by Jeff Tikari
Young Vikas sat dozing under the shade of a wild ficus, his back resting comfortably against the bowl of the large tree. Sounds of droning bees, the dappled sunlight, the gentle stirring of leaves in the upper branches induced a somnolence that glazed his sight and drooped his eyelids. His charges: four nondescript cows and a scrawny bull, grazed in the scrub—the mellow sound of the wooden bells around their necks added to the midday languor.
His slingshot slipped from his hand and lay on his lap.
Vikas had never been to school. Like some other children of small village farmers, he had started to help his family in cultivating the few acres around the hut from an early age. He could, however, write his name; the son of the village shopkeeper, who attended school, had taught him, and Vikas wrote his name in the loose earth and dust to keep his hand in.
Chakri village comprised twenty-three families that paid tithe to the Maharaja whose collectors came around after each harvest: sturdy, armed, heartless men who entertained no hard-luck stories, but extracted harvest dues rigorously.
Salim alighted; his magnificent white horse threw its head up and neighed, stamping its feet impatiently; a liveried servant hurried up to take charge of the horse. Salim threw the reigns to him and strode forth across the lush outer lawns of the palace. Princess Aphsara sat with her maids-in-waiting beneath a tapestried cloth tent that curtained her privacy. She watched him approach—a handsome young man, broad-shouldered and slim-waisted. He smiled, bowed respectfully and raised his right hand to his forehead, “Salaam alaikum, Your Highness.” The princess Aphsara’s eyes twinkled happily to see him; she returned his greeting and patted the richly embroidered soft toshak beside her.
“Come Salim, sit near me. My eyes have been longing for you. I get lonely; I want someone to talk to, never go anywhere without my consent.”
“I’d never leave your side, Princess—you know that. But this heartless duty cruelly tears me away.”
The maids quietly backed away, bowing respectfully.
Salim and Aphsara hugged peremptorily. To be observed could mean punishment or worse for him. He was from a village and had impressed the Maharaja with his quick wit when the royal party passed through on a familiarizing trip around the countryside. The Maharaja, pleased with the lad, ordered that he be transported to the palace. There he was fed, bathed, and given clean clothes. A tutor was engaged to teach him the basics of reading, writing, and very importantly, the elegances of the Royal Court.
That is how the young Rajkumari (princess) gained a playmate companion. They grew up together… she in the opulent rooms of the Royal Palace and he in the barracks reserved for attendants. But in time, because of his closeness to the princess, he was allowed to occupy private rooms in the palace annex.
A ripe berry fell, striking Vikas on the bridge of his nose. It annoyed him. He was enjoying his nap… did he dream? Was it a dream?
He remained slumped against the bowl of the tree. He could hear the soft cowbells and was reassured his charges were close by.
He had dreamt something—something that felt life-like; he scratched his head… perhaps a princess was involved… it was as real as the tree he was leaning against and the ant that was biting him through his dhoti. He slapped at it.
Time to head home. He tucked his slingshot in his dhoti and picked up a stick to herd the cattle. He whistled and yodeled to get the cows moving. The cattle emerged from different sections of the bush and desultorily followed him, nibbling at any piece of greenery in their path.
Should he get off the path… no, he wouldn’t, Salim decided. The path was narrow and the Commander of the Palace Guard was approaching along the path from the opposite direction. One of them would have to step off to let the other pass.
The Commander was a respected man and all would step off the path in deference. But, Salim reasoned, he was more important, for while the Commander lived in the barracks, he lived at the palace annex and was known to have the Princess’s ear. The palace servants bent low when he passed. So he would just have to establish a pecking order here. He strolled along the path nonchalantly—hoping to convey the impression that his exalted state precluded even eye contact. He never saw the heavy muscled swipe that threw him off the path and sent him sprawling to the bushes at the bottom. The Commander continued on his way with unfaltering step. He did not tarry to view Salim’s swift demotion.
The stinging slap brought tears to his eyes. He put his hand up to his burning cheek.
“You’ve been gone for hours,” his father glared with anger. “What kept you? Are you on opium? Your mother and I have done all the chores while you were gadding about somewhere. You are supposed to graze the cattle for only two or three hours. Are you secretly seeing a woman in the forest? You disappear for hours at a time… where do you go?”
Vikas looked up wide-eyed at his father… his guess was close… matter of fact, he had guessed right… he was seeing a woman… a princess! And he did not know if he was daydreaming. Perhaps he should tell his father about it… and very likely get slapped again for speaking such horseshit.
He saw his mother heading to the cowshed to milk the cows. They would each get a glass of milk with their evening supper. This was possible because they had a Mahua tree on their land. The tree was valued for the heavy sweet scented flower which when distilled made country hooch (Mahua). For the output of that single tree, the local contractor gave the family more revenue than they got from the produce of their farm or from selling milk.
Vikas pulled his slingshot and proceeded toward the fields. He may get close enough to a cattle egret to bag it. That would improve the rice and lentil soup they unerringly had every night. His father enjoyed the curry his mother made with the birds Vikas killed, but cautioned him to not over kill. “Once a week would be fine,” he said.
That night the meal was good; Vikas had surprised a large, juicy heron. Nevertheless, he had no appetite and ate sparingly. His mother worried:
“You don’t eat much these days, son. Are you all right? You seem to be growing strong and robust though. Are you eating jungle herbs?”
Vikas couldn’t answer that. It was true he often felt full and when he burped, the smell of rich spice was, bewilderingly, in his nostrils.
Salim washed his fingers in an ornate basin held for him by a servant. The venison curry was spicy and he burped behind his fingers.
A pageboy appeared by his elbow, bowed, and informed him that the Rajkumari wished his presence for a game of chess. Salim rose and burped again. His body was muscular, taking on the heavy contours of a man. The combat lessons he had been attending at the palace grounds gave him large, steely muscles.
Other than her father, Salim was the only male allowed into the Princess’s chambers. He slipped off his richly woven house shoes and entered. The Rajkumari sat on a large, blue velvet carpet that covered the room. A central white ornate cloth was spread where she sat. Salim bowed low in greeting.
“As-Salaam-Alaikum, Princess. I trust your meal was satisfactory.”
“Shut up! Just come and sit down—and don’t try to impress me! You are going to get thrashed today… all your fancy moves won’t help you. You are going to slink out of here a defeated man!”
Salim smiled. Last time, he recalled, Aphsara had beat on his head with both fists when he had checkmated her white king.
“You stupid boy! You’re lucky you won last time… I lost concentration for a while that’s all.”
She was playing well today he noticed. Someone was tutoring her. She took time to think out her moves; and he spent that time looking at her: round face, a well-shaped nose with a diamond nose pin, beautiful lashes; her eyes were naturally lined black. Her hands and feet were beautifully formed and her young figure was in great shape. “Why are you gaping at me? Are you trying to make me lose my concentration?”
“There’s nothing in this room more easy on the eyes than…”
“Shut up or I’ll beat you up!”
She wrinkled her forehead in concentration. “Don’t imagine that you can purposely let me win this game to pander to me. If I win you’ll be banished to the hard beds of the barracks—so you’d better try your very best.”
Vikas lay on the hard ground. They only possessed one bed, which his father used. There was no other furniture in the hut. Their cooking and eating utensils had been washed and polished with wood-ash and stacked next to the mud-plastered stove.
Father had consumed his daily bati of local hooch and snored loudly through the night. Vikas and his mother were quite used to the sound and slept through it. Any other sound, other than the snoring, would immediately alert them.
In the very early hours of the morning, when the moon was three quarters across the sky, there was a sound. All three sat up. It sounded like the latch of the cowshed had been raised and released. Father gently opened the door of the hut and crept out, followed by Vikas. Three men emerged from the depths of the cowshed leading their cow with a rope. All three carried lathis (stout bamboo staves) and crept stealthily forth.
Father challenged them. Two faced him with lathis on the ready; the third continued to quickly lead the cow away. Father hesitated—two armed men were more than he could handle. But Vikas strode forth. In two swift moves he unarmed one of the men and used his lathi to attack the second one. The fight was over quickly—both men were beaten soundly and all three took to their heels. Vikas led the cow back to the cowshed.
His father watched it all. Without any help Vikas had thrashed all three men soundly and done it expertly. He was awed and astonished. Where had his son learned to fight like that? He had moved swiftly without any hesitation—it was like he knew exactly what moves to make… very professional. Father waited until they returned to the hut.
“What happened?” asked Mother.
“Some chaps were trying to steal our cow, but we beat them up and they ran away,” said Vikas.
“That is not true,” said Father. “Vikas single-handedly wrested a lathi from them and beat them up. I had no hand in it.”
There was silence in the hut. “How did you do that, son?” asked Mother.
“I don’t know, Mataji. I just seemed to know what to do and how to fight.”
“Has someone been teaching you, son? Commoners are not allowed to learn the art of combat. We fight as best we can—untrained.”
“No one has taught me, Father…” he hesitated bewildered. “I don’t know… maybe someone did… my mind is all confused.”
His father saw his perplexity, “Was it in another janam (incarnation), son?”
Now it was Vikas’ turn to look baffled. “What other janam? I don’t know.” He searched his father’s face.
“Well, then how do you explain your prowess with a lathi?”
How? The boy questioned himself, how, how, how…? He was beginning to get a headache. Something was in the deep recess of his mind, but it would not surface. His skull was tightening and the pain was increasing.
“I’ll arrange a meeting tomorrow between you and the village pehalwan (wrestler) who has received training at the Royal Court.”
It was morning of the big day. Eight boys who were training to use the lathi would pair off and compete for top prize. Salim was the only boy from the palace. The others were quartered in the barracks.
Tents were pitched, adorned with flags and banners. An air of festivity enveloped the maidan. Rumors said Maharaj Vishnu Singh may attend, as Salim was representing the palace—the Rajkumari was sure to attend and maybe her mother, Maharani Jahanara Begum, as well. A large ornate and colorful tent was pitched for the Royal entourage; stout bamboo fencing discouraged local entry to the Royal Tent. Street hawkers set up stalls to display their wares. They shouted in ululating singsong tones to attract customers. Street acrobats took up positions and exhibited their agility in exchange for a few copper coins. Little children, bare feet and half naked, ran around excited shouting to each other in the festive commotion.
Salim was tingling with anticipation. Since 3 a.m. he had practiced—lunge, parry, evade, swing—on the straw-filled, and now battered dummy. His body was oiled with mustard oil. Now he waited.
The pehalwan arrived, accompanied by Vikas’ father. Vikas was sitting on the charpoy weaving a bamboo basket and seeing them coming stood up. He joined his palms in a respectful Namaste. The pehalwan measured up the boy—he was probably eighteen he guessed (he was wrong for Vikas had grown bigger than the village lads of his age).
“So, I hear you are quite an expert with the lathi, eh?”
“No, sir, I am not.”
“Where did you learn the art of combat?”
“I… I didn’t, sir. I mean, I just swung the lathi and was lucky.”
“That’s not what your father says. Here take this lathi and assume a combat stance.”
Vikas stood there holding the lathi awkwardly while the pehalwan circled him with lathi on the ready in combat style. I suppose I’ll have to hit him a few blows before he defends himself, thought the pehalwan. He did a few coordinated disciplines, taking wide steps and twirling the lathi above his head. It looked most impressive. Then with two leaps he brought the lathi down—not too hard—on the boy’s head.
There was a blur of bodies and lathis. The pehalwan found himself flat on the earthen floor with the boy’s father helping him up. Vikas had a bewildered look on his face. The pehalwan felt stung and insulted but ignored the pain where the opponent’s lathi had struck him rapidly on the head and legs. He saw now he would, very sadly have to attack seriously, breaking through the boy’s defense and, much as he may not want to, cruelly hurt the boy. He assumed his power stance ten feet away from the boy who stood stupidly staring at him.
The opponent charged using the Maithul attack—the most difficult one to repel. Salim stood his ground till the last moment—as he had been taught—then threw himself flat on the ground and tripped his opponent with his lathi. He would now leap up and smash his lathi on his opponent’s head.
A loud cry of, “STOP” from the referee brought the match to a halt. The Maharaja had called off the tournament as four boys had been severely injured and he did not wish others to get hurt. These boys were being trained to join the elite arm of the combat interceptors.
Salim stood over his opponent breathing heavily. They both knew who had won. Salim put his hand out and pulled up his prostrate opponent and clasped him to his chest. A thunderous roar of approval greeted the action.
They stood side-by-side and bowed to the Maharaja, then proceeded to their different tents.
The Rajkumari, Aphsara, had clapped gleefully every time Salim won a point. The maharaja glanced down, smiling at his daughter’s joyful enthusiasm. Was she getting too fond of the boy? he wondered. She was sixteen now—a vulnerable and impressionable age. Maybe there was nothing in it… he took note and kept an open mind.
The pehalwan blew into the tumbler and noisily slurped the tea, holding the metal tumbler with both hands. He addressed Vikas’ father.
“Well, I am pleased you persuaded me to break off the demonstration, for I may have hurt the young lad severely with my next move. That he has received training I have no doubt. But where and how is quite bewildering. As you have pointed out he is a cowherd and spends most of the day grazing your cattle and sometimes takes out your neighbors’ animals too. Plus, of course, there is no one in these parts that has any idea of the art of lathi combat.”
Vikas’ father, Ram Singh, offered him a beeidi. He’d better keep him in good humor for he could report the incident to the authorities and then who knew what action would follow.
They sat on a charpoy outside the hut. Vikas had gone off to the forest with the livestock. Vikas’ mother was making some fried tidbits to serve the menfolk.
“Are you sure you don’t know where your son learned to fight?”
“Of course I am sure. Who is there to teach him?”
“Another thing, Pehalwanji, just between you and me… I don’t know how to put this, but I notice he can read. Now, he has never been to school, nor have I, nor has his mother been to school, and he spends most of the day sleeping under a tree. How could he have learned how to read? It is quite baffling.”
The pehalwan was looking at him with a quizzical expression, “Eh, what’s that?”
“Read, I said he can read.”
“Yeah, I heard you—what does that mean, how can he read?” His chin jutted out belligerently, eyes glinting steel, “You hiding somethin’ from me?” He stood up, “I’m going to the forest to see for myself… the lad is up to something. Something diabolical.”
Salim went in search of Aphsara; she would praise him and say encouraging things to him; things that pleased him. He stood outside her chambers waiting for a maid so he could send Aphsara a request to enter her chambers.
The door opened and Aphsara’s father, Vishnu Singh stepped out.
“What are you doing here?”
Salim fidgeted, “I thought I would have a word with the Rajkumari, Your Highness.”
“You haven’t got free access to the private chambers of the palace. Only if the Rajkumari sends for you are you to come here. Now, off you go.”
Salim bowed low and left; his heart heavy, he had offended the Maharaja. He went to the akhara (gym). He would work out to take his mind off the reprimand.
He worked extra hard, throwing himself into the intricacies of the advanced discipline. The guru noticed the heavy work. He was likely working off the frustration of not being allowed to win in the tournament, he thought.
Vikas worked in the hot sun to complete a tree platform upon which he would sit to watch over the grazing cattle in the surrounding bush. The elevation would allow a larger area to be surveyed and he would be less likely to be surprised by an unwanted approach. Now he sat under the loft, out of the sun, and fanned himself with a leafy branch. He mulled over the earlier incident when he had repulsed the attack mounted by the pehalwan.
Had he just acted in self-defense? But how had he so expertly repulsed the onslaught? If he thought too hard about his prowess with the lathi, his head would hurt. He picked up a stave left over from the building of the platform and took a stance… similar to one adapted by the pehalwan. He would practice that move or what he could remember of it.
The pehalwan walked softly and soundlessly to reach the place where Vikas stood ready with a stave. He parted a bush and peered at Vikas. Ha! He thought to himself. So, this is where he practices…the wily swine. I wonder where his guru is.
Vikas shut his eyes and concentrated. He would try and remember every move. He bent low, scooped up some earth from the forest floor and smeared it on his forehead.
The pehalwan felt an excitement and his heartrate picked up. He would catch Vikas and his guru red-handed and report them to the authorities. He may even get a reward from the Maharaja and, if his luck held, he could be recalled to attend the Royal Court.
Vikas put one leg out in front—exactly as the pehalwan had done—he lifted the lathi above his head, bent his knee and launched himself in the air, twirling the lathi above his head and twisting his body 360 degrees to land cleanly on his feet with the lathi pointing menacingly at his opponent. Instead he landed in a heap in the dust—the lathi wrenched his shoulder and jerked out of his hand. He lay there with dust in his mouth.
“Ha, ha, ha, ha,” the pehalwan stepped from behind the bush and gave a helping hand to Vikas. “What was that, a pantomime performance?”
Vikas stood, holding his aching shoulder.
“What happened to your shoulder?” Aphsara asked.
The princess had summoned Salim. He was still smarting from her father’s rebuff and was contemplating sending her a message saying he was tired and hurt and would present himself tomorrow, but thought better of it.
“I strained it while practicing in the gym after the tournament was called off.”
“You were practicing how to strain your shoulder?”
Salim kept quiet; he looked at the delight in her eyes, she was in a teasing mood.
She laughed elatedly. “Would you like one of my maids to massage your shoulder?” her eyes twinkled with mirth. “Or are you looking for sympathy from me?”
“I heard that.” She gave him a hard look. “Sit here; let me look at your shoulder.”
“I don’t know how advisable that is—we are no longer kids. I daren’t sit next to you with my shirt off, Princess.”
“Do you want a tight slap? Just sit here,” and she indicated a cushion next to her, “and take off your shirt.”
“I couldn’t possibly do that, Rajkumari… take my shirt off…? I don’t think so.” He took two steps back.
Aphsara jumped up—eyes blazing, fists tightly clenched… Salim had never seen her look so utterly ravishing.
“Listen, fathead, and stop calling me Rajkumari…”
The door opened gently and a maid bowed in with a carafe of sherbet and golden goblets on an ornate tray.
Salim sighed with relief. If she were to surprise them sitting next to each other… and him with his shirt off… her father would surely get to hear, and who knew what might have happened then… a caning would be the least.
The Princess stood, pretending suppressed rage—eyes aflame, lips compressed. The maid placed the tray slowly, very slowly on the white sheet. The princess was about to yell at her to leave it and get out! Salim beat her to it.
“Princess, may I leave, please. My shoulder is hurting and my Guruji will massage it.”
“GO!” Just the one word. Her shoulders slumped as she sat down—hurt and let down.
The pehalwan rotated Vikas’ arm. He winced with pain.
“Is it hurting a lot—I will massage it for you.”
“What were you doing, anyway?”
“Trying to do what you did this morning… I’m afraid I am no good at it.”
The pehalwan put his arm around Vikas’ waist, “Come, I’ll take you home. Will the cattle be okay for a while without you?”
“I’ll whistle for them to follow us.”
Vikas lay on the charpoy in the sun and the pehalwan massaged him with warm mustard oil from a shallow dish. He wondered at his fit muscular body.
“Tell me, boy, do you have any idea how you learned to fight the way you did this morning?”
“No, Pehalwanji, it is a mystery to me. When I try to do it, I trip and fall down. I don’t know how it comes to me; it comes of its own accord.”
“Do you know swordsmanship?”
Vikas twisted his body to look at the pehalwan, “Sword… what sword? I have never even seen a real one.”
“I’ll take you to a sadhu, a sage; he may be able to resolve this mystery. You must tell him everything you know—hold nothing back. Will you come with me?”
“I’ll have to ask Papa—get his permission.”
Salim asked permission to go to his village to see his parents. It was five years since he’d seen them. Permission was granted and he was allotted a warhorse from the Royal stables and a guard to accompany him… the roads are rife with dacoits, he was told; and the road to Allahgarh was a full day’s hard ride.
“When are you coming back?” demanded Aphsara when Salim went to bid her farewell.
“Soon, Princess, very soon.”
“Liar! You have no intentions of hurrying back. You are going to strut around in that chain-armour you are wearing and try to impress the local laundies there in the village. Probably get married to one of those slope-eyed wenches.”
“Princess, Aphsara, I am going away for a week and I shall miss you, Your Highness. Please don’t quarrel with me—I want to hold pleasant memories of you to recall on my lonely journey.”
“Then come here and kiss me.”
“God forbid! And have my limbs ripped asunder by the Maharaja’s elephants? I don’t think so.”
She threw a flower vase at him that glanced off his shoulder. Her regal eyes, brimming with anger, bore into him—he gaped at her loveliness. He cast his life to the winds, stepped up and gathered her petite body to his chest—clasped her tight and bruised her lips with his, in a long kiss.
“Put me down you brute.” She flayed her legs about. “I said kiss me, not devour me. Now go! And if your lips are cold when you return, I will know someone has stolen the warmth from them… and your life won’t be worth living.”
Salim bowed low and salaamed her.
He rode out on a sturdy white horse. A large turban shielded his head; half chain-armour covered his arms and chest; a sword hung strapped to his waist; a dagger lay tucked in his waistband; and a small flag with the coat of arms of the Maharaja flew from the horn of the saddle. An escort rode behind with a well-oiled lathi strapped lengthwise along the saddle. A formidable twosome that most would avoid an encounter with.
The midday sun was hot. Salim looked for a place to stop for an hour to stretch his legs and water the horses. He saw a temple atop a small hillock surrounded by large trees. The white temple walls gleamed in the sun and a red prayer flag fluttered from the dome. He swung his horse and headed for the cool shade of the temple trees.
A pundit greeted the travelers and provided water for them and the horses. He noticed the half-armour across Salim’s wide shoulders and chest and took note of the guard with him. He wondered if he would make a small cash contribution at the Lord’s altar, for he looked like a person of some standing. Salim, however, headed for the charpoy laid under the shade of a large banyan tree and lay down to rest for a while—the ride had been tiring.
Vikas followed his father and the pehalwan. They headed for a small temple atop a small hillock. The bright white walls and a red flag atop the dome indicated it was in use. The wide branching trees were inviting, offering shade from the midday sun. Crows cawed loudly and hopped from branch to branch.
Vikas felt tired for he was carrying a pitcher full of water, a food parcel containing food his mother had cooked, and the shoes belonging to his father, the pehalwan, and his own. These items were tied with a large piece of cloth to the end of a stout lathi, which he balanced on his shoulder.
The pundit watched them approach. They would likely lay a copper coin at the feet of the deity and rest under the shade of the trees. They greeted the pundit who returned their greetings. He looked at the two men—one looked like a wrestler… and then his jaw dropped for the boy carrying their belongings was the spitting image of the knight who lay on the charpoy.
Vikas lowered his load and stretched to relieve his aching muscles. His eyes took in the slumbering knight on the charpoy. The effect was electric. He gasped and took a backward step. That was himself… on the charpoy. The face, the figure, the build, the hands, the feet, the deep scratch on his forearm… everything. Memories started to flood his mind. His name was Salim; he lived in the Maharaja’s palace; the princess Aphsara’s image loomed before his eyes; the palace rooms; his ride here on a horse from the royal stables… he looked around for the horse—it stood under the shade of a young sal tree, the guard sat slouched, eyes half shut, his back supported by the tree.
Vikas looked at his father; both his father and the pehalwan were staring in astonishment at the prone knight.
How could he, thought Vikas, be two people? And yet he was!
His father looked at him and beckoned him near.
“He is you in every detail!”
“He is me. And I am he!”
“What do you mean…?” His father peered into his face. “Has the sun got to you my son?”
“My name is Salim. My father and mother live five miles from here…” Vikas went on to relate his life in the palace, every little incident—almost a day-to-day chronology, but there were long blank areas too. The knight, Salim, lay eyes shut listening to Vikas. His breathing grew rapid. What the boy was relating… no person could have known. They were the most intimate details that only he knew.
This must be a djinn—a wandering spirit—that entered and exited his body at will… an evil spirit that had to be expunged.
Salim leapt off the charpoy drawing his sword. Vikas scrambled and grabbed the lathi that he had used to balance their meager belongings. The young men faced each other. Salim lunged with his sword and knew how Vikas would parry—deflecting the swipe by sloping his lathi to let the sword harmlessly pass by his body. He knew Vikas would change his grip and counter by applying a telling blow to his head. Salim ducked and brought his sword up to rip Vikas’ belly in a counter. Vikas stood firm, not moving forward, thus remaining out of range of the upward swinging sword. Salim threw his sword down and grabbed the lathi the guard had left by the charpoy. Now the two were equally armed and matched.
The young men smiled at each other. This would be an equal encounter and they knew there would be no winner—for they read each other’s minds and anticipated and knew the other’s next move. However, they were enjoying it. Dust was kicked up and hung over the battling duo. The watchers: the father, the pundit, and the guard were mesmerized. Never had they seen such an exhibition of pure talent. The fight continued for an hour, with neither of the combatants hurt. Sheer exhaustion forced the antagonists to break off.
Vikas’ father approached him, “Beta,” he said, “I do not understand this, nor can the pundit enlighten me. I gather Salim comes from a village not far from ours—his parents still live there, but the Maharaja took Salim away to his palace. I do not know how your mayas got mixed up, but that is the will of the Lord. Let us go our separate ways and try and understand this. You are one person in two bodies. I will not pretend to understand it. Let us now proceed to our village and pray to God for wisdom. Salim, you are my son too and Vikas is you! You cannot fight with yourself for you are both one. You are two bodies with one soul… and I don’t know how!”
“Papaji,” said Salim, “as you say, we are one soul in two bodies. But Vikas has intruded into my body and my thoughts, whereas I have not trespassed into his. I think he is evil! One soul can not occupy two bodies—one or both of us has to perish.”
Vikas addressed him, “Remember Aphsara told you to return with her kiss still hot on your lips—are you going to do that, or are you going to bicker with me?”
“How dare you! How dare you intrude into my most intimate moments? I will not have it! I will not let you! I will kill you!”
“You will kill yourself?”
“Maybe… so be it!”
The pundit emerged from the temple with a thali of ladoos and prasad. He prostrated himself at the feet of each boy and offered them the sweets. This has to be a miracle—God’s mysterious way of showing his powers. He had chosen these two young men to showcase his supernatural mystique.
Salim took his chain-armour off. It was hot. He strolled a little distance away. His thoughts were in a whirl. He knew whatever he was thinking was imaged in Vikas’ brain. He could not let this continue. If he were to have an intimate contact with Aphsara, Vikas could experience the ecstasy too! Totally untenable and unacceptable!
He could not kill Vikas, who at this moment knew his every thought and move. Furthermore, if somehow he were to succeed in terminating Vikas, he would be arrested by the Maharaja’s forces for murder and placed in the palace dungeon and then probably executed: a despicable end and one that would desecrate Aphsara’s love for him.
Vikas was watching him with large wide-open eyes.
There was always a way around everything. Salim determined he would find that way. Vikas was not always sharing his being.
Salim returned to the palace after staying ten days with his parents in the village. There he was feasted and fêted. Villagers from far and near came to visit him; the village belles eyed him shyly; the seniors with their garrulous wives praised the lord for guiding the Maharaja to this village to pick the son of the village sonar (jeweler) for such honour.
Salim found it difficult to not flirt with the girls who openly looked at him with invitations in their eyes.
On the fourth day, Dipti arrived. Tall and slim, she wore her skirt tantalizingly below her navel. Her choli (top) rode high on her ribcage exposing an expanse of sinuous midriff. She was there leaning against a tamarind tree at the common well. She stood out in a long yellow skirt and bright red choli. Salim excused himself and walked slowly and with a newfound swagger to where she waited.
A soft smile lit her eyes. She took her time to answer, “Hi… you look different… grown up.”
“So do you. I’ve been here four days… and now you come.”
She nodded her head slowly, “Yes… I don’t see you falling over yourself to come to see me, either!”
“I have been kept very busy with all these people coming to see me.” He let his eyes travel over her breasts and over her midriff. She had matured and had a certain confidence about her. “Remember we used to play in the corn fields over there?” he pointed.
“We were kids, then.”
“Yes.” Salim felt unnerved by her assessing eyes that studied every bit of him. They were childhood playmates; yet she had changed so tantalizingly that she was almost unrecognizable.
His leave passed in a blur and before he knew it, it was time to depart. He looked longingly for Dipti that day, but she was not to be found. He had been to her house twice. Eventually he bid farewell to his parents and headed for the Maharaja’s palace.
Vikas bid farewell to his parents and headed for Salim’s village. He carried his tough buffalo-hide shoes balanced at the end of a lathi and some food: rotis and vegetables his mother had cooked for him—in a bag slung across his shoulder. A five-rupee note was securely tied at the end of his dhoti and tucked into his waist.
Dusk was closing in by the time he reached Allahgarh. A pall of cow-dung and wood smoke hung over the village. Cattle were being secured in cow sheds and oil lamps were being lit. The women had started preparing the evening meal.
Vikas saw a young girl standing by the side of the road and staring at him. As he approached she asked: “Salim, you have come back?”
Vikas smiled at her.
“Why have you changed your clothes? You look like a villager. Where are your fine clothes?”
Vikas again smiled at her.
“Are you going to your parents’ house?”
“Yes. Will you come with me?” That may be the only way Vikas would find Salim’s parents’ house.
“Okay,” she said and fell in by his side. “You are not Salim, you know.”
“No, I’m his brother.”
“He has no brother… you are the person Salim had combat with, right?”
Vikas stopped and turned to her, “If Salim has left, I may as well turn around and go back to my village right now.”
“It’s getting dark and these village roads are not safe at night. You could twist your ankle or even break your leg on a dark night like this. Come to my house: there is room for you to sleep the night. My parents are old and will be in their room already—no one will question you and you can stay the night in peace.”
Vikas agreed quickly. It would be difficult to explain his presence to Salim’s parents. They may not even allow him to stay there.
“What’s your name, by the way?”
“It’s Dipti. And yours is Vikas, I believe.”
Vikas was led to a four-room long brick structure. The first room, he was told, was where Dipti’s parents lived. Dipti occupied the second room. Vikas was shown the last room. Dipti carried an oil lamp and pushed open the door to a room that was stacked with bags of grain—four feet high. A wooden plough lay on top. Large spider webs covered every corner and a rickety table stood to one side. Dipti spread a narrow durri for him to sleep on.
“Would you like some tea?”
Salim walked to the kitchen for a tumbler of tea. He had seen the Maharaja and princess Aphsara descending the steps leading to the caparisoned horse carriages waiting for them. He stood to one side respectfully, head inclined, eyes lowered. As the royal party drew level with him, Maharaj Vishnu Singh addressed him: “Kaisae hoe, Salim?” (How are you?)
“With your blessings, I am well, Highness.”
“Salim,” said Princess Aphsara, “you must come and tell me all about the bout with your ‘soul brother’. I am busy now, but I’ll send for you in a day or two.”
“As you please, Princess.” And he bowed low.
They swept past, headed for the carriages. Horse-mounted soldiers would ride alongside.
Salim walked desultorily to the kitchen.
Word had it that the neighboring Maharaja Pratap was visiting with his young son. An alliance may be in the air between Princess Aphsara and the young Maharaj Kumar.
Salim took his tumbler of tea to his room. He sat on the bed and rested his back against the wall. A picture of the doe-eyed Dipti appeared in his mind.
Vikas watched willowy Dipti spread a blanket and take his food to warm up in the kitchen. She returned presently with two thalis (eating plates with raised sides) of food and they sat side by side and ate. Afterwards they washed their fingers with water poured over the thalis. Dipti removed the sodden thalis to the rickety table.
“Are you sleepy?” asked Dipti.
“Okay, let’s talk.”
They sat shoulder to shoulder with their backs resting against the grain bags. Though they were strangers, they spoke with a freedom that comes with old friendship. Sometime during the conversation she slipped her fingers into his. An excitement ran through their bodies.
Before she left to go to her room, she kissed him lightly on his lips. He was so sweet and humble, she thought, so unlike Salim.
Salim awoke with a start. Had he been dreaming? It was something about Dipti—a kiss? Something exciting and as real as the wall he was resting against and the mosquitoes that drew blood from his arms and neck. He swiped at them.
And then he grinned, from ear to ear. He had his revenge!
Two can play the same game!