Ishan entered the dark of the hut. The kitchen was lit by three candles—one where his mother cooked, one where his mother sat to eat, and one for Ishan to see his food. He was almost silent, eating his meal with restraint while his mother studied him and looked out at the sunset interchangeably. After fifteen minutes or so of strained hush, Sati couldn’t bear not hearing her son speak to her.

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“What happened today that has made you so quiet?” Her voice was clotted, as if she herself had not spoken for a good part of the day.

Ishan examined and revised words in his mind before letting them out. “I am deciding on something crucial—but I have to figure out my answer before I tell you… don’t worry mother. It is to the benefit of the both of us—and hopefully for Magadha as a whole.”

Sati, like any mother, was worried at such a vague and formal response from an otherwise straightforward son.

“Do not hide anything from me right now. I am not in the mood today, nor have I been since the past few months, to wait on important information. I do not have the strength to bear the anticipation of such decisions.” Her eyes told even more than her words.

Ishan’s cheeks showed in patches of red. His mother had inner turmoil—he didn’t know if telling her the news would only make her more despondent, but it was almost impossible to slip away from his mother’s wishes.

Like his father, his mother was stringent. When she wanted something, it would take a city full of brick walls to stop her step.

“Mother, I have to make a decision on what will happen to you when… I have to leave.” Ishan wouldn’t say anymore, fearing his mother’s eyes.

Sati could hardly take in her son’s words. “Leave? Where would you leave with your father’s business to run and your mother to take care of? Abandoning duty is worse than death. You are my son—I have raised you without any thought to my comfort. I have sacrificed all luxury for the sake of seeing you live without an obstacle to face. Now I hear you want to run away? Either I am dreaming, or you no longer consider me your mother.”

The satisfying taste of his mother’s food now seemed dull and unbearable. He stared at his mother sincerely, wanting to convey as much of the reality of the situation he could.

“I understand your concern—but you know me correctly—I am still your son. I wouldn’t leave unless it was entirely necessary.”

Ishan skimmed his hand over the top of his short black hair a few times and laid his hand back on his lap. Sati didn’t know how she found the patience to hear more, her heart beating in stress.

“I have found a teacher that can show me how to fight and defeat the regulatory guard. He resides at the base of the Vindhya Mountains—he used to be a royal guard for King Pradyota, but he has now left his service to be an ascetic.”

Sati’s eyes naturally softened in hearing her son’s naïve confidence, but her face remained stern. Ishan’s voice rose with a little more confidence in seeing her lighter expression.

“If I want to fulfill my vow to my father dutifully, learning under this soldier may be the only option. I know I have mentioned my intentions now and then, but I don’t know if you understand the depth of my desire to kill those men.”

Ishan’s hands trembled in his contained anger. His mother was slightly alarmed, but tried to keep calm to pacify her son.

“Don’t take me wrong, mother. I don’t want to be a murderer—I just want to see those men put to rest… to watch King Pradyota fall. They need to be eliminated somehow. These type of men will never change. They need…”

Ishan was sharply interrupted by his mother. “Son, please don’t talk this way. It goes against what your father and I have taught you. Peace is the highest good. You may be able to kill these men, but what after? You will have to remember all the violence you acted upon for the rest of your life. You don’t want to carry that burden.”

“Mother, what you say makes sense. But what I say also makes sense—evil like that has to be destroyed. I don’t mind bad memories—what I would mind is seeing those men coming to our village again and again for the rest of my life, torturing the citizens of Vatsala. Besides, mother, I have made a vow at my father’s death to take the lives of those that killed him. I am not a person to take back my vows. That is something you and dad taught me as well.”

Sati realized then the extent of which his morose promise had consumed him, how engrossed he was in the thought of revenge—how it changed him into a person she half-knew. There was no convincing him further—like his father, he was an idealist. Such people could only be cured of their determination by disaster.

Sati settled more into straw mat beneath her. “Son, I am proud of your sense of duty. Even though I may not agree fully with your intentions, it is my duty to look after you, as a mother. Staying here would only increase my sadness. Going with you would be where I can be a mother. A women without a husband or a son is the loneliest of people.”

Ishan’s deadpan valor faded into a childlike smile. “Mother! I am very happy that you have agreed to go. I cannot imagine being out there without you… but what about the house? Who will take care of it while we are gone?”

“What about that merchant you met in Saraswati? If he was a long-time friend of your father, then he might be a good pick. Our relatives are far away—most of them are outside of Magadha. This man might be a better choice—what was his name?”

Ishan placed his hand on top of his dry scalp, worn down by the sun’s constant giving. “He mentioned it only once… I think it was Shyam.”

“I have heard that name before—but your father talked rarely about him. Maybe you and I should visit him again and if we find him to be a good man, we can make an offer.”

“He seems like a kind man—just a little quirky… I am sure he will look after the place with duty.”

Ishan’s eager eyes peered into his mother’s continuous look of concern. He noticed her disposition, but didn’t think twice about her desires. She always had a look of care.

* * *
Fourteen days later, Ishan had another business trip to Saraswati scheduled. His mother accompanied him on the journey. But instead of running to Saraswati in the raw heat of the afternoon sun, Ishan had arranged a bullock cart for his mother. A neighbor, Kishan the weaver, had allowed them to borrow it. Kishan was not wealthy, but had more of a degree of money than most people in Vatsala. He sowed most of the wedding apparel for the village and sold kurtas, traditional clothing for men, near the village granary. Like most people in Vatsala, Kishan prided himself in knowing Raghu and was glad to help his family.

As they tested the bearings of the bullock cart through a sparse forest of axlewood trees, Sati was humming loud enough to be heard only by her own ear. Ishan was silent, observing the land as it came.

When they arrived in Saraswati, Ishan hurriedly set out to do business with the merchant he had fixed for the occasion. Sati meandered through expensive sari shops and stalls of sweets. The crowds attending the market were loud enough that she could barely hear her thoughts. But it was all well, as she didn’t like to heed her thoughts as of late. She did not have enough money to purchase such items, but she felt lighter watching people buy gifts or talk about clothing designs for religious ceremonies and other occasions.

Ishan got his business over with as quickly as he could, having Shyam on his mind as constant as a clock. When Ishan picked up his mother from the marketplace, her eyes seemed less concerned, as if the past few days were no longer a memory that tinged her consciousness. He was comforted by the subtle expressions of his mother—and when she was in a fit, he would most assuredly be in a fit himself.

On arriving at Shyam’s residence—a grander house than Sati had ever seen—Ishan passed through Shyam’s courtyard, filled with Tulsi trees potted in ivory-colored columns. Sati followed close behind, shy in her now apparent poverty. Ishan knocked assertively on the teak wood front door—probably assembled by the material that Ishan and his father had sold.

Quick, gentle footsteps could be heard, accompanied by the jingling sound of anklets. The door slowly opened, most likely on the account that no one in the household had expected visitors.

“Oh! Hello Ishan. And…”

Sati was not hiding, only covered by Ishan’s growing stature. The lady of the house peeked a little to the right, revealing more of her blue, ornate sari to the tame face of Sati.

“And you must be Sati, Ishan’s mother. Very nice to meet you… you must have come a long way—please come in and have some chai.”

Shyam’s wife, Roshni, was more lively today than Ishan had remembered her a few weeks ago. As Sati and Ishan were walking through the spacious house to the living room, Roshni carried on with many entreaties.

In addition to chai, jaggery was served in small tin bowls. “My husband is out on some business—you know Ishan, how those loans work out. They usually take time. But I believe he will be back in a short while.”

Ishan and Sati nodded their heads in silent agreement, not wanting to force more communication from the talkative host. But Roshni, not being able to bear the silence to sit for too long, broke the peace.

“I don’t know if you know this about Shyam and Raghu, but they were best friends as children while growing up in Vatsala. They were always seen together, playing some make-believe game or another. They went to school together, always teasing the priest that taught them. By his accounts, they were fairly mischievous, but not ruthless by any means. They would organize pranks on their other friends and would even dare to play tricks on their teacher.”

Roshni chuckled in genuine cheerfulness, pulling back her black hair greased firmly with coconut oil with habitual movements.

“I bet if they had got back together again, right now, they would still think of playing a trick on some neighbor or something.”

Sati was intrigued by Roshni’s stories—Raghu had rarely mentioned his childhood to her—and it was even rarer that he would go into any detail about it.

“Did they see each other as they got older? How often did they keep in touch?”

“Oh, well, I guess they lost some contact when Shyam got an apprenticeship in business here in Saraswati. But Raghu would visit when he was bringing lumber into our city from time to time. It seemed that business had roughed out their childhood days, but they still shared a friendship. Sometimes they would go out to lunch at the local darbar or Shyam would invite him over here for a meal.”

Ishan looked perplexed. “It’s funny that he did not mention Shyam’s name often—they were such good friends. But then again, I don’t really keep in contact with my early childhood friends. Business has made me think of only what is necessary these days.”

Roshni found it interesting how a young boy could speak with such gravity. “I would have loved for my son, Acanda to be here—he is around your age, but he is in Ujjaini learning science and
literature from a guru. He is a rambunctious boy and I am sure you two would be just like your father and my husband. I dare say he is even more mischievous than my husband ever was.”

An uncommon occurrence happened—Roshni was quiet for a few moments.

Ishan interjected into the silence. “I bet I would have fun with your son. I need some more than business at my age. But, it seems like my focus on business is natural, with my….”

A voice like a trumpet sounded through the echoing halls—Shyam had come home in his usual style. By announcing his presence at many opportunities in his household, he felt the weight of the luxury he had acquired. He would imagine, as in the make-believe days with Raghu, that he lived in a castle fit for an emperor. The image would soon fade by the call of his wife, shrill in her complaining of his lateness.

But Roshni didn’t have the capacity to complain in front of guests. Instead, Shyam went straight to business.

“Hello Ishan! And … Ishan’s mother. How very nice to have you here. I hope my wife has not given you too much jaggery and chai?”

Shyam shot a comical look at his wife, almost winking, but he held back in civilized restraint.

Ishan knew how to turn on the good side of Shyam. “Oh no, the chai and jaggery are wonderful. We are
honored to be treated so well.”

“Well,” Shyam said, his cheeks showed off its apparent pudginess, “I am glad that I can provide a good friend with good food.”

Roshni glanced over at Shyam, showing her approval of his statement. “I was telling them about your longtime friendship with Raghu and how you couldn’t be separated.”

“That’s right—we couldn’t help ourselves but make pranks with a teacher like that—so strict that you thought his eyes would pop out. Teasing him came naturally as eating sweets. I was a bit more of the main constituent of the mayhem. Raghu was more reserved, but he loved to tag along and give hints of what we could add to the pranks… we also made up a lot of make-believe games—like we were soldiers of justice taking out criminals. Raghu and I were together most days….

Shyam provided a large, sheepish grin, as if his mind was immersed in the images of his childhood.
Ishan and Sati sat smiling in subtle warmth, but didn’t add anything to the conversation. Shyam took the hint and focused on the task at hand.

“So, what can I do for you, Ishan and Sati?”

Ishan glanced over at his mother affectionately and signaled that he would take the lead. “Sir, I have decided that I have no other choice but to leave for the Vindhya Mountains and seek the instruction of Balraj. When I announced my plans to leave to my mother, she agreed to come with me. The house will be empty and we will need a caretaker. Would you be able to be that person? We can do our best to compensate you for the looking after the house.”

Shyam saw the graveness on Ishan’s face, the lines on his forehead that shoulnd’t be there until much later.

“I can do that, Ishan. I will also supply you with what I know about Balraj’s exact location. But the compensation part I will have to think over.. let’s see.. I could receive the milk from your cows, maybe get a small amount of money, maybe something you have that you think it comparable in value to my caretaking….” But just then, Shyam got inspiration and foresight. His lips could barely contain what he wanted to say.

“You know, instead of all these material things, I have an offer that will be more long-lasting.”

Ishan was relieved when Shyam said this, because he knew he couldn’t come up with anything of real value in his house besides his father’s collection of songs—which he didn’t dare give away; he had no money—it was all saved up for this trip. Sati, on the other hand, was not thinking of these matters at all—she was curious of the “long-lasting offer,” fearing something binding and possibly cruel, despite the apparently mild personality of Shyam.

“My sister has a daughter who is smart and sensible—good at music as well. She is reaching marriageable age soon—I am sure, that after Ishan has come back from his training with Balraj, that he would be a good fit for her. So, instead of your material wealth, what about a proposal for marriage?”

Sati was stunned, bewildered to the point of thinking it was a dream. She could not think of a better offer than this—Ishan married into an well-to-do family—and the girl being described as being raised by high-traditional standards.

Ishan, contrary to his mother’s feelings, was baffled into shyness and wanted to leave to a place where these words had not rung. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the idea of an early marriage—it was daunting on his psyche at a time when he making what he thought was the most important journey of his life.

Sati, as the mother, had the right to speak first. She tried her hardest to keep a level-head, not sounding overly-excited.

“I believe this would be a good match for my son. She seems like a compatible companion for someone as responsible as Ishan.”

Sati glanced at her son with serene eyes, but Ishan was shaking slightly and a red color spotted his cheeks. Ishan knew it was his time to speak, but his lips became so dry that he didn’t know if his words would come out at all.

“I am honored by your proposal, and believe you have been very kind by giving me the opportunity to receive such an offer.”

Roshni was impressed by Ishan’s gravity at such a young age—she was becoming more and more convinced by her husband’s suggestion.

After letting out his words, Ishan felt well enough to speak longer this time. “I think it would be in the interest of my father, my relatives, and of course my mother, that I would accept this proposal. But may I know one thing: what is her name?”

Shyam laughed heartily, enjoying the nervousness that Ishan exuded. “Before I tell her name to you, I want to know one thing: you mentioned that your family would find benefit in the match, but what about you?”

Shyam was anxious to watch his face as it turned even more contorted with unease.

“Well, sir, I… getting married after my teaching with Balraj sounds like an auspicious event… my mother and I would find joy in my marriage.” Ishan tried earnestly to keep eye contact with Shyam despite wanting to look away.

“Very good!” Shyam pronounced with a voice not unlike his calling as he entered his house. “I’ll tell my sister of my proposal—I am sure she will be glad to know that her younger brother is looking out for her… oh! and her name, her name is Talika.”

Ishan, repeating her name inside his head several times, found a sense of peace. But as he was contemplating her name, he forget to speak back to Shyam. As soon he remembered to return to the conversation, he fumbled the words he silently assembled.

“Oh, sir, um … thank you for telling me her name. It is… it is… a very pleasant name.”

Shyam couldn’t help but indulge into laughter again. “And I wish you a pleasant marriage… ah, so, well, this could bring Balraj back to us as well—maybe if he hears of his daughter’s wedding, he would come back. That ascetic might get some sense in his head.”

Sati’s shock of the wedding proposal grew as she imagined meeting Balraj in the depths of the Vindhya Mountains, watching Ishan train day and night with him, knowing that very man would be Ishan’s father-law. Sati, despite being immersed in the immensity of the situation, felt her lips lift into a motherly smile, the same one that had given Ishan enough peace to survive these past few months.

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