‘It is,’ answered Sati. ‘I was told by father himself. Apparently, it was built years ago. As a back-up to Mount Mandar, just in case...’
‘Where?’ asked Kali.
‘I don’t know,’ replied Sati.
‘Damn!’ exclaimed Kali, scowling darkly as she turned to Brahaspati. ‘You had said that that was not possible. The churners needed materials from Egypt. They could not be built from Indian material. We have allies constantly watching those Egyptian mines. No material has gone to Meluha!’
Brahaspati’s face turned white as the implications dawned on him. He held his head and muttered, ‘Lord Ram, be merciful... How can they resort to this?’
‘Resort to what?’ asked Shiva.
‘There’s another way in which the Saraswati waters can be mixed with the crushed Sanjeevani branches. But it’s considered wasteful and repugnant.’
‘Firstly, it uses much larger quantities of the Saraswati water. Secondly, it needs animal or human skin cells.’
‘Excuse me!’ cried Shiva and Sati.
‘It doesn’t mean that one skins a live animal or human,’ said Brahaspati, as though reassuring them. ‘What is needed is old and dead skin cells that we shed every minute that we are alive. The cells help the Saraswati waters to grate the Sanjeevani branches at molecular levels. The waters mixed with dead skin cells are simply poured over crushed branches placed in a chamber. This process does not require any churning. But as you can imagine, it wastes a lot of water. Secondly, how would one find animals and humans who would come to a faraway facility and get into a pool of water above a chamber which contains crushed Sanjeevani branches? It is risky.’
‘Dead skin cells of humans or animals are best shed while bathing. A human sheds between two to three kilograms every year. Bathing hastens the process.’
‘But why is this risky?’
‘Because Somras production is inherently unstable; the skin cell route even more so. One doesn’t want large populations anywhere close to a Somras facility. If anything goes wrong, the resultant explosion can kill hundreds of thousands. Even in the usual, less risky churning process, we do not build Somras production centres close to cities. Can you imagine what would happen if the riskier skin cell process was being conducted close to a city with a large number of humans ritually bathing above a Somras production centre?’
Shiva’s face suddenly turned white. ‘Public baths in Meluhan cities...’ he whispered.
‘Exactly,’ said Brahaspati. ‘Build the facility within a city, below a public bath. One would have all the dead skin cells that one would need.’
‘And if something goes wrong... If an explosion takes place...’
‘Blame the daivi astras or the Nagas. Blame the Chandravanshis if you want,’ fumed Brahaspati. ‘Having created so many evil spectres, you can take your pick!’
‘Something is wrong,’ said Bhrigu.
He was surveying the destroyed remains of Mount Mandar with Dilipa. The Somras manufacturing facility looked nowhere near completion though reconstruction was on.
Dilipa turned towards the sage. ‘I agree, Maharishiji. It has been more than five years since the Nagas destroyed Mandar. It’s ridiculous that the facility has still not been reconstructed.’
Bhrigu turned to Dilipa and waved his hand dismissively. ‘Mount Mandar is not important anymore. It’s only a symbol. I’m talking about the attack on Panchavati.’
Dilipa stared wide-eyed at the sage. Mount Mandar is not important? This means that the rumours are true. Another Somras manufacturing facility does exist.
‘I had given a whole kit of homing pigeons to the attackers,’ continued Bhrigu, not bothering with Dilipa’s incredulous look. ‘All of them had been trained to return to this site. The last pigeon came in two weeks back.’
Dilipa frowned. ‘You can trust my man, My Lord. He will not fail.’
Bhrigu had appointed an officer from Dilipa’s army to lead the attack on Shiva’s convoy at Panchavati. He did not trust Daksha’s ability to detach himself from his love for his daughter. ‘Of that I am sure. He has proven himself trustworthy, strictly complying with my instructions to send back a message every week. The fact that the updates have suddenly stopped means that he has either been captured or killed.’
‘I’m sure a message is on its way. We needn’t worry.’
Bhrigu turned sharply towards Dilipa. ‘Is this how you govern your empire, great King? Is it any wonder that your son’s claim to the throne appears legitimate?’
Dilipa’s silence was telling.
Bhrigu sighed. ‘When you prepare for war, you should always hope for the best, but be ready for the worst. The last despatch clearly stated that they were but six days’ sail from Panchavati. Having received no word, I am compelled to assume the worst. The attack must have failed. Also, I should assume Shiva knows the identity of the attackers.’
Dilipa didn’t speak, but kept staring at Bhrigu. He thought Bhrigu was over-reacting.
‘I’m not over-reacting, Your Highness,’ said Bhrigu.
Dilipa was stunned. He hadn’t uttered a word.
‘Do not underestimate the issue,’ said Bhrigu. ‘This is not about you or me. This is about the future of India. This is about protecting the greatest Good. We cannot afford to fail! It is our duty to Lord Brahma; our duty to this great land of ours.’
Dilipa remained silent. Though one thought kept reverberating in his mind. I am way out of my depth here. I have entangled myself with powers that are beyond mere emperors.
A Frog Homily
The aroma of freshly-cooked food emerged from Shiva’s chambers as his family assembled for their evening meal. Sati’s culinary skill and effort were evident in the feast she had lined up for what was practically their first meal together as a family. Shiva, Ganesh and Kartik waited for her to take a seat before they began the meal.
In keeping with custom, the family of the Mahadev took some water from their glasses and sprinkled it around their plates, symbolically thanking Goddess Annapurna for her blessings in the form of food and nourishment. After this, they offered the first morsel of food to the gods. Breaking with age-old tradition though, Shiva always offered his first morsel to his wife. For him, she was divine. Sati reciprocated by offering her first morsel to Shiva.
And thus the meal began.
‘Ganesh has got some mangoes for you today,’ said Sati, looking indulgently at Kartik.
Kartik grinned. ‘Yummy! Thanks dada!’
Ganesh smiled and patted Kartik on his back.
‘You should smile a little more, Kartik,’ said Shiva. ‘Life is not so grim.’
Kartik smiled at his father. ‘I’ll try, baba.’
Looking at his other progeny, Shiva inhaled sharply. ‘Ganesh?’
‘Yes... baba,’ said Ganesh, unsure of the response to his calling Shiva father.
‘My son,’ whispered Shiva. ‘I misjudged you.’
Ganesh’s eyes moistened.
‘Forgive me,’ said Shiva.
‘No, baba,’ exclaimed Ganesh, embarrassed. ‘How can you ask me for forgiveness? You are my father.’