prakash obliged and the four went inside. Velan went to a corner chair and looked outside the window while listening carefully. Mithun took the hint and sat at a distance. Apsara pulled a chair and sat right before Hiresh. He was a short, thin kid. Gowri sat beside Apsara. 

“We know you are innocent and that you’ve been tricked in to writing the message. If you had known what was going to happen before hand you wouldn’t have done it. We promise you if you cooperate you can continue your studies like nothing ever happened,” said Apsara. 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Better stop this nonsense right now,” said Hiresh. 

“If you want to play it that way it is cool. The Captain and his guards won’t take a lenient view of this. Unless we intervene forget studies it would be prison for you,” said Apsara.

“Look I don’t know—“ 

“You have a really good handwriting. Neat but at the same time very unique though. I wish I could write like that,” said Gowri.  

“Listen, you can’t do this to me just under the assumption of it being my handwriting,” said Hiresh.

“Look we aren’t here to find proof of your guilt. The captain is already convinced and is going to arrest you. We want information, anything you have, it will help rescue the prince who was your friend. We are giving a chance to amend your wrongs,” said Apsara.

“I don’t believe that on the sayings of kids like you, the Captain will leave me alone,” said Hiresh.

Apsara waved to the captain outside and he waved back.

Then leaning towards Hiresh she said, “I’ll tell you a secret, I am the princess and I can influence –“ 

“So it is true what he said,” said Hiresh

“Who said what?” asked Apsara.

“Okay, I’ll tell you everything. Not because I believe you can help me. No one can help me out of this mess. I want to set things right and if it may be, help my friend come back,” said Hiresh. 

“Good,” she said and waved over Mithun and Velan. 

They came and sat near Apsara and Gowri.

“Would you mind if the Captain was present?” asked Apsara.

“No,” said Hiresh. 

She beckoned the captain and he too came and sat beside them. 

“I met a kid in the village. He was about the age of you kids. He was also from your ashram. He bought me food and dessert often. He told me the princess was studying with him and was a close friend. I didn’t believe it at first but when I asked the prince, he didn’t refuse. One day he came up with a bucket full of what he claimed was red paint. He said the princess wanted to play a practical joke on him. He said she was in the western guard room near the forest waiting for the prince. He asked me to write the message on the prince’s wall saying he won’t mind it. I did as told and the prince left for the guard room. When I found what happened I got afraid and didn’t say a word to anyone,” said Hiresh. 

“You should have come up with this first but now you are going to prison,” said Prakash.

“We kind of promised Hiresh that we’ll keep him out of prison, can you make it happen?” asked Apsara twirling a ringlet of her hair that had fallen over her face.

  “For now, yes, but if the prince isn’t rescued soon we’ll have to take him in,” said Prakash.

Hiresh sighed with relief. He thanked Apsara and the others profusely. He said he must leave now before the other students get suspicious as to why he was detained for so long. 

At that moment Guru Kaala Nathan entered the room and said to Captain Prakash, “As I was leaving for the capital, I realised I had left my snuff box with you. I can be without anything but not my snuff box,” and then he turned to leave. The snuff box was made of gold.

Gowri asked Captain Prakash, “If you can pardon Hiresh then you can definitely pardon Velan too. You can definitely keep him out of prison.”

“It is not in my hands and moreover your Guru has some serious misgivings about Velan’s innocence and is bent on sending him to prison. But I can say this if the prince is rescued then there is a big chance of him being excused.”

“I don’t mind prison except for the fact that I would be separated from my friends. I don’t believe prison would be any worse than what I went through at Lord Pamba’s place. Moreover after learning that the Prince is Apsara’s brother I would do anything to rescue him,” said Velan.

Kaala Nathan who had gone half way across the hall turned on hearing this. He took a pinch of powder from his snuff box and inhaled it deeply and asked Velan, “You mean what you say kid?”

Velan nodded his head.

Kaala Nathan asked Prakash to leave the room and said, “My weakness is wealth and luxury but Rishaba Shringa has a greater weakness which is his patriotism towards Malla. Your fate is worse than prison if the prince isn’t rescued. So my advice to you would be to leave this godforsaken kingdom kid. Don’t tell anyone I told you thus,” and left.   

An eerie silence fell over the room. “Like Apsara’s secret it seems there is a secret about me too. My father told me that I was given to him by a senior officer of the court.”

Gowri said, “Don’t worry we will coax it out of Avantika. But first let us try to find Apsara’s brother, the prince first.”

“They went to their regular Butcher’s place for he was the biggest in the village and only he would have got such a huge amount of goat’s blood. They went near closing time and waited till he was about to wind up before they approached him. 

“Did anyone recently purchase more than a couple of gallons of goat’s blood?” asked Gowri. 

“Yes, a boy your age bought recently. Had to almost empty my stock to give him. Why do you ask?” asked the butcher. 

Ignoring his query Gowri asked “Did you remember anything peculiar about him?”

“No, he just had a book with him. Teach yourself swordplay or something like that,” said the butcher. 

They thanked the butcher and left for the ashram. They went straight for the cowshed. 

“I can’t believe Hiresh was so dumb as to get mixed in all of this,” said Mithun.

“Hear the wise man speak,” said Gowri. 

“All in all it takes trust and a little bit of persuasion for people to do stupid things in the name of friendship,” said Apsara. 

Velan raised his eyebrows at Apsara for this.

“I am lucky with you guys, your brains may not be up there but all your hearts are in the right place,” said Apsara. 

“What do you mean by brains not being up there miss clever girl. I have more brains than you lot put together,” said Mithun. 

“Careful it is spilling all over the floor,” said Gowri.

“What?” asked Mithun. 

“Your brains,” said Gowri. 

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. When I said that I meant my brains also not being up there. Suresh and Keerti from our class are real brainy but I am glad to have you guys than them, as close friends,” said Apsara. 

“Now that you mention it, someone from our class has deceived Hiresh. So now we must find that black sheep. Only then can we find this black magician,” said Mithun. 

“No, I don’t think so. Hiresh has been led to believe that the person was from our ashram. Why would a person in an ashram want a teach yourself swordplay book? I believe it is a kid from the village,” said Velan.

“Could it be the kid Rudra rejected by the Guru?” asked Mithun.

“May be, may be not, we can know only if we have conclusive proof,” said Velan. 

“Shall we go for a walk? It is too early to get to bed,” said Gowri. 

“No, not today,” said Mithun.

To everyone’s surprise Avantika entered the cowshed carrying a big plate of sorts. 

“What are you doing here?” asked Apsara.

“Why? Can’t I come? It is still my property after all. Jabala said you guys have returned. The Guru isn’t here and I was feeling bored so I came here. There is another reason also. So how is the investigation coming along,” said Avantika. 

Gowri briefed Avantika about all the latest developments in the case. 

Avantika lifted the cloth from the plate and delicious jilebis and some milk sweets were there. Everyone took the sweets.

“Why did you bring so much? We can’t eat this much,” said Apsara.

“Speak for yourself. I know the capacities of the boys. Don’t let Velan’s silence fool you. Mithun alone can finish the whole plate,” said Gowri between mouthfuls of jilebi. 

“What is the occasion?” asked Mithun.

“Tomorrow is the birthday of one of you. I decided to celebrate a bit early,” said Avantika. 

“Whose?” asked Velan.

“Your’s,” replied Avantika. 

“No, that can’t be. Even I don’t know when my birthday is,” said Velan.

“But I do,” said Avantika. 

It is true, thought Velan, she knows about my birth and who I am. If so why hasn’t he been told about that? 

“Don’t ask me anything for now. In a little while you’ll yourself know all of it. I can’t say anything because I’ve been sworn to secrecy for your own well being,” said Avantika. 

She is really a nice person. She is in fact nice to everyone, the servants, the students, the villagers. But with him, is she nice because of his friends or about something in his past. A lot of questions swirled around in Velan’s mind. 

Gowri shivered and hugged herself.

“Why are you shivering? Do you have a fever?” so saying Avantika touched Gowri’s forehead.

“No, it is just the wind,” said Gowri. 

“Did you ask the masters discretely as to if any of them has a skull tattoo?” asked Velan to Gowri. They figured since Gowri was liked by the masters it would be best. 

“But wouldn’t that warn the culprit?” asked Avantika.

“We have to take that chance,” said Velan.

Apsara was still touching Gowri’s forehead checking for signs of fever.

“That’s it,” said Velan hitting his forehead. “Around the same time the culprit got a tattoo, master Vipul had a fever and was scratching his chest. Tattoos can cause fever,” said Velan.

“That is a very long shot but still the Guru is not here so you can corner Vipul. Even if it is a dead end nothing is lost,” said Avantika.

CHAPTER 10

Though Velan was distraught with the slow progress in solving the mystery behind the disappearance of the prince he took solace in the company of his friends. He was happy in their company. He thought of his deepest darkest secret in lord Pamba’s mansion. One of lord Pamba’s distant relative, a girl named Madhana had arrived to the mansion and had enticed him to their study. Velan was so bewitched by her beauty that he did not mind any consequences that might arise from courting her favours. She was like a goddess to him. Little did he know that she was the devil incarnate enticing him to the gates of hell. She kissed him and was telling sweet words to him when Lord Pamba’s fat wife came and screamed at the top of her lungs. The whole of lord Pamba’s household woke up and no one was ready to hear his side of the story. The girl feigned innocence and accused Velan of taking undue advantage of her. 

Velan was made to hang upside down and was stripped and given a caning that he would never forget to this day. More than the caning, the indignity of the whole episode hung like a cross around his neck. It made him lose the trust of people and especially girls from then. But he never revealed the girl’s role in the whole misadventure. He kept silent as if it was his cross alone to bear. He hung upside down as the whole of Lord Pamba’s household and other outsiders watched. This treachery was his deepest darkest secret whose signs lay in the form of the marks on his back. His friends and especially Apsara had seen the marks of his torture but didn’t know that it was the symbol of a deep dark betrayal. 

After classes they all met in the cowshed. They all sat on the hay bale and chatted. “Master Vipul is no naive boy like Hiresh, so how to get him talking,” asked Mithun.

“First of all, we don’t know for sure if he is the culprit,” said Gowri. 

“He is one of the strongest suspects and we must proceed as if he is the culprit if we are to find the truth behind this whole black magic mess,” said Mithun.

“I agree, for that we must expose his tattoo or find the skull and swords he must have stashed away like Velan said. There is no other way,” said Apsara twirling her shoulder length curly black hair.

“There are always other ways but I agree this is the best course of action for now. Come let us go feed Libi. It will keep us distracted,” said Velan. 

Velan got some meat from the kitchen and they all ventured silently outside the perimeters of the ashram.

Libi being an orphaned tiger cub knew nothing of hunting and would usually be waiting for them by the stream for them to come with meat. Today it was to be seen nowhere. 

“Libi sweetie, munchkins, baba pyare,” intoned Gowri affectionately as though it were a puppy instead of a tiger cub. Libi was closest to Gowri and being from the river tribes she had a way with all animals. Apsara on the other hand was being trained by Avantika the art of bird talking which Gowri had no clue about. 

After waiting for sometime they decided to search the bushes and thereby they ventured in to a part of the forest where they hadn’t been before. There amidst dense foliage and tall rosewood trees clumped together without allowing daylight to seep through, they found Libi tearing at the last remains of a cow’s carcass. A bare minimal skeleton of the cow was left remaining. 

While the rest of them were watching in astonishment Gowri went and hugged Libi, she had been worried that something might have happened to him. 

“This is the skeleton of the cow whose skull had been used for black magic.  Vipul must have beheaded the cow here and carved out the skull to take it back within the perimeters to perform the black magic,” said Mithun.

Despite it being early evening it was pretty dark in the woods and there was a howling sound emanating from the bushes.

“I think it is dangerous to tarry here any longer, this spot gives me an eerie feeling,” said a tense Apsara and Mithun nodded in nervousness. 

But a quaint Gowri said “I have no idea about black magic but if there is pink magic I would like to learn it. What do you think Libi darling.”

Velan suppressed a smile and said Jabala will be waiting for me to milk the cows for the evening. Avantika is preparing some sweets it seems. Let us head back to the ashram. 

They all returned to the outer perimeter of the ashram followed by Libi. They tried to feed Libi but it had a full tummy and refused to eat any further. They all played with it for a while before heading to the ashram. 

Jabala was waiting for Velan with a frown on her face.

“Where’ve you been boy, don’t you know that the cows need milking,” she said. 

The other three left to play after saying good byes to Velan. Velan went to the cowshed and took the bucket and let his mind wander while milking the cows. The essential clue to finding the insider who helped the black magician was the skull tattoo. The masters took bath in the river outside the stream which formed the perimeter of the Ashram. It was on the west side of the ashram. They have already broken rules and crossed the perimeters of the ashram and ventured in to the forest and the falls. The problem therefore was to observe them without themselves being observed. 

Velan finished milking the cows and shared his plan with the others. The next day before sunrise they went to the west side of the ashram to the river. 

When crossing the stream Gowri asked, “The Guru can sense any crossing of the perimeters by anyone including us. Then why does he choose to selectively scold us instead of scolding us each time?”

“It is an age old technique. If scolded often we will lose fear and do as we please,” said Apsara.

“I don’t know about that but every time I got a caning at Pamba’s it put the fear of god in me.” said Velan. 

Every one fell silent on hearing it. It was the first time he was talking about it openly before his friends. It inadvertently slipped out of his mouth. 

“Sorry I didn’t mean to upset your moods,” said Velan.

“Dum da dididi dum, a caning spoils your morning,” said Gowri. 

“Gowri,” yelled Apsara but both Velan and Mithun erupted in laughter.

“I think we are the only students to have daringly ventured outside the perimeters of the ashram. Briju and his friends are only all talk and a cowardly lot,” said Gowri. 

A thick mist hung over the winter air and they had difficulty seeing in the poor light. They shivered and their teeth clattered as they talked. There was no tree cover near the river and they hid behind a huge boulder and waited for the masters to arrive. 

“How will the masters bathe in the cold water of the river. We students are used to hot water,” said Mithun. 

“They chant some mantras to keep them warm. Have you seen the masters always mumbling under their breath sabu skritham sash yam bush yam etc. I find it very funny,” said Gowri. 

This time around Velan held his tongue and didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to be always the tragic or sorry figure amidst his friends. 

But Apsara looked at him tersely as if reading his mind and said, “At Yavvan even the servants bathe in hot water but I know someone who doesn’t. Velan bathes in the cowshed in ice-cold water.”

“I am used to bathing like that at Pamba’s and I don’t mind….,” Velan was saying when he stopped in mid-sentence and added, “but how do you know, I bathe without any clothes on,” said Velan flummoxed.

“I saw you the other day morning when Avantika asked to fetch some dung for her Kolam (rice powder art). You looked cute without your clothes on,” said Apsara and everyone except Velan erupted in laughter. He reddened in his face but then again joined in the laughter. 

All the masters bathed in their underclothes scratching their armpits or blowing their noses. This elicited a lot of giggles from Apsara and Gowri. But three of them, masters Vipul, Madhan and Gorakh bathed with their vests on. 

“This means it is either of the three is the insider culprit,” said Apsara. 

“How can you doubt master Madhan. He has been so helpful to us and he is a trusted lieutenant of the Guru. It is that scoundrel Vipul and it has been confirmed today,” said Mithun. 

“His being helpful to us and being a trusted lieutenant proves nothing,” said Apsara. 

“Apsara is right and our list of suspects has widened from just one to three. We must watch them closely,” said Velan. 

Gowri didn’t pay any heed to the conversation and was giggling loudly seeing the masters in their unguarded moments of bathing. She stumbled on a stone behind and crashed in to a thorn bush with full force. Her face was scratched roughly by the thorns and she squealed in pain. She then shut her own mouth even in the pain. Apsara opened her mouth to call for help from the masters but Mithun shut her mouth tightly from behind. Blood was leaking out of Gowri’s wounds. 

The sound had attracted the attention of  the masters bathing and Gorakh and Vipul tried to find out what it was but master Madhan stopped them and said, “must be some wounded animal, let me inspect.”

Master Madhan came behind the boulder and shushed them before taking out a potion from his locket and bathed Gowri’s wounds with it. All the blood congealed and the skin healed instantaneously. 

By then the other masters had bathed and were walking towards the ashram and they beckoned Madhan. 

He waved them away saying, “It is a wounded cat and you guys carry on and I will follow shortly,” then turning to them he said, “I know that you guys are trying to find the insider culprit who helped the black magician but let me suggest that it is not a job for kids. Why don’t you leave it to the adults. The Guru will deal with this matter. Trust him”

“The Guru is busy and we have the blessings of Avantika on this. We suspect master Vipul and it is almost confirmed now. Does he have a skull tattoo on his chest?” asked Mithun.

“Shut up. We also suspect you. Why don’t you show your chest to us,” said Apsara. 

Madhan laughed at this and said, “Don’t be childish. If I wore a skin patch or if I had black magicked the tattoo in to disappearing would you kids know the difference.”

Apsara folded her hands and said stubbornly, “I still want you to show your chest.”  

  Madhan paused for a moment and then lifted up his vest to show his chest. 

“See there is no tattoo.”

“Why don’t you have any chest hairs and why do you three bathe with your vests on?” prodded Apsara relentlessly. 

“oh, come on yo….” started Mithun but Madhan cut him off by raising his hand. 

“I have a skin condition and I am taking potion from Avantika ji to rectify it. You can verify it from her. As for the other two I guess they are just shy. Why don’t you grill them also like you grilled me,” he said in an irritated tone and then softening added, “I love you kids too much. Why don’t you kids leave it to the adults and focus on learning. I’ll talk to Avantika.”

“Teachers and masters love the student bloopers. Yuppidi dippidi boo, we still can’t do what you want woo hoo, bless us or curse us, we children outshine men,” said Gowri suddenly. 

“What?” asked Madhan in an astonished voice.

“She says thank you for your concern but we still need to focus on the case for other reasons,” said Velan.

“Will you help us in this?” asked Mithun. 

“Yes, but I don’t like the idea of spying on my own colleagues,” said Madhan and left for the ashram. 

Gowri wanted to bathe in the river and so they all dipped in to it. They went back to the ashram and after breakfast they all gathered in Avantika’s study. 

Mithun said aloud to Velan, “I love bathing in the river to bathing in the falls.”

Apsara kicked Mithun’s foot hard. 

Avantika stamped Mithun’s foot hard.

“So you’ve been crossing the perimeters of the ashram again,” said Avantika with a  mild frown and then a smile.

Apsara said, “It was for the investigation” and updated Avantika on all the recent developments. 

Avantika nodded her head and said “Okay, let us play a game.”  

   

CHAPTER 11 

Avantika went to a shelf and took out a pack of cards. Her room was adorned with pictures of birds and that of  various Saivite gods and goddesses. 

A girl came in and  gave a plate of sweet pongal to Avantika who tasted it and said, “Nice work, child,” and sent her away. 

There were several girls of aristocrats like Apsara under Avantika’s tutelage who learnt soft arts like cooking, kolam (rice powder art), classical dance like Bharatanatyam etc. There were also several girls from the river tribes and other tribes who learnt martial arts from the Guru. Avantika herself was well versed in martial arts and other esoteric stuff like bird talk but she was from a northern kingdom called Athivanam. Apsara was the only aristocrat and that too a princess training in martial arts as for as Velan knew. 

The outside of the cards were designed with the picture of an hour glass. On the inside were several other colourful pictures. She came and sat on the cot with it’s soft mattress along with them and shuffled the cards. 

She said, “The game is simple. These are astrologer’s cards used to predict the future but we will use it to play. I will show a card and you guys can tell the words that come to your mind. Then you have to tell their definition or meaning. You can do it as many times as you want.”  

“Oh, bug it, oops, sorry, when you took the cards I thought we were going to play some sort of a card game with even a bet of a few gold coins perhaps. I am a bit disappointed that’s all,” said Mithun.

Avantika smiled and shuffled the cards and drew out a card with a picture of a noose. 

“Death,” said Mithun.

“Suicide,” said Gowri.

“A rope knot,” said Apsara trying to outshine the others in intelligence. 

Velan just shrugged his shoulders as if he had nothing to add. 

“Okay, good, now say a definition of death as you see it,” said Avantika. 

“Going to god,” said Gowri.

“The end of life. There is no return. I fear it a lot,” said Mithun.

“Pain, emotionally and physically to us and others. It is a permanent separation giving a lot of sad memories and grief,” said Apsara.

“A lasting sleep. Every sleep is a minor death. May be it is a kind of coma or amnesia. Err.. ittty.. bitty…, it is black or red in colour,” said Gowri

Velan again shrugged. But this time Avantika coaxed him to answer.

“To me death is just an announcement after which the person supposedly dead travels with others who have not heard the announcement. In my depression and desperation at Pamba’s I’ve seen a lot, dogs and things disappearing and reappearing somewhere else, people morphing faces etc. I even tried to kill myself a lot many times, slashing my wrist or falling in to a well but I survived or was rescued for another round of torture.”

Avantika kindly caressed his hair. Apsara patted his back.

Velan continued, “I don’t think there is any pain in death and I don’t fear it. What I used to fear was life itself before I met these guys. Now my friends have given me a purpose and a new lease of life.”

“Well said,” Avantika said and drew another card in which was a picture of a boy and girl in embrace without any clothes on.

Gowri and Apsara started giggling heavily. The boys averted their eyes in shyness. 

“Sex,” said Gowri.

“Define it,” said Avantika, herself smiling shyly. 

“loving of boy and girl, kissing, hugging, seeing another without clothes. Though I have never kissed anyone,” said Gowri.

“I too haven’t kissed anyone, but I’ve seen that those that have kissed and seen another without clothes they become a very close and intimate couple forgetting everyone else.” said Apsara.

“There need be no love in sex and it involves a lot more than shedding clothes. I’ve seen pictures of it. I’ve been told it is quite pleasurable. It is a kind of ownership, for the girl is then irrevocably intertwined with the boy and obeys his wishes,” said Mithun.

  “Yuck, what a thought?,” said Apsara.

“Ippidy dippidy do, chicks leap, hens weep but cocks are always cheap and a lousy creep,” said Gowri.

This time around too Velan tried to remain a mute spectator but Avantika compelled him to say something.

“I’ve kissed a girl but then the girl betrayed me when caught and I received the worst caning of my life. I have a distaste towards all things sex,” said Velan. 

Avantika smiled and in mild admonition nodded her head left and right and said, “Today’s kids, don’t you think it has something to do with marriage and children.”

“I was about to say it,” said Apsara.

Mithun smacked her head and said, “Don’t try to be the smart one always.”

Avantika admonished Mithun for hitting Apsara.

“What? Sex is all about love, marriage, children and lots of fighting. I was about to say it. I swear,” said Apsara placing her hand on Mithun’s head. 

Now Avantika got a bit really angry and scolded Apsara, “Never ever swear on someone’s head for trivial matters.”

Apsara sat with a sullen face. Gowri tickled Apsara and she first giggled and then erupted in hilarious laughter. But she had a mild resentment towards Mithun for accusing her of trying to be over smart. 

Avantika said, “Okay kids, enough of this game. The summer break starts today. All other kids are leaving to see their families. What are your plans?”

“We wish we could also go see our families. But the time the Guru gave us to find the insider culprit and clear ourselves of this black magic mess is almost over,” said Mithun.

“Or else it would be just expulsion for us and our families might scold us but they will take us back. They might even admit us in another ashram but for Velan it would be prison,” said Gowri.

Velan felt a wave of gratefulness and kindness towards his friends. He didn’t want them to suffer on his account. He thought of voluntarily going to prison or escaping out of the ashram without telling anyone. 

He was interrupted in his thoughts when Apsara said to Avantika, “Can’t you change the Guru’s mind and let Velan walk free.”

“Black magic is a serious offence in our kingdom Malla. People are facing a lot worse for black magic and killing a cow in our kingdom. Still I would have talked to the Guru but for the disappearance of the prince and it being connected with this black magic incident.”

Avantika got up from the cot and after thinking for a while said, “Tell you what, you find this insider and Velan can stay out of prison and I will give you all the help you want. In fact I will even talk the Guru in to giving you all a holiday when you find this insider.”

They told Avantika about the interaction with master Madhan, their suspicion of master Vipul and the three masters bathing in their vests.  

“We can’t identify a skin patch easily and I as a grown woman cannot ask the masters to disrobe and inspect. The Guru has gone to the capital and even otherwise he won’t take lightly to suspecting his own masters on the words of some newbie students. After all, all masters here are his old students. It is a catch twenty two situation,” said Avantika. 

She held her chin for a moment and added, “Why don’t you try and locate the stash of swords and the skull. It might lead you to the culprit.”

They came out and headed towards the cowshed. 

Apsara plonked on the straw bale and the others followed. 

She said, “There is an old set of store rooms near the masters’ rooms that is locked all the time and piled with junk. Each master has a key to the entrance and to a special store room allotted for them. It is meant to hold teaching books, devotional items and other personal effects. The keys are jealously held by each of the masters and the locks can’t be broken.”

She scratched her head and added, “If only we could somehow enter the store room of master Vipul and verify.”

“Ha, ha ha, look at miss high and mighty, clever girl and princess of the land coming up with a master plan. If the lock can’t be broken how are we supposed to get in,” said Mithun. 

Apsara broke in to sobs and jumping from the hay bale said, “I have my brother kidnapped and though I grudge him for being haughty I love him. Yet instead of being with my parents to be comforted by them I am here trying to sort out the mess we have gotten Velan in to. But all you do is ridicule me,” she said and ran away crying.

Gowri glared at Mithun and saying, “She must have gone to the girl’s quarters. I will calm her,” she followed suit.

Mithun still lying on the hay bale turned to Velan and said, “What did I do wrong? I just said the truth.”

“You shouldn’t have man. Anyway its just our Apsara she will calm down as usual,” said Velan. 

But that was not to be. For Apsara refused to come out of the girl’s quarters. The rest of the students had went home leaving behind these four along with the masters and servants.    Mithun felt guilty about the way he acted out with Apsara but did not show it outside. He talked cheerfully with Velan. 

Mithun set about furthering Apsara’s plan and thought of using the Lota loti Zunga to steal Master Vipul’s store room key while he was bathing. He thought this would douse the quarrel between Apsara and him. They told the plan to Gowri asking her to convey it to Apsara. 

Apsara came out of her room but said, “I am only here because if the insider culprit isn’t found with proof by day after tomorrow Velan will go to prison. So I will help with the investigation but will not talk to any insensitive scoundrel.”

Gowri agreed while Mithun simply stood there seeing the ground. 

“Is it that soon? By day after tomorrow I might be in prison. Believe me, I’ve seen worse. You guys need not strain on my account,” said Velan. 

“Don’t talk like that we will find the insider culprit and keep you out of prison,” said Gowri and Apsara nodded eagerly.    

The next day they crossed the perimeter of the ashram marked by the stream and ventured in to the forest in search of the Lota loti Zunga. They reached the Lota loti village and found Zunga. While Velan and Mithun talked with Zunga the girls refilled their hip flasks with the magical potion that gave them immense strength like that of elephants. Mithun collected wax from the Lota loti village to take the impression of the key. 

Apsara suggested, “While we are at it, why don’t we collect the keys of all three masters under suspicion, Vipul, Madhan and Gorakh.”

“She suspects master Madhan, but we don’t. I am almost damn sure it is master Vipul,” said Mithun looking away from Apsara. 

Apsara scowled at this but didn’t respond. Despite the best efforts of Gowri and Velan, Apsara and Mithun were at loggerheads with each other and were a bit hostile to each other. Mithun at times conceded to Velan his willingness to end the quarrel. But Apsara was too hurt to accept any attempts at brokering peace.

That night while the masters were sleeping Zunga shrunk himself and creeped in to the marked masters’ rooms from under the door and after searching found the big keys that looked like room keys and took their wax impressions. Velan went to the kitchen and melted some old iron spoons and cooled them in the wax impressions to make keys. The quartet bid good bye to Zunga and went near the back entrance of the set of store rooms. It was too dark outside. A loud howling noise was heard and the chill sent shivers in to everybody’s spine. They used a rope to climb the back wall and slipped in through the ventilator shaft. 

Gowri who had brought an oil soaked cloth tied to a wooden log, lit up that torch. A feeble light seeped from it. 

“Eeeeeeeeew…..,” Apsara shrieked at the top of her lungs.    

  

     

 

CHAPTER 12

There were cobwebs all over the place. They could feel them sticking to their face and skin. Spiders were scurrying along. But that was not what made Apsara shriek. A thick black snake was curling on a broken and abandoned bedpost. Gowri tried to unsuccessfully burn it with the torch. Velan took a wooden stick from nearby and struck hard blows on it. The snake hissed and reared it’s head up. The rest stepped back but Velan undeterred struck the snake hard till its head was mashed in to a pulp. 

They then slowly made way towards the front, clearing the cobwebs with their hands. 

All of them suddenly stopped dead in their tracks. For there inside an open chest were the missing swords and the skull. All their supposition and hopes were based on the assumption that the skull and swords were hidden inside the allotted store room of one of the three masters. Now that turned to be a dead end with no new leads. They returned and all of them slept in the cowshed itself tired in their minds and body. 

At dawn the girls and Mithun silently left to bathe and get ready for the day. Gowri and Apsara were the first to return and they tried to cheer Velan up. Mithun joined them in a short while. 

“If you go to prison, I will also go to prison. Let them try to arrest the princess of this land,” said Apsara.

“It doesn’t work that way, the prince of the realm, your brother is missing. Velan is under suspicion and won’t be let free even for you,” muttered Mithun under his breath. 

Apsara threw daggers at him with a look that would frighten the night owls to flight. Mithun turned away hastily. He was trying to mend fences with Apsara. His snide remarks to her comments were his own feeble attempts at that but Apsara was unforgiving towards him. 

Gowri, Apsara and Mithun tried to come up with any valid plan to rescue Velan but the time constraint made all plans unviable. Velan listened to all plans in a detached manner. The sky darkened and it became night. Everyone except Apsara had given up and reconciled to the fact that come dawn Velan will be sent away to prison. 

But Apsara in exasperation shouted at Velan, “We are trying hard to save you but you remain disinterested. Come on dammit try to think of something.”

Velan felt sorry for her and then pondered on it heavily for sometime scratching his chin and then said, “We’ve been going it the wrong way around. Instead of finding him we  must make him find us.”

“What are you rambling about?” shouted Mithun

“We give messages to all as if it is from the black magician, asking them to meet in the normal meeting place. The place must be where the cow skeleton lies,” said Velan. 

Apsara and Gowri both said, “A brilliant plan.”

Mithun also nodded his head to appease Apsara than his belief in the plan. 

So Gowri discretely placed a message under the banana leaves of the three masters while they were having supper. All of them ate sitting on the floor in banana leaves. 

“What if all three come?” asked Mithun

“Idiot, only the culprit would know the meeting place and only he would come,” said Gowri. 

“But even if he comes, how will we prove to the Guru that he is the culprit?” asked Mithun. 

“We are taking Avantika along. I’ve spoken to her,” said Apsara.

At that moment Avantika came to the corner of the dining room where the three were standing and said, “Let us leave. We need to have a head start in order to be able to properly hide in the bushes before the culprit comes.” 

“If the culprit comes,” said Mithun and added, “It is going to be a long night.”

Gowri smacked him hard on his head.

They went to the place where the cow’s skeleton lay and hid behind the bushes. Mithun sat peering around the bush. The others soon felt drowsy, yawned and went to sleep one by one. 

Suddenly just before dawn Velan was shook awake by Mithun. Velan yawned and by that time Mithun had shook awake the others. They all wearily got up. There standing by the skeleton was master Madhan. Everyone except Apsara were shocked by this.

They all came out of hiding. Madhan was shocked on seeing them. 

“So finally the kids have outshone me. You must know how I was trapped in to this. You all know Guru Rishaba Shringa has a rule for masters and students alike that they should not teach what they learnt to outsiders and…,” Madhan was saying but was interrupted by Apsara. 

“We know that but what has that got to do with your betrayal,” she said.

“There came this boy asking me to teach him martial arts, he had been rejected by the Guru. I took pity on him and began teaching him. But soon a black magician came and blackmailed me that if I didn’t co-operate he would tell the Guru about my secret teaching.”

By this time Gowri had crept behind Madhan and twisted his hands behind his back and held him with a neck lock. 

“Can you describe this black magician to us?” asked Velan.

“He had an eye patch. He also had an enormous wound up moustache and a bald head and he was dark in colour. He always carries a dark red pouch attached to his hip that contains black magic powder and materials.”

“Do you know anything of the kidnapping of the prince?’

“No, I swear on my mother’s grave that If I had known I wouldn’t have helped the black magician.”

“What ever your reasons, you will go to prison,” said Avantika. 

“No, let him be. His shame shall be his punishment,” said Velan. 

“Are you sure? You could have went to prison because of him,” said Gowri.

“Yes, leave him be,” said Velan and Gowri released Madhan who went away with his head bowed down. 

“So this means Velan isn’t going to prison,” said Apsara and jumped up and down with joy. 

She hugged everyone including Mithun. 

“So does this mean you are no longer angry with me?” asked Mithun carefully. 

“The way you kept awake for Velan when we all slept, for that I can forgive all your mistakes. Yes we are still friends.”

Velan was also mildly relieved at the prospect of not going to prison and being with his friends. 

He said, “I feel extremely grateful to you guys. If only I could do something for you guys in any way, I….” said Velan halting in mid sentence. 

“What buddy, forget it you owe us nothing,” said Mithun.

“No, there is something you can do. You have a great potential in learning martial arts and other stuff. You are truly brave too. But you don’t apply yourself fully well. I want you to immerse yourselves in learning and rise up to your full potential,” said Apsara.

“Yes, you have great potential and we don’t want you to waste it for us,” said Gowri. 

“Yeah man, master martial arts like wrestling, swordplay, mace, spear and even ancient magic using bow and arrows. You are better than all the rest of us in these things. You concentrate on developing these things. Maybe it will come in handy for us someday with all our adventures or misadventures should I say,” said Mithun. 

“Your friends are right. It is time you cast away the ghosts of your past and immerse yourself in learning,” said Avantika.

“Okay, okay, I am willing to do anything for those three and what they ask now I will definitely do it,” said Velan. 

They then went back to the ashram and finished their incomplete sleep. The Guru arrived the next day. 

“It is great that you guys found the insider culprit. But you shouldn’t have let him away. I still don’t trust Velan. I have my reasons. Anyway the prince is still missing and the new term starts tomorrow. So make yourselves useful and helpful,” said the Guru and left. 

They went to the stream on the southern edge where the path from Vayanad came to the ashram and sat under a tree. An old lady with a mild stoop and a youngster with a bald head and a choti (a tuft of hair bound in to a bun) came and stopped near them. 

The young man said with a  northern accent , “I Miskin. Where Guru Rishaba’s butt?”

“What?” asked Mithun incredulously. 

“Butt, butt, Guru lives inside his butt, no?” asked Miskin innocently. 

The girls and Velan tried not to laugh. 

“It isn’t butt but a hut and our Guru doesn’t live in a hut, he lives in a mansion,” replied Mithun. 

“But I thought butt, but it hut okay but where?”

Before Mithun could answer the old lady stepped in front and said, “Pardon him, he doesn’t know English that well. I am Sunaini, I would have asked but I am hard of hearing. So tell us where is the Guru’s hut?”

“The Guru lives in a mansion,” said Mithun again. 

“So the Guru lives with a mason. How odd. Okay but where?”

Mithun in exasperation pointed to the path straight ahead leading to the Guru’s mansion.

They then left in that path. By that time three others about their age had come up to the stream. The one leading them was tall, lean, dark and handsome, the one behind him was gigantic and fair with strong muscles and finally was a very pretty girl clothed in a half saree which was pretty new to Velan. Apsara and Gowri wore upper vests or shirts and skirts that extended to their calves. This new girl was much shorter than the guys in front of her and also  Velan and Mithun. 

The tall and lean one in front said, “I am Kishkan and this is my brother Dhinda and that is my sister Sathvika.”

The girl smiled shyly at this. Mithun, Apsara and Gowri started talking with them easily. But Velan didn’t open his mouth. They wore rich clothes and he felt shy and inadequate in their presence. The girl also remained silent and spoke only when spoken to and that too looking at the ground. 

It was learnt that they were the children of the ambassador Mithran of a northern kingdom who had to come here to take charge as ambassador of Kingi during tense times. They were transfer students here to continue their learning. The brothers were learning warfare while the sister was here to learn arts of hospitality from Avantika. Unlike Apsara and Gowri she had no interest in the arts of warfare. She was content to learn the art of hospitality as befitted a girl in Malla. 

Kishkan told them stories of the various northern kingdoms they had visited. Dhinda and Sathvika obeyed anything that Kishkan told. Dhinda talked proudly of his brother and shared various stories of the misadventures of the brother in their earlier ashrams.  

They were so much fun to be with that Gowri said, “We can now go from being a gang of four to a gang of seven.”

Somehow this hurt Velan. He felt left out in this enlarged gang. 

CHAPTER 13

Velan put all his efforts in to mastering the martial arts and other arts including the arts of cooking and bird talk by Avantika. He took learning very seriously and took it to his heart. He was never like this before. He realised that knowledge is power. He realised that true power lay with people like Guru Rishaba Shringa and Kaala Nathan and not with lords like Pamba. He did not want power for its sake. He wanted the power to do good to others. He still had to do all the chores of a servant like scrubbing the floors clean and milking the cows. He helped Avantika in cooking. He learnt to prepare herbal medicine from her. He also learnt to prepare tasty yet healthy foods that kept the body and mind fit. 

He did this all as a dedication to his three best friends. But he got so much in to learning that he spent less and less time with his friends. The three new transfer students became more and more close with Mithun, Gowri and Apsara. Velan couldn’t find fault with the three new students but didn’t relish the fact of them getting close with his three best buddies. In fact when Mithun found the girl Sathvika very attractive and liked her soft and shy nature, Velan was skeptical. 

Velan wanted peace of mind and found it in learning and even trained in the night. Whenever he got tired or disillusioned during practice he thought of Lord Pamba and new energy flowed within him. It became a common thing for the nine of them to hang out inside the cow shed at night, Velan and his best buddies, the three new students and the servants Sunaini and Miskin. 

Mithun said, “We have woken up the tiger in Velan. I liked the old Velan better.”

Apsara and Gowri remained silent. 

Kishkan said, “You mustn’t immerse yourself this fully for you will only be setting up yourself for disappointment. You must rise beyond the state of passion and reason and enter in to a detached state of mind.”

Velan knew what Kishkan said was true but he wasn’t ready to accept it from Kishkan’s mouth.

“What ointment this ‘disapp’ ointment. Please give Kishkan baba. I sores in groin,” said Miskin.

“With you around there won’t be any disappointment,” said Mithun laughing a little. 

“What appa’s (father’s) ointment. My appa is long gone and he didn’t have an ointment either,” said Sunaina. 

“Velan has been rescued from being sent to the prison but my brother, the prince is still in captivity. We need to rescue him,” said Apsara almost in tears. 

Kishkan consoled her hugging her close and said, “Don’t worry the whole kingdom is looking for him. He will be found out.”

Velan felt a deep churning in his stomach it must be envy he thought. The envy of a good friend and secret crush being more close to another person. But dismissed the thought and thought it must be hunger. 

Apsara released herself from Kishkan’s embrace and said, “The young helper of the black magician had a teach yourself swordplay book with him. That is the only clue we have.”

“It must be that kid Rudra. Remember seeing him with an one eyed man at Vrinda inn. The one eyed man must be the black magician. There are no book shops and only one old library in the village. If we enquire at the library and at Vrindha inn we can track down the helper,” said Mithun. 

“You are intelligent and funny at the same time, I like you,” said Sathvika looking shyly at Mithun. 

On hearing this Apsara turned and winked at Velan with a mischievous smile and twirling her hair. 

Velan found himself gasping for breath and felt an even severe pain in his stomach. It was at that time that he realised that he was in love with Apsara. She looked gorgeous in the light green tunic and black skirt.  This was no childish crush like he had on Avantika. This was a profound deep love and yearning to be with her and share everything with her. But a voice said in his mind that his friendship with the three came first. But another part of his brain said it is okay, for he can still love Apsara with the approval of other friends. He started breathing normally. But he hadn’t forgotten Madhana of Lord Pamba’s place and the canings and the deceit. He didn’t want his heart broken again.

Another glaring thought was the social divide between them. He was just a lowly servant while she was the princess of the realm. Some one of a higher status like Kishkan will not only have a better chance of marrying her but also can keep her happy. But his heart refused to accept what his mind told him. 

Velan excelled in martial arts defeating Briju and his gang regularly. But in archery Kishkan and Velan almost tied each time. Moreover Kishkan’s grasp of ancient magic was deep. Velan managed to tie Dhinda too in mace fighting and wrestling. He wanted to be the undisputed champion and didn’t like Kishkan defeating him at times.

Velan never feared death as he feared life itself. But now his greatest fear was losing his three friends. He never felt so insecure as he did now. 

Mithun said, “Let us go to the public library in the village now itself.”

“We can’t go in to the village without getting the permission of the Guru,” said Kishkan speaking for his brother and sister too. It was a known fact as those three never broke a rule and were the pets of the Guru and the ashram. 

“I also want come but Avantika ji want water her behind,” said Miskin. 

“What? Oh, you mean watering the plants in the backyard, I was shocked for a bit” said Mithun and winked at Satvika. This didn’t go unnoticed by the others. 

“Have you guys had lunch? First do that before anything,” said Sunaina.

“We haven’t had food. Why don’t you bring some here. We’ll share and eat,” said Mithun. 

“Oh, you guys have eaten, otherwise I thought of bringing the food here itself,” said a deaf Sunaina. 

Apsara giggled and said, “I can’t eat in this stench in the cowshed. Let us go to the dining room and have lunch and then we can visit the library.

Everyone started to leave for the dining room but Apsara stayed behind with Velan. As he was about to leave she caught his hand and tugged him near her.

“What do you think of me?” asked Apsara. 

Standing close to her sent shivers down Velan’s body but he said, “You are a spoiled brat but a very good friend.”

“Am I just a friend?” Apsara asked with a mischievous smile and a curious look in her eyes. 

“Yes,” said Velan steeling himself. 

“Have you noticed how Mithun and Satvika are almost a pair. Even Gowri and Dhinda are a pair. You don’t know but I’ve seen them kissing, hugging and chatting for hours together lost in each other. I want us to be like that,” so saying Apsara leaned in for a kiss. 

But Velan pushed her away and then seeing her hurt face said, “Sorry Apsara, it is not you I don’t think I am ready for that yet. May be never will be.”

“Are you still thinking of the hurt caused by that evil girl Madhana. Do you think I will be anything like her. Anyway as you want we can be just friends. But let me say I am a girl and I have desires too. I can’t wait for you as I know how steel hearted you can be in your decisions.”

Apsara was about to leave but turned back and said, “You know you are setting up yourself for great pain and sorrow. You call us friends but you  don’t let anyone else in and don’t let anyone help you.”

She then left followed by Velan. Velan ate lunch with the servants in the back while the rest ate in the dining room. The four of them left for the library. 

There a plump lady sat in the librarian’s chair. In the guise of customers they all enrolled as members. When they were enrolling Gowri scanned the members register scroll and with her acute memory noted that the book ‘Teach yourself sword play’ had been taken out to a man named Sandip and had not yet been returned. She memorised the address. 

“The address is in the seedier part of the village. It must be somewhere deep in the slums,” said Gowri. 

They were oddly looked by the people there because everyone except Velan were wearing bright coloured fairly new clothes. Velan wore his tattered old clothes. They somehow located the house of Sandip which was in fact a small thatched hut amidst a lot many such huts narrowly spaced together. 

“Have you borrowed any book named ‘Teach yourself swordplay’ from the library?” asked Mithun.

Sandip was drunk and said, “I don’t read books, it must be my nephew. So what has my notorious nephew done now that you kids have come in search of me. But let me say that I have no control over him. He belonged to an even poorer village south of Vayanad. His father was a potter. He committed suicide unable to repay his debts. His mother, my sister, passed away soon too. After that Rudra came to live with me. He gives me money for my drinks and so I don’t question him.”

“When will he be back home?” asked Gowri.

“Home, hell no, he uses me like he uses others. I haven’t seen him for three months now. You can probably find him in Dharindha inn. But be careful it is a place of Bhaang (country liquor) and Ganja (Marijuana). It is filled with scum practising black magic,” said Sandip. 

They’ve heard of this Dharinda inn. It is a completely forbidden place for students of the ashram. Visiting it would be not a minor infarction of rules like crossing the perimeters of the ashram. Just mere mention of visiting it would land them in expulsion. Moreover only the vilest people visited there and at least one of them would be expected to drink Bhaang.  

   

 

 

  

Before the night is over

Before the night is over
the world shall kiss my feet,
Drunk on pride, I’ll never be sober,
all pains and sorrows shall beat retreat;

Before the night is over
she should come bowing to me,
beseeching not to be the vengeful lover
I’ll sadistically enjoy it with Glee;

My family, blood relations, friends
shall serve me stooping beneath me,
all dreams true with none that contends
or opposes my anger and cruel decree;

for this is my last night on Earth
towards hell I breathe my last breath.

Diary (20/05/2018)

This is the second Diary entry from me. In the last entry from three months before I had mentioned the setting up of a lending library, it has been set up and there is only a lukewarm response so far.

I am in the process of setting up a restaurant in my hometown. But  most importantly like most bloggers I too share a passion and also an ambition for writing. In my case my ambition is to be an author of popular fiction novels. I am in the process of writing the manuscript of a children’s novel. I intend to publish and see it as a printed book.

I am sharing the first eleven chapters for your valuable feedback and suggestions.

 

God and insanity

I firmly believe there is no life after death. Death is final. It is just dust to dust and ashes to ashes. But the travails of life and of living have me on my knees bowing to any force above to help me redeem myself and reform my life.

My greatest fear is life as much as death. I used to fear being lost in insanity forever. But now I fear losing life without finding myself worthy of life or love. Diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, I am on lithium medication and have had quite a few episodes of insanity stretching from being months together to just a couple of days.  Each time I come out of the episodes with some memory intact. Even if I believe in God, I don’t believe in the devil. I can’t subscribe to a theory of a superior force being evil. A miracle makes you believe in good and in God.

But what of the memories I have of recent episodes that showed me little bad and inimical magic tricks to hinder me. I just can’t classify them as mere hallucinations when their residual effects are all around. Whatever it is I have to suppress it deep within myself. Accepting God to me might mean accepting insanity.

I have to start afresh after each episode. I end up in the start line halfway through the race. Can’t I not finish at least one race to call myself worthy of this life, worthy of love?

 

La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad by Keats

(A ballad by famous poet John Keats that even non poem lovers can enjoy)
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
       Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
       And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
       So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
       And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
       With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
       Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
       Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
       And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
       And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
       And made sweet moan
I set her on my pacing steed,
       And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
       A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
       And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
       ‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her Elfin grot,
       And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
       With kisses four.
And there she lullèd me asleep,
       And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
       On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
       Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
       Thee hath in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
       With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
       On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
       Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
       And no birds sing.