(I continue this…then comes trouble.)
The warrior who came into view was a slightly older man than Harihar, with a luxuriant beard. Handsome, calm and strong, he controlled his horse effectively with his lean fingers and shapely feet. “Oh Kesari, please don’t frighten me like that! What are you doing here though?”
Kesari smiled, his teeth looking like pearls in the torchlight of his four companions. “I’m sorry, Lieutenant,” he replied calmly. “But I was on patrol duty tonight”-as Harihar turned he too followed, close on his friend’s trail-“why did you go for a row to the mainland in this weather? And with no moon out? Sinhalese guerrillas are common around here, you know. Why”-
“I needed to clear my head. I was…distracted. Thinking about home. About my fiancée.”
He halted briefly and his horse stood close to where the waves cooled its hooves. It whinnied in pleasure, and tried to wander further in. but Harihar strongly ordered it back out.
“Rukmini is lucky to have a boyfriend like you. I wish you would have a love marriage, you know. You’re a man with a great deal of passion, my friend. But still, she is lucky. Although why did you let that boy go? Weren’t you going to take him in? That was rather unusual of you, Harihar.”
“I have my reasons,” he replied gravely. “Not everyone saw that child the way I saw him.”
“And how did you see him?” He halted his horse, pulling sharply on the reins. Harihar too stopped. A moment of silence passed between the two men, but it was broken by a large wave crashing against a nearby rock.
“I always thought that he would…be part of a family that loved him. A family that could give him comfort and love every day. Rukmini would understand, she’s just like me when it comes to these accursed caste issues. But not the rest. We Brahmans are a strange race, you know. I think it’s foolish that we always think of these little issues.”
He spurred his horse forward.
“Sometimes,” he continued, “you just have to let go of it all. After all, we are all made equal by our mortality.”
With a slow nod if his head, Kesari galloped on towards the harbor. Harihar merely sighed, his heart still bearing the image of the exotic youth, walking like a loyal dog, blindly, by his side for the whole of that painful week.
He pulled out a small scrap of parchment from his sash, and tried to discern the writing on it. The moon’s ghostly light suddenly shone on the piece of paper and he saw, in perfect Tamil:
Beside the old reservoir. If you ever need someone to talk to, there I am, brother.
He held it against his chest, heart beating in joy. “Thank you, Lord, for this chance. I can still do some good in my lifetime.”
Sri Lanka, Chola conquest
1029 A.D. -Year of the Buddha, 1573
“I must get home,” Rudran prayed as he looked deep into the eyes of the ivory statue in the little Hindu shrine he found on the side of the road.
The paint slathered across the broken-down altar was starting to peel as smoke from his incense sticks and lamps wafted through that tiny space. He wondered if Vishnu was being suffocated inside. It was early morning, and he had decided to take a walk along the worn cart track leading away from the Buddharaja estate. The dawn chorus of birds and cicadas attacked his ears, but he felt calmer as he prayed.
“I can’t live here like a damned refugee. I have a home, I have a father who loves me dearly and wants me back.”
Tears welled up in his eyes as another offering of crimson ashoka flowers passed into the shelter of the altar for the god to watch over. “Lord Vishnu, Preserver, Lord of the Thousand Names! Him whose three places that are filled with sweetness, imperishable, joy as it may list them: Who verily alone upholds the threefold, the earth, the heaven, and all living creatures. I need to get back to Madurai safely, to live as I please. I want to live away from all this war, this strife and this cruelty. My world has been torn apart. My city is no longer my own. But this is place is worse!”
A slight gust of wind blew in his direction.
He looked up at the sky, where pastel shades of pink and faded baby blue mingled and swirled in an eternal dance.
The great whitewashed hulk of the Mahiyangana dagoba loomed up ahead, all eighty cubits of the ancient monument, its spire glowing even though no sunlight was available. He sighed loudly as he gazed up at the old Buddhist temple and down again at the little roadside altar where his god lived.
He wiped away his tears. “No matter what we call you, Lord, you’re just one and the same, aren’t you?” A small group of bhikkus walked slowly past as he stood in prayer and respect. One of them looked curiously at him, but diverted his attention back towards the cart track, probably looking out for the large ants that could at any moment, attack his bare feet.
A deathlike silence passed over Rudran’s world as the titanic form of a moving cloud enveloped the sky, adding a grey tint to once-vibrant colors. He knew that it would quickly start raining. Even the priests who passed him had umbrellas, after all.
Rudran walked down the road, hoping not to run into anyone else. His thoughts were directed to his hometown of kovils and perfect streets, to his own house in the inner city where a bearded old man, slightly fat and with a wrinkly forehead, waited for his return. An old man who wept and prayed for his only son’s return, hoping that his wishes and prayers would be answered at last by a knock on the front door…the man who would fling his now-aged and weakened arms out and embrace his pride and joy.
Those two square hands would surely be callused, lines and rough, but would never work in the forges again.
Leaves rustled softly in the wind as they blew out of Rudran’s path. His pace turned into a jog, his blood pumping with each movement of his pectoral and abdominal muscles. The short change of speed energized him, and he pulled up his dhoti to ease his movements. But with his dreams of Madurai, glowing in the sunlight, the nightmare began again.
Ravenous jaws, scaly and powerful, were around him as the huge form of the water beast grew clearer to him.
He was once again drowning in that red ocean of blood and forgotten dreams, gasping for air as he struggled to the surface. The makara was closing in as he tried to fight his fear of the deep, a childhood memory rushing through his mind once more. His soft twelve-year-old body had, at the time, been falling deeper as he tried to struggle against the cruel, still waters of the reservoir. Powerful, invisible hands had been pulling him inside, deeper into the maw of the terrible beast.
Something large had been moving purposefully past the flurry of bubbles that drifted upwards from his mouth and nose.
The water was dark, but he could still, by some miracle, see the deep black outline circling around him.
He tried to scream, but he could not and by rights, should not. He felt the water growing colder as the dark shape of the makara-his young mind was convinced that it was the fabled monster-grew nearer…
Rudran’s nerves snapped and he felt disoriented.
The ghosts of the past were hungry for his blood, and their whispers grew louder as his pace increased.
He began looking around him wildly, feeling the air as a chill descended upon his soul. His sight became less clear as he broke into a run, teeth gritted.
He halted suddenly, almost colliding with a man in a creaky old bullock cart, carrying a delivery of timber. The cart driver yelled in surprise, and the ox drawing it bellowed as well, tossing his head and brandishing fearsome horns. “Look out, you stupid Tamil!” snapped the carter, hitting his ox to calm it down again.
He muttered, “Damned fools these days! You never look where you’re going, do you?” He hawked and spat viciously at the soldier. But this skinny little man meant him no real harm, so he merely wiped the spittle off and rushed away.
“Forgive me!” Rudran shouted in reply, half out of breath as the rain started to fall. Within just forty minutes he was drenched to the skin, dhoti firmly resting against his thighs and organ. Yet he saw the house and the estate as he rushed up the road. Those beautiful groves of coconut and jak trees in the vicinity filled his heart with an as-yet unknown rush of warmth and happiness as he leaned against the trunk of one of them, panting and wet.
Rudran spotted the familiar figure of Vishaka, battling the rain with an umbrella as she stood by the door.
He cursed silently as the wind blew the end of her sari, allowing him to see her slim, perfect body. It was a thin, near- transparent drape, and the skin of her long legs glowed in his eyes, lighting up the grey world.
“Madurai is my home. You, you…” His teeth ground against each other as he angrily forced himself to turn away from her. “You will never be mine. I don’t care how you feel about me, but I will never love you, you infidel whore. You have a husband who loves you. I know, because I’ve seen him, wasting away to nothing in that prison in Manthotam. He still prays for you and your sons to be well and happy for as long as you both shall live. I’ve heard his voice too, he…I know he loves you dearly!”